This week’s question comes from reader Joe DeCarolis:
Have any adaptations significantly altered your opinion of the source material?
Madeleine Peyroux’s 2004 album Careless Love was one of my favorite records of that year, her almost supernaturally good voice turning a collection of covers into wholly different beasts than their original forms. In particular, her version of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” has always caused me to freeze whatever I’m doing and listen. (I distinctly recall pulling over to the side of the road in Minneapolis one day, worried I was going to burst into tears and subsequently plunge into oncoming traffic, just because the song came on the radio.) It made me revisit Dylan’s song, one that had been among my least favorite tunes from Blood On The Tracks, and appreciate its profound emotional depth with fresh ears. I love covers that revitalize the source material by revealing musical elements previously unnoticed, and Peyroux’s jazzy arrangements are a note-perfect example. Thanks, Madeleine.
When I revisited Chris and Paul Weitz’s screen version of About A Boy for a Hear This piece this past December, it had been several years since I’d seen the film—and even longer since I’d read the novel by Nick Hornby. Fresher in my mind were the first few episodes of NBC’s short-lived take on the material, an Americanized spin that glances off the surface of Hornby’s book and distills the major events of the movie into its pilot episode. In doing so, the sitcom sacrifices the device that made its inspirations novel: The dueling first-person perspectives of laddish bachelor Will Freeman and the precocious schoolyard outcast he unwittingly takes under his wing, Marcus Brewer. The twin POVs give the book an intriguing edge of unreliable narration, while their cinematic counterparts actually manage to add to (rather than detract from) the onscreen action. Closing the window to Will and Marcus’ minds makes the first two About A Boys look all the more impressive for what they do and don’t let through that window.
This might be a little backward, since I experienced the adaptation before I dipped into its source, but my understanding of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was fundamentally shifted by the Wachowskis’ (and Tom Tykwer’s) 2012 film version of his era-spanning epic. Because Mitchell’s book—rich though it is with interconnection and intriguing self-reference—just can’t stand up to the effect that the Wachowskis and Tykwer create by gleefully skipping between the book’s disparate settings. Cloud Atlas the novel is aggressively married to its nesting form, as it has to be; jumping from a sailing ship in 1850 to a futuristic Korea to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii and back again, paragraph by paragraph, would be too jarring without all the film editor’s tricks that make the film version just barely (and brilliantly) coherent. But the contrast between the two makes the book version ultimately feel like more of a writer’s exercise than an intertwined story, a slightly disappointing conclusion I don’t know that I’d have come to without the film’s more free-form example to set me straight.
When I listened to the 2009 album God Help The Girl, which was billed as Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch’s first solo album, despite the fact that female singers sing almost all of the songs, it left me a little cold. Like everything Murdoch has done, it was lovely and literate and bittersweet and melancholy, but the songs didn’t really grab me. Then I saw the motion picture God Help The Girl, which was based on the songs and story contained within the earlier project at Sundance a few years back, and absolutely loved it. Suddenly, these songs all made sense to me. The movie gave them a new emotional resonance. They weren’t just a disconnected series of songs; they helped tell a narrative that I found enormously touching and poignant. I got it, and if weren’t for the movie I probably would have gone on being half-hearted in my embrace of what I now see as one of the major triumphs of Murdoch’s career.
First of all, the fact that it’s Nathan and not me using The A.V. Club to sing the praises of God Help The Girl makes me think my answer should somehow involve Insane Clown Posse. I can’t manage that, but I’ll mention something outside of the book-to-film world that I’m familiar with (and try to keep separate as much as possible). To the extent that the Fargo TV series counts as an adaptation—and I think it does, given the types of stories it tells and frequent homages to the world of the Coen brothers—it’s renewed and intensified my love of the original film. I already thought Fargo was a great movie, and I don’t hate the show; it’s certainly one of the most beautifully stylish things on TV. But seeing Noah Hawley twice take 10 hours to tell a story similar to the Coens’ 98-minute version, augmented with more ins, outs, and what-have-yous (and by “what-have-yous” I mean “unnecessary pauses”) has made me more inclined to call the original a straight-up masterpiece.
When I first read Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting, it was a revelation. He manages to make a loosely connected group of vignettes feel like a cohesive look at Edinburgh’s drug culture, writing in natural-sounding (if sometimes impenetrable) vernacular that makes you feel like you’re looking at real life. Then I saw the film version. Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge do everything readers hate when their favorite books make it to the screen—they cut out storylines, they eliminated supporting characters, they combined multiple characters into one pastiche—and in every instance, their drastic change was an improvement. By streamlining the cast of characters, and sticking to the stories tied to Marc Renton, who’s a recurring figure in the book, but absent from large stretches of it, Boyle and Hodge make a terrific case for narrative economy, as from the thundering beat of “Lust For Life” that opens the film, to the nerve-racking closing, they turn what was a meandering series of snapshots into a clear, propulsive narrative. Boyle’s movie remains one of my favorites, and while I still like Welsh’s novel, it now seems scattered and self-indulgent by comparison.