Lost in Translation – Can Cinema Capture a Great Novel?


With the behemoth that is the Harry Potter franchise reaching its cinematic conclusion earlier this summer and the imminent theatrical release of the romantic drama One Day based on a superbly written and hugely popular novel by David Nichols, it is easy to see that the book-to-screen adaptation is very much alive. But whilst JK Rowling’s series of children’s books have proved incredibly popular with cinema-goers, not all adaptations share the same success both in terms of quality and box-office takings. So what does it take to transform a great book into a great film, and what risks do filmmakers face when translating a story from the page to the screen?

I must say my faith in Hollywood reimaginings of the written word is fairly strong. On most occasions I greet these adaptations with excitement rather than apprehension, in spite of the fact that the cinema doesn’t always reward my faith. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed One Day, the strength of which lies in the perfect characterisation of its protagonists Emma and Dexter, I viewed the trailer for the upcoming film and was left with some reservations.

One Day is a very British story with very British characters but, understandably, Hollywood needs stars to sell movies and the role of Emma was awarded to Anne Hathaway. Now, I am a great fan of Hathaway and believe she has many fine performances ahead of her, not least as Catwoman in the last of Christopher Nolans’s Batman trilogy (where I believe she is perfectly cast). However, as a Yorkshire lass I fear she may fall short. Her English accent has proved horrible in the past. The problem here is the value of money over soul; there would have been many English actresses who could have excelled in the role, but the selling of the film has clearly taken precedence over capturing the heart of Emma Morley.

This is a problem typical of literary adaptations. Anyone who read Audrey Niffenegger’s brilliantly conceived The Time Traveller’s Wife could testify that the novel was packed full of depth; the concept of time travel was transformed into a heartbreaking romantic narrative that leaves the reader stunned. The film version was, to put it bluntly, a disgrace. Director Robert Schwentke transformed Niffenegger’s complex prose into an unintelligent and sickeningly corny film with little depth for its stars to work with. Oh, and the ending was unrecognisable.

Of course when adapting these stories alterations must be made; there is far more time in a book for subplots that simply can’t fit into a standard film, but to take the haunting ending of this particular novel and mutilate it when it could easily have been used is nothing short of criminal. Rule number one in film adaptation has to be that the author should be respected. The novels are popular because the novelists knew what they were doing.

However, for the most part I believe that filmmakers prove their worth by getting these adaptations right. Many adapted novels of recent years have proved popular both with audiences and critics; it would be difficult to argue that films such as No Country for Old Men, Lord of the Rings, Brokeback Mountain, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Cold Mountain had failed to meet the standards of their literary counterparts. I choose this particular list because of these films’ Oscar-laden and big box-office prowess, but there are of course many other much-loved films throughout history that first had their stories told on the page.

Hollywood has a responsibility to these novels and to those who have enjoyed them. The joy of film is that it can take something that exists only in the imagination and bring it to life before your eyes. I hope that One Day lives up to David Nicholls’s book and I hope that Anne Hathaway surprises me with her performance in a similar way to Kate Winslet when she did the impossible and brought Hanna Schmidt of The Reader storming to life, a character I believed impossible to portray on camera after reading Bernard Schlink’s novel.

Neverthless, even if this adaptation does prove to be disappointing, hopefully we can remember one very important thing – a bad film doesn’t indicate a bad book. If you hate the movie please give the novel a try, you might just be surprised. Read The Time Traveller’s Wife, have a look at The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, buy a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray. These are great works of literature that were unceremoniously trashed in cinemas worldwide. I would even say the terrible words ‘read Twilight,’ but sometimes bad films are born of bad literature! The moral of the story? Never judge a book by its movie.

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