Sunday, 26 July 2009

Adapting to circumstances

Today I did something I've been dreading. Something I've put off and put off, contemplated and pondered over. Should I, shouldn't I? In the end I did and I survived. I watched The Secret of Moonacre, which claimed to be the film of the Elizabeth Goudge novel The Little White Horse.

The Little White Horse is a book that every child should read. It's an integral part of my psyche, and one of my favourite books (and incidently, one of J.K. Rowling's, which is why it has been re-published). And I was frankly afraid it was going to be murdered. In the last few years I have deliberately avoided watching The Dark is Rising adaptation, mostly on the basis that Lovejoy as Merriman Lyon was likely to end in tears. I just couldn't face it, and the reviews told me I was right.

Getting the film adaptation of books right is very difficult, especially books which are well loved. Films are different from books: they are structured differently, you can't afford as long to set up characters or plot, and you often can't include the details which make it loved. The Harry Potter films (and I haven't seen the latest one yet) have a particularly fine line to tread. It's more common than not to watch a film of a book you've loved and come away disappointed. I'm thinking of Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker (book I liked, rather than loved), or The Ninth Gate which was nowhere near as good as the original novel, The Dumas Club, by Arturo Perez-Reverte.

There are exceptions to this. The BBC Pride and Prejudice for example, but then that had six hours of screen time and stuck almost word for word to the novel. The film of Louis Sachar's Holes is different from the book to an extent, but brilliant with it. But then the screenplay for that was written by the author himself. Stardust's screenplay wasn't written by Neil Gaiman, and it introduced a whole new character, but it stuck to the spirit of the novel, and mostly to the words too. Plus the casting was perfect. But in general, the ground is a bit shaky.

Being this dubious of adaptations, how come I wanted to watch this one? A couple of factors. Tim Curry's presence as the villainous Coeur du Noir wasn't hurting, and what stills I'd seen suggested that the aesthetic of the film was at least in the right ball park. Which it turned out to be, just about.

So how was The Secret of Moonacre? Well, it wasn't terrible. As a film, that is. It wasn't much of an adaptation of The Little White Horse. Characters were changed, omitted, the plot was mucked about with, almost beyond recognition, the main boy character was made to switch sides and his mother became his sister and there were some generally unnecessary magical overlays (because aside from the hundreds of years old lion and the unicorn, this isn't really a story which relys on magic). Plus for some reason they switched from having a hare to having a 'magical Moonacre rabbit', although with hindsight the reason for that was probably the lack of available stunt hares. It was okay, as a film, to fill a boring Sunday afternoon with little else in it.

But it wasn't the film it could have been. It wasn't the scenes that play inside my head every single time I read the book. So you can watch it if you want, and even if you love the book, it won't make you shout and throw things at the tv. But you'd be better off sticking to the words on the page.


Nikki said...

The film of 'Northern Lights' is an excellent case in point - the book much loved, the film reprehensible. Children in particular I think allow their imaginations to take off in a book which they really enjoy, so it will always be difficult for any film-maker to meet expectations for everyone. Plus, of course, the difficulty of cutting a x-100 page book down to under 2 hours. There will always be something left out that someone somewhere thought was critical to the story overall.
I have seen the latest Harry Potter and thought it was a dreadful adaptation, but I know others who disagree with me. You'll have to see it yourself at some point and form your own opinion.

Jenzarina said...

I enjoyed the latest Harry Potter but it helped that I hadn't read the book in ages. They changed so much but the casting is almost excellent enough to make up for it.

I am currently watching the 2-part adaptation of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (she is longlisted again this year for the Booker). Like Pride and Prejudice, the TV adaptation gives enough room (4 hours) to capture the complex plot and be faithful to the characters.
I think the 2-hour time limit on films can be fatal to book adaptations; even Lord of the Rings suffered from lack of time and they had 9 hours to play with!