Novels on screen: can the movie ever be better than the book?

under the skin move poster

I can’t decide whether I’m excited or not at the prospect of a live action version on The BFG by Roald Dahl (I’ve just realised he was way ahead of his time with the acronym usage, BTW). I’m not sure it’s possible for the film to ever live up to the version that played out in my head when I read the book.

Like many people, Roald Dahl’s books were a big part of my childhood, they were the first ones I can remember really vividly, and The BFG was the first book I ever read all in one go. The imagery of twilight, the witching hour, when all the children are supposed to be asleep and the Big Friendly Giant uses his magic pipe to blow dreams into their bedrooms, was strong and creepy and beautiful and quiet. It’s almost unimaginable on the big screen; how will it ever match up with my 8-year-old imagination?

That’s the thing with film adaptations of books; you can never make everyone who loves the book happy. Production companies understandably pick the most popular novels for their movies, great for marketing but also the easiest way to piss off a large group in one go. There will be people gurgling with anger on Twitter at every cast announcement and by the time the trailer’s out some fans will be almost literally frothing, little speckles of disgust collecting in the corners of their mouths.

Pleasing everyone is impossible whatever you do anyway; but is it ever possible for a film to improve on the book? Generally I’m a books first, movies second kind of person; I usually don’t want to watch the film before I’ve read the book because reading is just so much more personal, and occasionally intense. I’ve pretty much already made my decision on The BFG; there is no way the film version will be as good as the book and before recently I would say that’s true for pretty much every film adaptation ever. I always thought that it was possible for a film to be as good as the book, but never better.

Then I saw Under the Skin, and now I’m not sure. I actually can’t decide which version I prefer; Michel Faber’s novel or Jonathan Glazer’s film. I loved the book when I read it; it was surprising and beautiful with moments of sadness and anger that resonated with the characters and with the real world as well. Plus it was really weird. The weirdness was emphasised by the way it was presented; alongside this boring, everyday dull greyness of the British road system. Mile after mile of tarmac and white lines, over and over, mundane and inevitable, but harbouring these odd things, these terrible and strange events. I won’t ruin the book (or film) by putting anything about the plot, because seriously you should read or watch it. Thing is though, I don’t know which you should do first.

I’ve always liked to start with the book, but when I watched Under the Skin I really wished I hadn’t read it already. I’d love to be able to see the film with no idea what it was about and what the fuck was up with Scarlett Johansson’s character. But then if I’d seen the film before I read the book, would I feel the same? Because the book was so normal on the surface I never guessed what was really going on and the reveal was shocking; if I’d seen it on screen already that would have made it less of a surprise. Watching it with someone who hadn’t read the book it really sunk in though; their idea of what was going on was so different from mine, and I kind of think I ruined it when I told them what it was ‘about’.

The thing with art is that you should be able to take what you want from it; something written just for the writer is just writing; the same with film and painting and music and sculpture and anything artistic. It becomes art in interaction with a reader or viewer. Interpretation is the fun part because ideas are really important. They’re the only thing worth having really (I’ve said that before). The film version of Under the Skin gives you something but holds a lot more back; it never explains and never confirms. In that way I think it’s perhaps a bit more successful than the novel. You know what’s going on in the book and it leaves a little less room for interpretation. A narrower gap for ideas to squeeze through.

The film never gives it away, it has more space to become something bigger, it expands in your mind like some kind of movie based flower, with sticky nectar that infects your thoughts and makes you start wondering about stuff. Plus the soundtrack is awesome. And the book definitely didn’t have that. I recommend both the book and the film, we just need to get hold of that invention from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind so we can enjoy them both equally without any spoiler.

Despite all this, I still think there’s no way the film adaptation of The BFG will be better than the book, but it’d be nice to be proved wrong.

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