What does it mean for a book-to-film adaptation to be faithful?

The Book Thief film still
Category: Reading
Tagged: adaptations, film

The number of book adaptations hitting cinemas seems to increase every year. In the coming months we have movie versions of Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, Half of a Yellow Sun, Before I Go To Sleep and Gone Girl to look forward to in varying degrees, as well as further instalments of The Hunger Games and The Hobbit as the year comes to an end.

For readers coming to these films, the biggest questions are often around how the film will compare to the book, and issues of perceived ‘faithfulness’ to the source material. Three current cinema releases offer very different approaches to the challenge of adaptation, and, in my opinion, give the lie to the notion that literal ‘faithfulness’ is always best.

The ambitiously faithful approach: A Long Way Down

This one’s not actually released until next Friday, but having seen it at Glasgow Film Festival I can confidently state that writer Jack Thorne and director Pascal Chaumeil bit off more than they could chew in trying to stay faithful to Nick Hornby’s novel. The stories of the four main characters, who form an odd bond when they all end up at the same notorious suicide spot one New Year’s Eve, feel rushed and underwritten, condensed as they are into a 90 minute framework. It is a book that either deserved a longer TV-series style treatment, or a more decisive approach to tell the story through one or two of the key characters, in a way that could really dig in to Hornby’s sensitive handling of the tricky tone and subject matter.

The nowhere-near-ambitious-enough approach: The Book Thief

Markus Zusak’s strikingly original novel offered a great opportunity for a filmmaker to approach a familiar setting - Nazi Germany – in a totally fresh and almost shockingly playful way. His book’s narrator is Death, who has none of the sentimental values of Hollywood, but is fascinated by the details and quirks of a human race he can never quite understand. But in the hands of Downton Abbey director Brian Percival this film (pictured) ended up jettisoning every interesting element of the book and turning it into a blandly predictable, polished tearjerker that offers precious little to surprise, delight or truly move an audience. Zusak’s book was certainly not an easy prospect to transfer to screen, but when the end result is so compromised and conventional, why even bother?

The faithfully unfaithful approach: Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer’s long-gestating adaptation of Michel Faber’s cult novel has surprised some fans of the book due to how little of Faber’s plot and larger concepts have actually made it into the film. Rather, this film essentially takes the barest bones of Faber’s startling scenario – an alien female hunting men in Scotland – and concentrates on the creation of a particular mood. But it ultimately creates a similar effect to the book (Glazer offers visuals and feelings that creep defiantly under your skin), albeit in a very different way. This is a kind of faithfulness, but not a literal one, and I think it’s the approach that has produced the most interesting and valuable film out of the three here.

Do you prefer filmmakers to stick literally to the source material in adaptation, or is faithfulness about more than just making the plot the same? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Listen to our discussion of Michel Faber's Under the Skin in Book Talk: 

Subscribe to our monthly e-updates for book lovers