Monday, September 5, 2011
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
CANONISED BY THE MOVIES
Here’s a brief reflection, brought on by considering a set of movie stills for this week’s “Something Old”.
Why is it that an author’s success is often measured by whether or not the author’s books have been filmed?
I look at blurbs, with resumes of an author’s work, and note that the sale of film rights is often regarded as the high point of the given author’s career. Literary success be damned. It’s the moving images that count.
To get rid of the blindingly obvious answer first, any author is glad to receive the type of cheque a well-endowed production company can offer. Film rights often go for hundreds of thousands of dollars, which usually means many times more income than most authors would get from a lifetime of royalties. Of course I simplify (some authors are not materially enriched by the films made from their works), but it’s obvious that even authors of integrity will be pleased with such an outcome.
To give a further blindingly obvious answer, the great mass of novels are formula material written as much in imitation of movies as of anything resembling literature. They were made to be sold to the movies. When they sell, they do indeed fulfil their author’s career expectations.
But once we’ve tossed aside the formula stuff, and congratulated filmed authors on the money they’ve made, we still have to ask why being filmed is such a tribute to a literary work.
A bad novel may be turned into a very good film, and a good novel may be turned into a very bad film. In either case, the quality of the film has only a limited amount to do with the quality of the novel. Literature isn’t cinema. The criteria are different.
More than once, I have annoyed people by pointing out that when highbrow and prestigious novels are filmed, all you get of them on screen (and regardless of how good the film is in its own right) is the equivalent the old Classics Illustrated comics – pictures of the action, with the dialogue being the equivalent of speech bubbles. You do not get the author’s prose style or whatever distinctive feature made the author’s work notable in the first place.
If you have seen a film based on a novel by Ian McEwan, you do not know what makes Ian McEwan tick as a writer. (Though when I check Ian McEwan in Wikipedia I discover that, sure enough, the opening paragraph of the entry on him highlights the two of his novels that have been filmed.) For some, though, watching the film adaptation becomes the substitute for reading the highbrow author they don’t really have time for.
So why measure an author’s success on the saleability of novels as films? Isn’t it really our culture’s way of saying that the novel isn’t really an autonomous art form – merely something that feeds material into the mass entertainment machine?