So said JW Eagan, quoted on one of my bookmarks from Crossword, and I agree wholeheartedly with it. A stack of DVDs isn’t on my “three things you’d take with you to a deserted island” list- I like cinema only in moderation, because it somehow seems to drain my reserves of patience (and I take the blame). But there is hardly anything as off-putting as a horrendous movie made out of a perfectly good book.
It is almost criminal to watch the movie adaptation of a book before having read the book itself. Reading is an impetus to the imagination, and it is the prose that is supposed to create the first impressions in your head-this is also the measure of how successful an author has been in impacting your thoughts. Succumb to all the hype of a movie before you’ve read the book it has been adapted from, you’ve almost surely lost the excitement of the richness of language and characterisation which drew such overwhelming images in a person’s mind that, incapable of suppression and containment, they spilled onto the screen. I floundered through the movie adaptations of Wuthering Heights, Mansfield Park and Rob Roy- finishing none of them- but ravenously devoured the books.
That said, there have been a few adaptations that have made a successful transition to the screen from paper. The eternal tearjerker Little Women was almost- certainly not entirely- loyal to Louisa May Alcott’s novel, but I’m thankful I read the book first; I wouldn’t have wanted Winona Ryder’s (then) rosy face interfering with my own picture of Jo. Into The Wild was just as good in its sincerity, but I’m glad the first images of the forests, the wildernesses and the people Chris McCandless met were in my head- even though it was a real-life story. Middle Earth wouldn’t have been as mysterious and darkly beautiful if I’d seen the Lord of the Rings movies shot in the more homely locales of New Zealand first.
The movies the actors choose to do later, and their real-life adventures splashed across newspapers also ruin it for me. I really don’t like to believe that the protagonist in the Twilight series (need I explain further?) was the thoughtful young woman who McCandless almost fell in love with. Ryder, troubled and accused of shoplifting, couldn’t have been the merry, still-tomboyish Mrs. Bhaer, could she?
Then there is the publicity. I would have enjoyed Ice Candy Man more if Deepa Mehta’s characters- omnipresent on television when 1947 Earth was released, thanks to relentless promotion- hadn’t superimposed themselves on the faces I was gradually painting in my head. My copy of Vanity Fair has a photograph of Reese Witherspoon and her corseted cleavage on it. Is she to form my idea of a character as vivacious and interesting as Becky? I think not, for I certainly trust Mr. Thackeray‘s capabilities better- I’ve covered the book in paper and shut out the names of the cast, the director and the costume designer. If the wise mothers and chaperones talk of sprigged muslin, I’ll figure out for myself what it is, thank you very much.
The day I decide to turn the awe-inspiring Mexican story The Power and The Glory into a movie, I’ll let you know. But you’ll be allowed to watch it only if you’ve already done Graham Greene the courtesy of reading the book. For in this case, it is extremely evident which one came first.