Book-to-film adaptations are always a challenge. They’re a challenge for filmmakers trying to translate the feel of the written word for the screen, and they’re a challenge for audiences already enraptured with the book to accept with open minds.
Here’s a case in point. I love Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I read it in 2007, a couple of months into my stay in Japan, and it completely blew me away. It was a brilliant idea, crafted into a grand and brilliant story, and written in an endearing matter-of-fact style through the voice of a devastatingly sweet and immature narrator. For all its superficial coldness, the depth of feeling and heart contained in its simple language gave rise to such massive potential for an emotional response, and that response would take you down as many rabbit holes as you let it. I felt like I understood people, and our potential as humans, better after reading this novel.
Of course it was always going to be made into a film. How could it not? All of the elements were there: a high-concept idea, a love triangle, Oscar-baiting pathos and (most importantly) a recognisable and well-established brand name. Surely the film would write itself?
Well, it didn’t. In Alex Garland, he of novels The Beach and Tesseract as well as the script for Danny Boyle’s beautifully misguided Sunshine, the production pulled in a very savvy and thoughtful writer – and I’m sorry to say that he went the wrong route. That matter-of-fact prose I mentioned earlier could never directly manifest on the screen, but Garland, bless him, tries his damnedest. What came across as innocence in the book translates to coldness and a kind of dull, grey superficiality on the screen.
As a result, some very well-intentioned and capable performers flounder before our eyes. Save Mulligan’s near-constant sad, tilted smirk and Knightley’s frequently insane toothy grin, all three are surprisingly affecting. Or at least they would be if they weren’t lumbered with overly direct dialogue, a pace that never flows, and some of the most ridiculous wigs and outfits this side of Mamma Mia! Mulligan in particular is becoming one of the most enigmatic presences on cinema screens, with her pixie face concealing a gravelly, Shakespearean voice. But her Kathy isn’t the limited childlike wonder of the book.
To be fair, any sort of comparison with Ishiguro’s prose is unreasonable. I can only think of a few films which have affected me so deeply. Still, I’m a firm believer that the best book-to-film adaptations leave the feeling of the book behind and concentrate on telling a story on screen well – even if it’s a story that differs considerably from that of the book, if only in the telling. Examples: Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement; Anderson’s There Will Be Blood; Pawlikowski’s My Summer Of Love. Romanek’s proved himself to be quite a talent with his earlier One Hour Photo, but he and Garland would’ve done themselves a favour by watching those three films as a kind of Adaptations 101.
I am, of course, biased, and would love to hear from anyone who hasn’t read the book. A follower on Twitter, @PapushiSun, hasn’t: “I haven’t watched another film that made me so angry in a long time. People don’t behave like that, I kept thinking.” It didn’t stir the same frustration in me, but I have to agree that the motivation for much of the characters’ behaviour was unclear, or – worse – when it was revealed, I just didn’t really care.