Books Into Film: Comparatively Speaking

Pride & Prejudice: 2005 film (behind) and 1995 BBC series (top)

Sitting on my deck sipping cocktails with a friend on a fine summer evening several years ago, we struck up a conversation about the art of turning a book into a film. Of course, comparisons always occur. Speaking anecdotally, I find that people who have read the book before seeing the movie tend to like the book better and those who read the book afterwards enjoy the film more.

My friend, a book seller whom I tend to listen to when discussing books, made an excellent point. He said, “Well, one really can’t compare the two since they are two completely different mediums.” A fine point, indeed.

Our conversation then veered to the differences between the two and how liberties must be taken in many instances to present the concepts visually. Many times, the stories must be told differently. The length required in a typical movie, of course, plays a huge role, with decisions needing to be made regarding which scenes can be cut without destroying the story line and its flow. Costuming is another factor; sometimes maintaining historical accuracy is left behind in an effort to design clothing for visual appeal.

Following our conversation, I decided to watch some—apparently at least nine—of the many versions of Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice. Of course, I had read the book, written in 1813, eons ago and had already seen a number of the movies, including the 1940 film with Greer Garson (Elizabeth) and Laurence Olivier (Mr Darcy). In addition to the novel, the screenplay for this version was adapted from a stage adaptation. It follows the plot, while veering into different scenarios and scenes, such as the garden party thrown by Mr Bingley at Netherfield Park. A good effort, but with many nuances missing. At the time, The New York Times film critic praised the film as “the most deliciously pert comedy … the most crisp and crackling satire … [we] can remember ever having seen on the screen.” I’m not sure I would categorize Jane Austen’s efforts as a comedy.

And so, I decided to watch the 1995 BBC adaptation, a six-episode series spanning more than five hours. Given its length, this version was able to effectively convey the historical accuracy in-depth. Colin Firth performs admirably as Mr Darcy, and Jennifer Ehle recreates Elizabeth Bennet, the story’s protagonist, exceedingly well. It helped that this adaptation allowed for much more time for Lizzie’s character to grow and evolve.

I followed this with the 2005 film starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth, and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr Darcy. I found this film to be exceptional in its storytelling. While Knightley’s rendition lacked the depth of character, presumably because of the shortened timeframe, which required her character to move through her feelings much more quickly, I found her portrayal of Lizzie energizing.

After watching these films, I decided to read the book once more with the movie plot lines in mind. The BBC series followed the novel religiously, and in spite of its shortened length, the 2005 version was also true to the book. Due to the need to move much more quickly through each “episode” however, the 2005 version lost some of the subtlety that may have been necessary for those unfamiliar with the book.

On the flip side of this “argument,” the 1992 film, The Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day-Lewis, followed by a reading of the James Fenimore Cooper novel, will leave you wondering.

This epic film was based on Cooper’s 1826 novel, but derived much from the 1936 film adaptation with which it has more in common. In fact, there are quite a number of differences between both films and the novel. One of the main differences is who lives and who dies, and who was cut completely out of the mix.
Cooper’s novel is difficult to read due to his rather odd writing style and his verbose descriptions. Nevertheless, The Last of the Mohicans, is considered to be Cooper’s masterpiece.

The film, on the other hand, was a commercial success and won the Academy Award for Best Sound and a number of wins and nominations in the Best Actor category for its star, Day-Lewis.

Filmed on location in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Asheville’s own Biltmore Estate, the film also received accolades for its cinematography.

This final film defines perfectly well how you can have two separate mediums with the same name enjoying critical acclaim, yet, can one really compare the two?

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