While their cinematic approaches greatly differ, these film directors – Neil Jordan, Bernardo Bertolucci and Oliver Stone – share one thing in common: they are all published writers. Neil Jordan started out as a short story writer. His first published collection of short stories entitled Night In Tunisia won the Guardian Fiction Prize. He has since written a number of novels, last of which, Sunrise with Sea Monster, was published in 1994. Bernardo Bertolucci came from a literary family. His father was a renowned poet and he himself aspired to be a poet, which he became and won a prestigious prize in Venice. As a favor to Bertolucci’s father who had helped publish his first novel, Pasolini installed Bertolucci as his first assistant for Accattone. Bertolucci’s career in film was set for good. Oliver Stone published a novel entitled A Child’s Night Dream in 1997 and never thought twice about writing novels again. He stated in an interview that he didn’t believe in the future of novels.
There is always this kindred connection between literature and films. The three examples illustrated above shows one fact: that most writers who switch over to the celluloid seldom publish another novel. They still write for sure, but mostly screenplays. (In a bizarre twist, actors tend to do the reverse. They started out as actors and began publishing after establishing themselves in the film industry: Ethan Hawke (Ash Wednesday), Carrie Fisher (Postcards from the Edge), and Steve Martin (Shopgirl). And they continue to publish new literary works as if this were their new-found ancillary career!)
The new batch of films based on great literary works – Balzac’s The Duchess of Langeais (made beautifully by Jacques Rivette as Ne Touchez Pas La Hache), Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited – proves that Oliver Stone might have made a premature statement about the future of novels, but one would have to admit, albeit begrudgingly, that his prediction about the future of film industry is indisputable. Aside from one or two disasters, see Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, most great novels have been successfully adapted for the screen. Atonement, Ne Touchez Pas La Hache (Don’t Touch the Axe), and Brideshead Revisited, along with the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil (renamed There Will Be Blood), will undoubtedly soon join other film classics of all time such as Gone With The Wind, Doctor Zhivago and such modern classics as Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Ishiguro’s The Remains of The Day.
Ian McEwan enjoyed the success of Atonement with a knowing smirk. He made no bones about the success of the film to have anything to do with his novel. He should know better. His other novel Enduring Love was also adapted for the screen but didn’t turn out as well as The Atonement. While I doubt if Gabriel Garcia Marquez would let any of his novels to be be made into a film again after the disastrous result of Love in the Time of Cholera, I believe both McEwan and Ishiguro would continue to sell the film rights of their novels. Even the persnickety author like Philip Roth allowed himself to enjoy a modicum of success from his novels’ adaptations: The Human Stain and Elegy (based on The Anatomy Lesson). Meanwhile, Salman Rushdie wrote about his frustration over the years to put together a workable screenplay from his famous novel, Midnight’s Children.
I suppose fiction writers know the electrifying power of the screen. They know how their works translated into films can reach out to more audiences worldwide than their novels can ever hope to achieve. They also know that if the adaptations fail at the box office, the film director is to be blamed, not their novels. As such, there is a lot to be gained from allowing their novels to be adapted for the screen.
But why are film directors so obsessed with adapting from novels? Some go to great lengths to take the challenges of such impossibly interior literary works as Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (The Hours) and Roth’s The Human Stain. Maybe the novels, unlike hastily put together screenplays, provide fuller characters in more comprehensive settings. Or maybe just as the actors, after years acting out roles, try their hands at creating characters in fiction, film directors want to challenge themselves by bringing novels alive on the screen.
Whatever the case maybe, literature and films seem to be entwined in a symbiotic relationship that goes way back to a handful of hunters and gatherers around a bonfire telling each other a cracking good yarn. In modern days, these same men and women watch themselves tell good yarns on the screen. All the same, damn good storytellers are required to start the fire.
A version of this article was published in The Jakarta Globe, January 2009