There are cases when the film adaptation is better than the book. That might sound harsh to writers, but even though I have managed to dredge a novel from my soul, I’d be the first to admit that a 6-part TV drama would probably tell the same story of The Pink Peppermint Lounge with less flannel, sharper dialogue and a sheer tension that an 84,000 word novel naturally lacks.
Here are a few examples from movie history, and the reasons why I reckon the movie trumps the book hands down.
Far From The Madding Crowd (1967 – Dir. John Schlesinger)
The Terence Stamp/Alan Bates/Julie Christie film is a visual feast, beautifully shot, with the landscape painted in colours and tones that ace Hardy’s descriptive powers any day of the week. Where Hardy’s Victorian plodding prose stifles the emotions, with its dull pace, and comical West Country accents, the film version trims everything down to its raw passion, and portrays the triumvirate of potential suitors with a wit, pathos, charm and economy of dialogue, that Hardy could never really pin down, in any of his works.
The crucial difference between Hardy’s novel and the 60s classic film is accessibility. The book is a weary trudge through yards of prose, with lust, ambition and duplicity all buried beneath acres of drawn-out scene-setting, agricultural notes and Hardy’s obsession with Fate; the inexorable judgement and punishment for sins, that must befall nearly all his characters.
The film is a lighter, more intuitive affair and although it loses the viewer towards the end, where melodrama overtakes the beautiful mood, the dreamlike qualities of the piece give it a richness, a wonderful escapism that hooks you from the start. Most modern readers will find Hardy’s books tediously slow in places, but the 1967 film is a frothy, energetic and pacy delight; a concise re-telling of the same story, resplendent in the colours of the seasons and the seething emotions that lie buried under the waistcoats and petticoats of Victorian England.
In short, the movie defines the universal truth that nothing changes when it comes to affairs of the heart and the gift of love is a double-edged sword. It tells that eternal tale far better than Hardy for my money.
The Man Who Fell To Earth – (1976 Dir. Nic Roeg)
Walter Tevis’s novel is a basic `Jesus is an alien’ story, the staple of so many sci-fi stories. Although it’s well-written, and in some ways very plausible, the book never really develops the main female character beyond a gin-soaked caricature and TJ Newton comes across as a slightly annoying superior being, rather than the hip, in-a-big-hurry, sharp-suited megalomaniac businessman than Bowie nails down so perfectly in the movie.
The book is really a stretched out short story, and it shows in many sections, with dreary descriptions of drinking sessions and a laboured, recurring theme of CIA/FBI Cold War type spying and snooping. It betrays Tevis’s own fears about how America is becoming a kind of Orwellian state, with the Soviets as the eternal enemy and every `alien,’ in other words, every visitor to the USA, a suspected spy.
In the movie, Roeg asks the viewer several more important, and bigger questions. What makes us human, or feel like strangers in a strange land? The wonderful editing of the film suggests TJ Newton’s body is ageing at a different rate to everyone else, but despite his longevity, he is relentlessly running out of time to save his family back on his home planet. The sub-plots about consumerism, CIA murders, torture and the murky marriage between spy agencies and corporate America are all jump-cut to perfection by Roeg, and acted out with pathos and wanton sexuality by Bowie and Candy Clark, who plays the main love interest and Newton’s `Earth Wife.’
The tragic ending in the movie is far superior to Tevis’s blinding of the alien, but it is the sheer collage of images, flashbacks, flash-forwards and overwhelming sense of isolation and helpless despair, that reels you into Roeg’s stunning, cathartic, requiem for religion.
In the end, humanity simply cannot accept its own salvation, even when it appears in the form of the coolest alien rock star on the planet and that my friends, is what makes this film such a fantastic piece of script writing. Not one frame of celluloid is wasted, every moment is an unsettling step into the worldview of an outsider; wide-eyed with fear and fascination at our vibrant, addictive and potentially loving lives.
Don’t waste your time with the book, watch the film again, on as big a screen as possible. It is a masterpiece.