The double standard for text-to-screen adaptations

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NOVEMBER 20, 2013

Plush seats, Sour Patch Kids and movies are my jam. I nestle into my seat, gorge on my Kiddies and (usually) thoroughly enjoy the film unfolding before me.

Stylish prose, hot chocolate and novels are also my jam. I nestle into my disc chair, which feels like angels of heaven are giving me hugs, sip my hot chocolate and (usually) thoroughly enjoy seeing how the words weave together into an immersive story.

My two jams have been colliding ever so frequently as of late. This crash occurs when movies are adapted from literary works. It’s not a new development, but it seems to be overwhelmingly done recently. Sometimes, it seems every other preview is preceded by the words “based on the novel by.” These include “World War Z,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Hobbit,” just to name a very select few from this year. In the past few weeks, this trend has been under some scrutiny as journalists penned articles expressing their disapproval of James Franco’s release of the movie “As I Lay Dying,” an adaptation of a William Faulkner novel sharing the same name.

To me, there exists a double standard for such text-to-screen adaptations. There are some novels that solely aim to tell a story. Then, there are other novels that solely aim to play with the structure and style of the prose while the storyline takes a backseat. The former is usually encouraged and successful as a movie. The latter is usually not.

I am not one of those snobby people who turn away whenever I see a movie based on a novel that I love. More times than not, I appreciate the movie adaptations for what they are and find joy in seeing beloved characters become somewhat more tangible. I am also thankful for all the stories I’ve heard by way of a movie I most likely would have never known existed had it remained in obscure book form.

Some novels contain amazing stories that are welcomingly spread to a wider audience and are more accessible through a movie format. Instead of writers’ plot lines being confined between two cardboard covers, they’re able to affect a broader range of people who aren’t willing or able to tear through an entire novel.

Again, the focus here is on the stories themselves. Book series like “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” have relatively easily comprehensible writing that is more about getting the tale across than anything. These are the ones that should be consistently targeted as the next basis for a film.

However, some novels, such as Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” are more about how it is written rather than what is written. Faulkner, along with other early 20th-century writers, such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, were trying to shatter conventions about how a novel should sound and be structured. They weren’t working toward creating the most unforgettable plot twists but were more concerned with what they could do with the English language. They toyed with incoherent sentences, the stream of consciousness style and sporadic punctuation. They beg for close reading and attention to the mechanics behind every word. Novels such as these should be left to those willing to pore over the actual pages instead of condensing and distorting the true nature of the novel into a constrained film format.

One can usually describe what actually happens in these novels in a few sentences or even in just one line. In Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” a woman is throwing a party; in Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” a southern family is trying to deal with the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of their sister and daughter. They’re very simple on the surface but incredibly complex in the way they are told.

For example, a whole quarter of “The Sound and the Fury” is devoted to the point of view of a mentally challenged character. Words jumble together, and the story jumps from one time period to the next within a few words. Also, throughout the novel, the perspective changes between several characters, with their personalities strewn within the thoughts expressed in the prose.

Yet Franco is reportedly setting his sights on making this Faulkner classic into a movie as well — ruining the true pleasure of figuring out what Faulkner was trying to do. This pleasure is called the “operational aesthetic,” a term expressing the joy that audiences get in trying to figure out how the plot is working in addition to what the plot actually is.

Although I do commend Franco for trying to expose a genuinely genius literary work to a mass audience, by doing so, he is boiling the “operational aesthetic” down into a relatively simple storyline. Novels that work in this way should be admired as novels and be left alone to be novels. These movies basically function like SparkNotes, and as my high school teachers would say, Sparknotes is literature’s devil child.

Contact Taran Moriates at [email protected].

Contact Taran Moriates at 


DECEMBER 11, 2013

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