Andrew Collins: Film of the book

Pondering the Big Question: can the film of a book ever be better than the book?

By the time you read this, I may have already delivered a talk at the fragrant Cheltenham Literary Festival entitled From Page To Screen.


The thrust of it is a debate: can the film of a book ever be better than the book? Now, at a book festival, surrounded by bibliophiles, I expect to be drowned out by a polite but forceful collective “No!” And in truth, I’m not at the festival to dissuade anybody of this conviction.

After all, a book is hundreds of pages long, and invites the reader to effectively direct their own film of it, as they go along, using only the power of their imagination. This is why reading fiction is so glorious and engrossing, or can be, if you are able to concentrate on all those words on a page (or on the screen of an e-reader), and shut out any distractions. Reading is an active pastime. Watching a film, meanwhile …

Well, for a start, a film is only likely to take up two hours of your life. And it has been pre-imagined for you by a combination of screenwriter, director, director of photography, editor, production designer, lighting designer, costume designer and so on. So, sit back and enjoy the story, which will hopefully have a beginning, a middle and an end. And you can eat disgusting popcorn while it’s being told. It’s such a passive medium, it is possible to doze off while doing it. Or talk.

If you watch your film on TV, or on a computer, you can, thanks to technological advances, pause it, or watch it in instalments, at your own leisure. This is old news to book readers, who have been able to do this for centuries, at least since the invention of paper, and in huge numbers since the invetion of the printing press. With a book, you are in control.

To compare the book and the film of the book is, frankly, insane. And yet, filmmakers constantly canibalise books. If a book’s a bestseller, its film rights will probably already have been sold at proof stage, and the Hollywood adaptation can often come as rapidly as a couple of years after publication, which means the reader’s own, imagined “film” will be fresh in the mind, and is likely to be besmirched by the actual film. Casting is something you do in your own head while reading. You are the casting director. This power is robbed when a film comes out.

So is it any wonder that readers so often emerge from the cinema muttering, “Well, it’s not as good as the book.” How can it be? The screenplay will have been around 100 pages long – it’s about a page a minute, industry standard, so you can work it out for yourself – and that’s double spaced, and mostly dialogue. Unless you lay over narration, which can break the spell of a film, then there is no interior monologue. That’s a luxury of the written word.

My ruse is this: don’t read novels. That way, when you see the film of the book, not only will you be able to enjoy it on its own, visual, truncated, pre-cast, pre-directed, pre-designed terms, but you won’t know the ending!


I’d better get back to writing my talk for Cheltenham now … otherwise, it won’t have an ending.