The book v film debate: How much licence should screen adaptations take?

David Copperfield, Normal People and Dune are all on the way, some more reverent than others

Dev Patel as David Copperfield

Dev Patel as David Copperfield


Few musings on the state of cinema fail to whinge about the dearth of original material. In one sense, it has always been thus. For as long as directors have pointed cameras at actors, the literary adaptation has been a staple. Yet those films have, perhaps, got a little less original in recent times.

Eighty years ago, Alfred Hitchcock happily bunged most of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps in the bin and – with the assistance of writers Charles Bennett and Ian Hay – made up almost all of what appeared on screen. Try that with a bestseller in 2020 and you’d be pitched into Twitter’s tumbrils and transported to a public death. Faithfulness is now a virtue in itself. That’s why David Fincher’s Gone Girl lasted 12 hours.

Thank heavens for Charlie Kaufman. We can surely trust that the man who tore up Susan Orleans’s The Orchid Thief to make the unrecognisable Adaptation will be similarly creative in his upcoming attack on Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Jesse Plemons and our own Jessie Buckley star in a film that may concern a man taking his girlfriend to meet his parents. Who can tell?

We can also bet that Blumhouse Productions’ take on The Invisible Man will have little to do with HG Wells’s source novel. But do we regard such things as literary adaptations? Do people talk about James Whale’s Frankenstein or Tod Browning’s Dracula in those terms? At any rate, the brilliant trailer promises exploitation thrills of the first order. Elisabeth Moss leads as a visible woman molested by a less easily discernible man.

Armando Iannucci’s racially blind take on The Personal History of David Copperfield has already received deserved praise

Lord knows what David Lowery is up to with Green Knight. The American director’s assault on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the uncredited narrative poem that greets every English undergraduate in their first year, has cast Dev Patel as the titular Knight and the bold Barry Keoghan as somebody else. With Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story and The Old Man & The Gun on his shelf, the eclectic filmmaker has yet to put a foot wrong. Some shooting has taken place in Ardmore Studios, but our long lenses have revealed no details about one of 2020’s most eagerly anticipated releases.

None of which warbling about defying expectations is to suggest there is not still a place for faithful takes on old warhorses. Thirty years ago, if you’d asked anyone from Britain or Ireland to name the most read 19th-century novelist, they’d have flung small beer in your face and sent you careering towards the dogcart. The answer was obviously Charles Dickens. In the years since Colin Firth emerged sexily from that lake, Jane Austen has, however, passed him out.

David Copperfield

We get major adaptations of both authors in the early months of 2020. Armando Iannucci’s racially blind take on The Personal History of David Copperfield has already received deserved praise for its economic distillation of a massive novel into a relatively brief (just under two hours), relentlessly amusing comic romp. Dev Patel stars as the hero. Peter Capaldi is hopeful Mr Micawber. Ben Whishaw is ‘umble Uriah Heep. Rosaleen Linehan is miserable Mrs Gummidge. To die for.

We have no word yet how closely Autumn de Wilde’s Emma sticks to Austen’s novel, but the trailer suggests it won’t be as loose an adaptation as was Amy Heckerling’s immortal Clueless. Eleanor Catton (about whom more later) handles writing duties. Isobel Waller-Bridge – of the Fleabag Waller-Bridges – composes the music. The excellent Anya Taylor-Joy takes over as Ms Austen’s most meddlesome heroine. Plenty to anticipate.

Both those films will be carrying on under the shadow of previous adaptations, but neither will be fighting so desperately for its own ground as Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca. The talented director of Kill List casts Lily James as Joan Fontaine, Armie Hammer as Laurence Olivier, Kristin Scott Thomas as Judith Anderson and Sam Riley as George Sanders. (Not really, but you get where we’re coming from.) The latest variation on Daphne du Maurier’s dark romance – source for Hitchcock’s only best picture Oscar winner – is a Netflix production, but will probably also get a theatrical run.

Other acclaimed novels generating cinema releases in 2020 include Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger (Ramin Bahrani directs bildungsroman), AJ Finn’s The Woman in the Window (Amy Adams in much-delayed thriller) and Nella Larsen’s Passing (Rebecca Hall directs Tessa Thompson in classic tale from 1920s Harlem). None will be approached with as much trepidation as Václav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. The premiere at the Venice Film Festival saw multiple walkouts at the depictions of rape, murder and related brutalities. But the film, depicting a Jewish boy’s experiences in Nazi-occupied Europe, also triggered ovations and breathless raves. Judge for yourself in March.

If you want to see every comma, semi-colon and em dash translated to screen then telly is still the place to go. The world awaits tensely as Sally Rooney’s era-defining Normal People moves to the smaller screen. Hettie Macdonald, director of Beautiful Thing, and Lenny Abrahamson, Oscar-nominated for Room, will be behind the camera for this story of two young people surviving school and college in the early years of the century. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal star in a co-production between Element Pictures, Hulu and the BBC. That’s how such things are done these days.

Paul Mescal in Normal People. Photograph: Enda Bowe
Paul Mescal in Normal People. Photograph: Enda Bowe

Two of the hugest doorstoppers on your bookshelf are also making their way to the crystal bucket in 2020. Himesh Patel, Eva Green and Eve Hewson have been travelling the world for the BBC’s take on Eleanor Catton’s Booker-winning The Luminaries. Concerning adventures in the gold rush that hit New Zealand in 1866, the series probably won’t screen in episodes that are each 50 per cent shorter than its predecessor (this is a joke about the novel’s structure). “It’s very different from the book, I can tell you that much,” Patel has said. Catton has done her own adapting. So nobody can much complain.

The Luminaries

Though clocking in at 848 pages, The Luminaries seems like a mere novella – a mere amuse bouche – when set beside Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. The BBC series employs the classiest imaginable personnel. Andrew Davies, the dean of TV adaptation, has taken on the task of taming Seth’s tale of a young man gaming wisdom in India during the 1950s. Mira Nair, director of classics such as Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding, will be translating his words into images. There is no broadcast date yet, but it seems unlikely to arrive until late in the year.

We spoke above about the anxiety imposed by earlier adaptation. The folk behind Black Narcissus won’t need to be told that Michael Powell directed Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron in a flawless version of Black Narcissus in 1947. Before then it was a bestselling novel by the underestimated Rumer Godden. In the latest version, Gemma Arterton is the shy neophyte and Aisling Franciosi, brilliant Irish star of The Nightingale, is the sexually demented Sister Ruth. “I put the film out of my mind as much as possible,” Aisling told me. “I was a bit nervous about watching it. I eventually did and it is amazing, but it is very much of its time.”

At Christmas, Denis Villeneuve brings us his version of Frank Herbert’s space opera Dune

For men of a certain age (cough, cough!) Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity offered confirmation – alternately chilling and reassuring – that we were not the only ones compiling endless lists of best Clash B-sides and worst romantic breakups. The makers of the upcoming Hulu series admit that they were influenced as much by Stephen Frears’s film as by Hornby’s book. Here’s the twist. This time round, Rob is a woman. Does that make sense? That fine actor Zoë Kravitz has the task of convincing us it’s not just men who rank every cultural artefact that passes their nostrils.

A good 35 years ago, Charles Dance established himself in Granada’s adaptation of Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown (and succeeding bits of the Raj Trilogy). Now he’s back for another ITV adaption of a classic novel examining the colonial experience. JG Farrell’s The Singapore Grip, published a year before that author’s death, details a British family’s decline following the Japanese invasion of Singapore. This sounds like the sort of thing that might have caused the pubs to close early in the 1960s and 1970s. That won’t be happening in the age of catch-up TV, but the prospect of Luke Treadaway, David Morrissey, Jane Horrocks and (yes!) Colm Meaney joining the Dancer in lavish adventure sounds too good to resist.

For all these attractions, one cinema adaptation is set to dwarf everything with its noisy presence. At Christmas, Denis Villeneuve brings us his version of Frank Herbert’s space opera Dune. Hurdles abound. David Lynch’s 1984 film was a disaster. Villeneuve is coming off the financial embarrassment that was Blade Runner 2049. Science-fiction fans can be exhaustingly pernickety about any changes to what they view as sacred texts.

“Most of the main ideas of Star Wars are coming from Dune,” Villeneuve has said. “The ambition is to do the Star Wars movie I never saw. In a way, it’s Star Wars for adults. We’ll see.” Make of that what you will. Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac star. You’ll know all about it in 11 months’ time. You won’t be able to avoid knowing all about it.

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