Book or box office?

When David Magee, screenwriter of Life of Pi, was brought on board by director Ang Lee to adapt the 2002 Man Booker prize winning novel for the big screen, he was clear from the onset to retain the spirit of the original. “You have to show your readers respect. If they watch this film because they love the book, you have to try to latch on to… not the literal lines of the book, but you have to capture the same intention, same spirit, come to the same conclusions,” affirms Magee.

Still from the film, Life of Pi

Screen test
Over five years, he has abridged 80 novels and he felt it helped train him for his work as a screenwriter. “I learned to identify the skeleton of a novel, concisely and quickly. But Life of Pi was especially challenging. So much of the story is told in the mind of the character, not through action but through reflection,” explains the American screenwriter, who was nominated for a 2004 Academy Award and a Golden Globe, for Finding Neverland.

Book cover

Explaining the process of writing the screenplay, Magee says there would be a constant back and forth between Lee and him. “I’d write some pages and send them to Ang. We would meet at his place, talk about the pages, go to lunch, talk over lunch, return to his apartment, and talk some more. Then, I would go home and write new pages. Those first few months were all about exploration. We weren’t writing scenes — we were writing ideas. I love to write on anything that moves me and on many occasions, I translate my real-life emotions into the screenplay.”

This approach seems to have worked, and contrary to the general perception of books trumping movies, Life of Pi earnedRs 19 crore in its first weekend (in India) and Breaking Dawn has become one of the world’s biggest franchise earner with $700 million.

Let the battle begin
This called for a wide, open debate, and naturally, authors and screenplay writers across the Indian milieu had interesting opinions to share. Author William Dalrymple, fresh from the critical acclaim his just released Return of a King is receiving, and whose bestseller, White Mughals, will soon be adapted into a movie, feels that a book is almost always better than a movie.

“But there are instances such as The Godfather, where the book was strictly okay but the movie was great. If the book has a certain subtlety and depth, the readers are likely to be disappointed at the movie adaptation. A film viewer wants entertainment and that’s an ambitious demand from a book. Thrillers make for great adaptations, such as the Bond series,” he says.

Work with the strengths
Delhi based sci-fi and fantasy fiction author Samit Basu, whose work Turbulence is soon to be adapted into a Hindi movie, adds, “Films and books are different mediums and it’s not smart to expect a movie adaptation to be the same as the book. Films are a visual medium.

It is difficult to make films that are faithful to the book. Graphic novels work better in this scenario, as they are already visual to a certain extent. It’s silly to go to a movie expecting a recreation of the book; in that case, read the book at home. When my book gets adapted, I hope the movie is as good as it can be. If people think the book is better, I will take it as a compliment.” He adds that it’s best to work with the strengths
of the medium. “I found the Twilight series better as movies than the books because, cinematically, they were sound.”

Citing the example of The Lord Of the Rings trilogy, which had been on the bestseller list for decades before it got picked up for a franchise, Basu believes that the fan following helped the movie. “They were guaranteed millions of followers because of the popularity of the book. While people keep predicting the end for books, they will continue to survive.”

Advaita Kala, author of the chick-lit bestseller, Almost Single, who wrote the script for the Vidya Balan-starrer, Kahaani, feels that it’s an issue of ownership. “Books have an intimacy; they allow you to populate the world as your imagination permits, making it yours, in many ways.

With a film, it’s a shared experience, a version that is presented to you. It doesn’t engage you as much; it’s in a sense some of that loss of control that bothers people. So, it’s an ownership issue that is more internal than the cold, hard merits of book versus film.”

Screen grab
But do films help by drawing in the younger, impatient audiences not keen on reading the literary classics? “Possibly, attention spans are reducing but people are reading now more than ever. It’s about how we like our entertainment and with it getting increasingly visual, we are becoming lazier about having to work to be entertained. There are too many options, these either get you in 0 to 6 seconds or you’re lost to the next tab on your screen,” says Kala.

In terms of writing for a book or a movie she explains, her challenges are similar: “My personal contribution is the same — character creation, plotting, etc. The challenge of dramatic embellishment in a compact space is more challenging; as well as the whole show-not-tell thing.”

Drawing in fresh readers
For Bijal Vachharajani, Bangalore- based senior journalist and self-confessed fan of the Harry Potter series, the books were better than the movies. “It was not easy to adapt the books into movies.

As a fan, the way you visualise a certain place or person in your mind tends to differ and thus, the film may tend to fall short of expectations. At times, the visual medium can do a good job with descriptive elements and the detailing. But movies are a natural progression for books, as you are visualising it in your mind. Movies also help develop a fan base for books, as we saw with The Chronicles of Narnia, where a new generation of readers got hooked to the series, thanks to the movie.”

Clearly, depending on which side you stand by, both sections seem spoilt for choice, going by what one can look forward to, on the bookshelf and at the box office in the future.  

John Freeman, Editor,
Granta, UK
What is your view on books being adapted into movies?

The best novels make you imagine their characters, their towns and rivers. Their worlds. A great novel takes you inside characters because you have to imagine their hearts, and in so doing you give a bit of your own to the book. It’s why great novels are so compelling, so dear to us. Films show us action and drama and faces. They are like places we have seen, whereas great books are like lives we have lived. For this reason, novels will always come out on top.

How are books and movies co-dependent?
Films harvest books because directors and screenwriters still need good stories, not just scenarios. And, no one knows how a story works like a novelist. Fiction writers have, in turn, been influenced by cinema: by the way cinema is edited today (with multiple plot lines and frequent shifts in point of view), but this style of story-telling was pioneered by modernists, and cinema-makers have simply employed it to popular effect.

Do films help draw in younger crowds to reading the original books?
We may not be biologically inclined to narrative, but socially, we have always needed it. Narrative is how we understand the world. Religious texts are narratives. Newspapers form narratives. And, novels spin narratives. Films possess it, too, but the intensity of a narrative in a novel is very different (and far richer) than that of a film; so, there will always be a larger and curious audience for reading. Yes, films can draw readers to Anna Karenina or The Ice Harvest, but people who go to the book are already readers.

What makes a novelist great is how he or she imagines a world, and coaxes us into co-imagining it with them as readers. To imagine a story, which has already been made visual on screen would not be compelling for a novelist. What would be left for them to imagine? 

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