Novelists Don’t Want Faithful Film Adaptations
On Thursday evening novelist Francine Prose (Blue Angel) moderated a lively panel about adapting literature for the movies as part of PEN America’s World Voices Festival. Panelists included writers Richard Price (whose novel Clockers was turned into a film by Spike Lee), Barry Gifford (who wrote Wild at Heart, adapted to the screen by David Lynch), Philippe Dijan (Betty Blue) andJean-Philippe Toussaint (Running Away), who is, in addition to a novelist, an experimental filmmaker. The general consensus: Watching a screenwriter, director and studio tinker with–and, often, subsequently ruin–your prose is a torturous, dispiriting experience. That is, unless the director is Lynch–or yourself.
Gifford was thrilled with the film version of Wild at Heart. Price conceded that he was amazed with Isaiah Washington’s performance in Clockersand the richness he added to the character. Toussaint said he is happiest when making his own films, and Dijan expressed casual disdain for the entire film industry. But the writers agreed that most literary adaptations fall short, and that most filmmakers don’t, as Gifford said, “know how to use cinema.”
The main problem: Filmmakers are too darn literal–filming the events in the narrative rather than capturing the spirit of the book. Prose said that watching a film version of your work is like having the dreaded plot-summary paragraph of a book review “read out loud to you for two hours.” Despite what filmmakers may think, writers actually don’t want their works to be so faithfully adapted. “[Directors] can’t be in awe of their source material,” said Price. “[Because] what they do is they film the book, and it is deathly boring.” Bill Condon, take note.