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Monday, August 13, 2007

I Liked the Book Better...

Nothing sends dread and foreboding into the heart of a book lover quite like the news that a favorite story has been optioned for a film version. Often, it's a good news/bad news situation: it's exciting to imagine what wonders Hollywood, London, or even Bollywood, might conjure up from the novel of your dreams. There's also the possibility the story will be injured beyond recognition, a trail of destruction one can trace in the press releases and previews.

In the last five years, my two favorite contemporary novels both received this honor/indignity (all depends on how you look at it). In 2002, a movie version of A.S. Byatt's lusciously poetic novel Possession: A Romance was released. I scoured the entertainment news for clues on how the production might develop. Good news: the dashing Jeremy Northam, so charming as Mr. Knightley in the 1996 adaption of Austen's Emma, signed on for the key role of Victorian poet Randolph Ash. Iffy news: Gwyneth Paltrow, perfectly delightful in that same version of Emma, given the role of Maud Bailey in Possession - a worrisome choice. Big, bad news: the character of Roland Michell, so utterly rumpled, tea-stained and British in the book, was being rewritten as an American - WHY?? And, perhaps because of Paltrow's star power, the character of Christabel LaMotte, delicately blonde in the novel, became a robust red-head for the film.

Sigh. Still, I saw the movie on the day it was released, which is really saying something as I only see a handful of flicks every year. And you know what? I rather liked it. Even loved a few moments. But I can't help but wonder - why mess around with an award-winning best seller? Why the unnecessary tweaking and twisting?

Things were even dicier for my other favorite modern novel, Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. I felt very unwell when the first press releases named Steven Spielberg as a director - nothing against Mr. Spielberg, but I feared the "Hollywoodization" of this jewel-like story. I feared Gwyneth Paltrow being cast as a Japanese geisha! Spielberg, I believe, eventually became one of Geisha's producers, but direction fell to Rob Marshall, who certainly worked magic with his adaption of the musical Chicago. Sadly, Memoirs of a Geisha had all the visual impact and beauty of Chicago, but none of the guts or heart. It, too, was worth seeing, for the costumes, make-up, the glimpse of Japan's almost-extinct "floating world." Personally, I felt that a Western director, creating art for a Western audience, didn't "get" it. So instead of being faithful to the Japanese culture and traditions so meticulously portrayed in the book, the story became a typically Hollywood "poor girl makes good and gets her man" romance.

Have you ever been disappointed when the film industry got a hold of your favorite work of fiction? What happened? Gripe about it here and get it out of your system - you'll feel better.

Curious about the works mentioned above? Check them out at the Des Plaines Public Library:

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt
Possession the film directed by Neil LaBute
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Memoirs of a Geisha directed by Rob Marshall
Chicago directed by Rob Marshall

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