August 24, 2001
Never Judge a Book by
When director John Madden set out to adapt Louis De Bernieres' widely adored novel Corelli's Mandolin into the movie Captain Corelli's Mandolin, he knew he faced a challenge.
He thought the book was magnificent but enormous and complicated; the action stretched over more than 50 years.
Moreover, the bittersweet ending wasn't very Hollywood. So much so that even De Bernieres had his doubts.
"Louis told me, `You better do something about the ending, because no one liked it,' " Madden said.
And so Madden did. He'd left us with a bittersweet ending in his last film, the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love, but he ultimately opted to make substantial changes to De Bernieres' book. The ending is different and so is some of the history in it. (An earthquake that actually devastated Cephalonia in 1953 now rocks the island in 1947.)
The film opened Friday to mixed reviews from critics, but the jury is still out on what fans of the novel thought. Even before it opened, one writing on the Amazon's reader comment section was bracing for disappointment.
"I'm sure it will be a letdown, as I can't conceive of how the essence of this great book will be captured in a two-hour film," the fan wrote. "And I'm concerned that the book will therefore be dismissed because of a mediocre movie."
The upcoming fall and holiday movie seasons will be even more fraught than most with this peculiar blend of dread and excitement as filmmakers are throwing the books at the multiplexes.
First up, A.S. Byatt's weighty, highly intellectual novel Possession arrives in theaters in late September, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart and Jeremy Northam and directed by Neil LaBute. In November we have J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, directed by Christopher Columbus. Then in December, the mother of all adaptations begins with the first installment of three movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It's followed by The Shipping News, based on Annie Proulx's novel, starring Kevin Spacey and Julianne Moore.
Michael Cunningham's The Hours is also due in December, with maybe the best female cast of all time: Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Claire Danes, Allison Janney, Eileen Atkins, Miranda Richardson and Toni Collette. Also slated for Christmas is Charlotte Gray, an adaptation of Sebastian Faulk's best seller, directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Cate Blanchett.
Early word is the ending of Charlotte Gray has been changed; Byatt was allowed on the set of Possession and has said she was pleased with what she saw being filmed, and Columbus' trailer for Potter indicates he's definitely nailed the casting and visuals. There have been rumors that the movie incorporates action from the first two books, but those are false. Production on the sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is supposed to begin at the end of 2001.
They're all hoping to avoid the fates of The Sheltering Sky, Bonfire of the Vanities, Pavilion of Women and A Prayer for Owen Meany (Simon Birch). They were all fine books that became the mediocre movies the Amazon writer spoke of.
John Irving, who won an Oscar in 2000 for his screen adaptation of his novel The Cider House Rules, tells a great story in his book My Movie Business about going to see director George Roy Hill's screen adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five with its author, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut warned him before the lights went down: "It's like seeing your characters get their hair cut." Irving agrees, and notes that in his own experience, his characters become prettier, smell better and don't swear as much on screen.
"It sounds awfully simple to say this," Irving writes. "But here's another enormous difference between novels and films: In the movies, what people look like truly matters."
Changes that happen when a book becomes a movie aren't necessarily bad. Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity is set in London, but the books essence and spirit were just fine set in Chicago with John Cusack. Hannibal the movie, which came out on video and DVD Tuesday, is probably better to digest without the same ending of Thomas Harris' novel that had Clarice and Lecter munching humans together.
Then there's the classic case of Breakfast at Tiffany's. The movie is far better known than the 1950 Truman Capote novella it came from in which Holly Golightly, a prostitute, has an abortion and runs off to Rio.
Sometimes change is wrought by the novelist himself, as in the case of The Cider House Rules. Irving worked on that screenplay for more than a decade, wrote multiple versions of it and worked with three directors before Lasse Hallstromd brought it to theaters.
In the final version, among other changes, Irving truncates the 15 years Homer (Tobey Maguire) is away from the St. Cloud's orphanage in the book into 15 months. He added a new character, Buster (Kieran Culkin), to help represent Homer's childhood years. He eliminated a character he loved, Melony, because he thought she was too overpowering.
At one point he had cut his young couple Wally (Paul Rudd) and Candy (Charlize Theron) out entirely, but the last script downplayed Wally and Candy became a central character (too central for Irving's tastes, who later asked Hallstrom to tone down the part and begged for her to be kept off the publicity posters).
His only regrets seem to have been that most of the novel's scenes of comic relief and crudeness, characteristic of all Irving's writings, didn't make it into the movie. But after years of watching his books, and others, be turned into movies, he concedes that "most films are exercises in compromise" and adds, "When I feel like being a director, I write a novel."