Books in the Oscars

Well well well, hello 2012 Oscar nominations and my, aren’t you looking rather bookish this year. 

The Academy Awards: those elusive little buggers that every actor, director, producer and cinematographer covets. The Oscars celebrate the best of the best, revering talent, finesse and artistic innovation, boosting the careers of those lucky enough to win and serving the not-so-successful a serious dose of disappointment. When thinking of the Oscars, images of the red carpet, billion-dollar gowns, camera flashes, fierce competition, polite applause and long-winded speeches are usually conjured and, although there is certainly a lot more to this prestigious ceremony, form an accurate picture of what the Oscars mean to most of the non-showbiz population.  What we don’t usually consider however, is, not what the Oscars say about actors, dressmakers and viewers, but what they say about books.

Of the nine Best Picture nominees this year, six are based on novels. SIX…that is two thirds of this year’s Best Picture nominees whose roots lie within the literary world. Quite obviously, those in bold font are those based on books:

  • “The Artist” Thomas Langmann, Producer
  • “The Descendants” Jim Burke, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Producers
  • “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” Scott Rudin, Producer
  • “The Help” Brunson Green, Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan, Producers
  • “Hugo” Graham King and Martin Scorsese, Producers
  • “Midnight in Paris” Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum, Producers
  • “Moneyball” Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt, Producers
  • “The Tree of Life” Nominees to be determined
  • “War Horse” Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers

A small triumph for bibliophiles as we infiltrate the film industry? Or a loss as our favourite stories are torn unceremoniously from their dust jackets and bastardized into loosely adapted film versions? I guess it depends on each individual case. Let me know what you think of this little Oscar phenomenon.

Books vs Movies

The relationship between books and their film versions has long been a topic of conflicting opinions; bibliophiles proclaiming that the film didn’t do their favourite book justice while cinema buffs fawn over the theatrics of a best-seller painted onto the silver screen. I, personally, am on the fence.

From the librarian’s perspective:

The power of the page is that on it, you can spin intricate webs of character, plot and setting, injecting in as much or as little magic and absurdity as desired while miraculously retaining believability. Little boys become wise and worldly wanderers, gallivanting cross-country on journeys of growth and naivete and innocence. Take, for example, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer or Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne.  Both of these books are beautifully based on young children embarking on incredible journeys and while logically, the reader can acknowledge the blatant unrealism of a child flitting around unsupervised, with a wilful suspension of disbelief, each can be seen as its own literary triumph. Transform either of these into a film however, and the magical essence of each child is lost as the story is translated into real-life images and real-time situations. Illustrative of this very point is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close

While reading this book, you fall in love with Oskar Schell, a nine year old boy, whose charm and innocence pluck at your heartstrings and grab you by the hand, leading you across New York City on his journey. On screen however, the unrealistic nature of Oskar’s journey becomes hard to ignore while the the wrong aspects of his personality shine through, overshadowing the beauty that defines the book’s success. One point in favour of the ‘books are always better’ argument. 

From the cinematographer’s perspective:

While in some cases (possibly even in most cases), the book versions prevail while their film counterparts flop, there does exist a number of films that have a done a startlingly good job of morphing word to picture and page to screen.

Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, is an example of a book whose film actually outdoes it.

Into the Wild

The biography of a young man by the name of Christopher McCandless and by the pseudonym of Alexander Supertramp, Into the Wild is a life-changing, heart-breaking, thought-provoking true story. The film takes a good book and accentuates its beauty and awe-inspiring nature through sublime cinematography, a poignant soundtrack and riveting performances. Perhaps I prefer the film more because the book is very much a biography, not a story. As a biography should be, it’s factual, succinct and academic to the point of being slightly colourless.  On the other hand, Sean Penn directs the film into a truly mesmerising account of Christopher’s life, taking the honest, adulterated facts and pumping them full of emotion, humanity and discovery. While the book definitely provides a more in depth analysis of Christopher’s journey, the film personifies Christopher in a way that academia is simply incapable of, illustrating not only the events but what it must have felt like to be a man so lost and on such a desperate quest to find whatever it was that he was looking for. One point in favour of the ‘film versions rule’ argument.

When authors should say thank you:

On my recent book store adventures, I made an observation: as soon as you start hearing about a new film, you suddenly see a book on the shelf with the exact same title. And you didn’t even know there was a book version! At first, I thought this coincidental; obviously, the book has always been there and I’m only noticing it now because of all its corresponding movie trailers on TV. But no, it happens far too often and, given the way I scrutinise the shelves for a good read, wasn’t even likely to begin with. As soon as a book gains the publicity of a film, book stores bend over backwards to stock it, anticipating sky-rocketing sales. I’ve noticed this with ‘The Blind Side’, ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, ‘127 Hours’, ‘The King’s Speech’, ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Julie and Julia’. Coincidence? I think not!

Now, although it may sound like I’m casting this little observation in a conspirational and negative light, I’m actually not. The point I’m about to make is that even though films often don’t do their written counterparts justice, they do provide valuable public exposure, boosting book sales and thereby supporting the literature industry. What author doesn’t want their book made into a film? While some directors manage to butcher wonderful texts, they unwittingly publicise the book simply by their making a motion picture of it. I can tell you honestly, I wouldn’t have bought and read ‘Into the Wild’ if I hadn’t been so touched by the film.

So, although some bibliophiles would rather chop off their ear Van Gogh  style than admit it, films are often to be thanked for a book’s success.

When film-makers should say thank you:

Numerous box-office hits would not be so if it weren’t for the original texts upon which they are based. The Harry Potter film franchise would not exist and would therefore not have brought magic to the screen had it not have been for J.K. Rowling’s pen. The same applies for the Lord of the Rings, the Twilight series and The Godfather. And then there are those gems from our childhoods, the brightly coloured worlds into which we so playfully threw ourselves as youngsters: The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians and Pinocchio. Would your childhood have been your childhood without these classic Disney films? Well, you can thank the books.

Books vs Films

Books and films have coalesced since the days of black and white television and they can thank each other for a myriad of successes. While we book-lovers may be pre-disposed to disapprove of most book-come-films, we have to acknowledge the benefits of cinema and literature’s partnership. Both serve each other and both are working towards the same end: creating a wonderful story.

Do let me know though, what your thoughts are. Which films disgrace their book versions and which are triumphs? Are you for, against on the fence of the book/film marriage?