Classic Books · Screen Adaptations

What makes film adaptations work?

Great books invite me think and create. How can film adaptations retain the purposeful ambiguity of great books, the kind that allows us to be co-creators?When I call film adaptations successful, what I usually mean is, they capture the tone, mood, and spirit of what I experience reading. So what does that mean, exactly? 

Reading a great book makes me think and create. It invites me to make connections and, from those connections, to make meaning. It allows for ambiguity without confusion. How can film adaptations retain the purposeful ambiguity of great books, the kind that leaves space to interpret?

I suppose if I knew the answer to that, I’d be making great films from great books instead of writing about them. However, I did see one film recently that felt like a great adaptation: Mike Newell’s 2012 Great Expectations.

I wasn’t planning to watch the film. Great Expectations is a book I love so profoundly that I didn’t want anyone else’s creative vision playing Frankenstein against my experience. But I recently watched a video about Newell’s adaptation by Lauren of Reads and Daydreams. She does a series called Page to Screen for which she reviews a range of film adaptations of classic books. Her favorable analysis piqued my interest.

I ended up loving it. Here are the three main reasons why:

The casting

The cast list reads like a who’s who, and watching the actors bring these characters to life shows why they’re top of the game. Robbie Coltrane’s cute face and soulful eyes played perfect counterpoint to the smarminess of his Mr. Jaggers. Ralph Fiennes brought pathos galore to Magwitch. Sally Hawkins captured the vexing Mrs. Joe without overplaying her shrillness. As the iconic Miss Havisham, Helena Bonham-Carter hit just the right note of deranged without devolving into caricature.

I could go on and on because almost every character, from the bit to the starring, captured what I experienced reading the book.

It wasn’t so much that they matched what my imagination had conjured. It was more that, upon seeing them, I thought, “Hey, I know you!” I felt this with Biddy and Estella and especially with Wemmick and his Aged P (who was exactly as I pictured him). In fact, when I first saw Wemmick on screen, I didn’t like him, which is how I felt reading the book. With both the novel and the film, my sense of him warmed through his interactions with Aged P. Watching him in the film felt like a true deja vu experience. And that hardly ever happens when I watch film adaptations.

The two characters I wasn’t as sure of were the adult Pip and Joe. Full disclosure: Joe is one of my favorite literary characters, which can make for a tough sell. Still, I felt the film Joe wasn’t as sympathetic as Dickens wrote him. In the film, Joe felt more exposed, as if we were meant to see him as embarrassing. Whereas in the book, Pip’s embarrassment felt unjust.

As for Pip, the heart of the story, I didn’t have that startling experience of recognition from the first moment he appeared on screen. This had more to do with a physical disconnect than with how Jeremy Irvine played him. Irvine just seemed a bit too handsome and physically distinct from young Pip. Which is strange seeing as young Pip was played by Irvine’s brother! At any rate, he won me over with his expressive portrayal.

The plot

Great Expectations isn’t one of Dickens’ monster tomes. Still, the plot would inevitably need trimming to fit standard film length. This is where I usually hold my breath. Will the plot extractions be glaring? Will they disrupt the tone of the original? Will the story become the screenwriter’s for the telling? They weren’t and didn’t and not really. The skeleton plot remains mostly intact, so you can take away a solid grounding of the story basics from watching this film. Pip’s missteps in London are shaved a bit close to the bone, and Orlick and his storyline are edited out completely. But these don’t excessively disrupt the key narrative progression and dramatic reveals.

One thing I did miss is seeing one of my favorite scenes in literature: The Christmas dinner when Joe responds to Pip being verbally harassed by giving him more and more and more servings of gravy.  To be fair, it’s quite a minor scene. On the other hand, it’s such a lovely way we see Joe’s kindness and deep affection for Pip.

The cinematography

This is where I felt most strongly what Lauren meant when she said the film “felt like” Great Expectations. I have to say, an early scene in the book and the film – which features Joe carrying Pip on his back as they help soldiers search for missing convicts – was exactly as I’d pictured it in my mind’s eye.

Dickens’ level of detail can be overwhelming for readers. Can you imagine trying to pull out and recreate just the right ones to capture the novel’s mood? This was done so well in the film. It is visually consuming. The prison ships, the landscape, Miss Havisham’s dilapidated estate, the juxtapositions of posh London with its gritty back alleys, the degeneracy of the upperclass men’s pursuits, Estella’s cold beauty, Magwitch’s attempted flight – all were handled with impressive finesse. The filmmakers have created such a strong sense of place and character that echoes the novel.

Coupled with the effectiveness of the acting and the savvy plot reconstruction, watching this film did feel like being inside the book. If you haven’t seen it, here is the trailer:

Have you seen it? What are your thoughts on what makes for a successful film adaptation?

4 thoughts on “What makes film adaptations work?

  1. It’s interesting to think about what it actually means to have a good film adaptation. I know people are often upset when not everything from the book is included but there’s just not enough time.

    For me, I can recognize it easier when it’s a bad adaptation. One of my favourite books is Lovely Bones, which I read in anticipation of the movie. Unfortunately despite the wonderful cast, it was a terrible movie (in my opinion)! I think the reason I disliked it so much is that it missed the point of the book, and rather than a portrayal of life, family, and loss, it was set up more as a whodunit mystery. So I think remembering the theme and key messages of the book are really important to a film adaptation.

    1. Thank you, Sam! I think you’re so right that it’s easier to articulate what doesn’t work than what does. This strikes me as true in general too. It’s easier to spot what’s missing or what doesn’t work and harder to find a language for what is successful beyond praise adjectives. You’re inspiring me to think more about this!

      I haven’t read Lovely Bones (or seen the film) but can definitely see what you mean. Changing the whole point would make we wonder, why not just write a whodunit instead of scavenging from a book readers love?

  2. I haven’t seen this adaptation of “Great Expectations,” but wow, what a poster! It makes the story look so dramatic – which, of course, it is, but to me it’s more of a beneath the surface thing. I almost feel like the poster is the Hollywood aspect of this film, since based on your review, it otherwise rings so true to the book.

    In terms of film adaptations of books, I agree with your first paragraph, but as I continued reading, and some of my favorite film adaptations of books came to mind, I also felt like, for me, there could be another side of this, too. Personally, I either feel satisfied if the film adaptation fits the criteria you mention in your first paragraph, but also if the adaptation somehow expands on something while still also basically staying true to the feel and intention of the book. For example, I love the version of “Peter Pan” directed by P.J. Hogan, which is the only version I’ve seen that feels truly magical to me. It brings up a very interesting and poetic idea, that the weather and general conditions in Wonderland are tied to Peter’s state of mind. I don’t believe this was explicitly set out in the original play/story/novel (although I admit, I’m much, much more familiar with subsequent film adaptations), and maybe hardcore fans didn’t like it, but it made the story so much more meaningful for me.

    Another adaptation I thought about is the iconic “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. When you wrote that this adaptation of “Great Expectations” FELT like the book, that’s how I felt about this particular version of “P&P”. For some reason, it’s my least favorite of Austen’s novels – I have no idea why, because there’s so much I love/love to hate about the characters, but I always find it a slog to read. But the miniseries literally brought the characters to life for me, and helped me enjoy the book beyond its general significance and wisdom. And not just because of that unnecessary(?) wet shirt scene. 🙂

    Since you’re a fan of Harry Potter, I’d love to know what you think about those film adaptations? It seems to me like they did fit the bill according to your criteria, but of course, they couldn’t include everything from the books, and some were stylistically maybe not quite the same (the third one’s always bugged me for that reason, as well as some key info left out).

    Also, have you seen the Alistair Sims version of “A Christmas Carol”? To me, that FEELS like Dickens, too, but since I’m by no measure as much a fan of the book as you are, by far, what do you think of it? If you don’t like it, is there an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” that you do think is successful?

    1. I haven’t seen that Peter Pan movie, but your point is fascinating and makes me want to see it. I don’t always like when filmmakers add things (it rendered Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby unwatchable for me). But the way you describe it seems like it’s taking something perhaps implicit and making it more explicit, which I can see being almost necessary, really, given the film medium.

      I also haven’t seen the Alistair Sims version of A Christmas Carol. I might be contradicting myself with this, but here goes: I adore Scrooged with Bill Murray. I watch it every December. Maybe because it’s not trying to be Dickens but taking the idea of it and applying it to its time, I enjoy it as its own thing. I don’t always feel that way, though, so now I want to think about why some modern updates are more satisfying than others. Maybe it’s Bill Murray. Maybe it’s that the story itself is so adaptable, whereas other novels feel more tied to their times. I don’t know. I’m going to try watching updates of other classics and see what I think. Thank you for the inspiration!

      The Harry Potter movies are hard. The first one, I enjoyed from the first time I watched it. It “felt like” the book. The second as well. From the third on … ahhhh. The one I remember feeling most dissatisfied with when I watched it was The Half-Blood Prince. I felt like too much was left out to where it didn’t feel like the book anymore. I also don’t feel like the films necessarily stand alone, i.e. if you haven’t read them, parts of the movie just don’t make sense. However, my son and I have watched the movies so many times and had so many conversations about them (we read the whole series aloud together too), that I’ve grown fond of them, maybe more because of the memories and feelings associated with them than anything else. I will say, though, that every time I watch one of the movies, I want to go right back to the book and reread it.

      Also, I want to say that I love love love the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. And I love the book too. I agree that the series absolutely feels like the book. In fact, writing this piece, I was thinking of the pond scene. Even though it’s not in the book, it shows us a side of Darcy that we see in the book: him feeling disarmed or vulnerable in some way because of how he feels about Lizzie. So it’s true to the book even if not to the specific facts of the book. (Hmmm, I wonder why I find that annoying in some cases but not others?) Incidentally, I tried to watch the recent 2005 film with Keira Knightly and … no. She’s a fine actress, but the whole thing just felt all wrong.

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