Moviegoers are swimming in a sea of book adaptations, as movie studios continue their frantic search for the perfect “pre-sold” properties to gobble up, completely reconfigure and then spit out, in the hopes that fans of the original will flock to the multiplex like millions of dutiful pop-cultural drones.
Dozens of movies this year will have started their lives as books, many of them of the young adult genre that is currently enjoying a heyday — if not always a payday — in Hollywood. Just this weekend, “If I Stay,” Gayle Forman’s novel about a teenage cello player who, while in a coma, must decide whether to live or die, is coming to the big screen in a film starring Chloë Grace Moretz. It’s a fitting, three-hankie bookend to one of this summer’s most satisfying YA hits, the teen-cancer drama “The Fault In Our Stars.”
Just last weekend, “The Giver” opened to heightened expectations that fans of Lois Lowry's 1993 novel — a dystopian allegory about a futuristic society devoid of individuality — would reward the 20-year attempt to bring the book to the screen. But “The Giver,” which stars Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, underperformed at the box office, with some observers suggesting that what doomed it was a too-long gap between book and movie (in which time, similar-themed adaptations like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” took the lead), as well as fans’ disappointment in the liberties the film took with the protagonist’s age and in the emphasis on an otherwise merely hinted-at love story. Still, for her part, Lowry pronounced herself well pleased with “The Giver,” saying she thought director Phillip Noyce brought the book “to a new level.”
As an author who is actually happy with how her work has been brought to the screen, Lowry is that rara avis of the book world, joining a lucky band of writers who have maintained a parental interest in their literary babies while mastering the Buddhist art of letting go.
As my colleague David Ignatius — whose spy thriller “Body of Lies” was adapted by Ridley Scott in 2008 — told me last week, “You have to accept that your book is going to be reimagined for the screen. In the process it becomes something different — loses some dimensions and gains others. But in ‘Body of Lies,’ the director captured the basic points I wanted to make about America’s miscomprehension of the Arab world in the years after 9/11.” (Ignatius’s latest CIA novel, “The Director,” is currently being adapted by filmmaker Paul Greengrass.)
But how often have we heard of an author feeling utterly betrayed by the filmmaking process, wailing that his or her characters, storylines and profound themes on the human condition were fatally distorted by the auteur’s heavy hand? From P.L. Travers sniping at Walt Disney’s wholesome maiming of “Mary Poppins” to Stephen King complaining that Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining” failed to grasp “the sheer inhuman evil of the Overlook Hotel,” the dominant image of novelists embraced by Hollywood is of artists squeezed to within an inch of their lives, their creative juices drained — and, it should be noted, with plenty of $100 bills spilling out of their pockets.
Those entertaining complaints notwithstanding, Lowry and Ignatius may not be such rare birds after all; in fact, most writers seem to have struck a philosophical, if not resigned, attitude when Hollywood comes knocking.
Like their own fans, they have found a way to hang onto the original characters, storylines and details that they loved in the first place, while seeing a film as its own, discrete work of art — one that may take liberties with the original text but preserves its spirit and wider meaning. As the novelist Lionel Shriver told the British newspaper the Independent in 2012, speaking about Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “I regard it now as a separate entity, not a perfect recapitulation of my novel.”
Besides, she continued, “it’s nice to be surprised by someone bringing something new to your material, rather than ploddingly putting your book on the screen. The nice thing, too, is that I have a plausible deniability; if the film sucked, it wouldn’t have been my fault.”
Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post’s film critic, will host a discussion with E.L. Doctorow, Alice McDermott, Paul Auster and Lisa See at 8 p.m.