Ever since I first finished reading On The Road almost 10 years ago, I was aware of a dormant IMDb page of the same name, which habitually went from being designated as On The Road (2003) to On The Road (2005) and sometime in the middle to On The Road (20??). The people attached constantly changed: Brad Pitt was involved one year, Hugh Jackman the next, while every auteur director of the moment was attached at some point. Finally, this year, and to little fanfare, On The Road (2012) was released, starring the guy who played Ian Curtis in Control, and directed by Walter Salles, he of The Motorcycle Diaries. Just before watching this movie a few weeks ago, I realised that I didn’t really have any interest in seeing it at all, and had no expectations about it apart from a mild curiosity as to how they would deal with an apparently unfilmable book.
I am a big fan of On The Road, and it is apparent that only big fans of the book will seek out such a low-key cinematic release such as this. The issue here is that movies of books are generally meant to attract the core group of fans that the book already has, while also hopefully attracting new ones. It is unlikely On The Road (2012) will satisfy either of these conditions, as it is a movie basking in the glow of its own source material, and quite inaccessible to the uninitiated. That, and not many fans of the book were interested anyway. Yet still, in newspaper articles written in the build-up to its release, and also the release of any movie version of a popular book, the message was that ‘fans of the book are really excited about finally seeing their beloved characters on screen’. Maybe some fans are really excited about the cinematic release of their beloved book, but really: should they be?
The thing about reading a book is that it requires the conscious help of the reader to build the story and events in his/her own mind. Every individual reader thinks in a different way, and therefore the stories created in each individual readers mind will be different in countless unimaginable ways. The problem about watching the movie of a book is that you are seeing just one version of the story you love so well: the version that the writers and directors agreed on, with input from the actors and set designers, as well as others. Watching a movie is a passive experience, it requires no participation, just for the viewer to sit back and observe. There is literally no chance whatsoever that this movie version of a book you love will end up exactly as it was in your head.
Maybe in your version, a major character was very sympathetic, but this movie version decides she is just a coward after all. There is little you can do but sit back in horror as a fond memory is brutalised before your eyes on screen. Movie adaptations of books nullify all of the countless versions of a story that readers create and love, and instead supplant on-screen just one of these. It is a risky endeavour, as anyone who has read a book and watched the corresponding movie will have ideas about how each scene should be played and how each character should behave. Not many fans of a book will watch its movie and feel satisfied, that is for sure. If done well, however, even loyal fans of a book will appreciate what changes the creative team behind the movie have implemented. This is rare however, as most book-to-film adaptations are crass, simplified restatements of the basic plot rather than bold reinterpretations.
Based on this crass simplification, I would classify book-to-film adaptations into two broad categories: ‘The Safe Bet’ and ‘The Labour Of Love’. The best demonstration of the difference between these two types of adaption came in Winter 2001, when the first part of Peter Jacksons Lord of the Rings Trilogy was released a matter of weeks after the first Harry Potter movie. Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone was fast-tracked through development at Warner Brothers once it became clear that the books were a phenomenon and that each further book would outperform the last. The movie was very well made, stuck very close to the source material and did exactly what everyone wanted it to. Lord of the Rings went through decades of development hell, going from studio to studio, from visionary director to visionary director, and finally when Peter Jackson convinced New Line Cinema that he could create something special whilst also providing a return on their enormous investment, the green light was given.
These two movies were compared a lot back in winter 2001, but really there is not a comparison to be made. Both movies were insanely popular, but anyone who has seen both could tell you which is The Safe Bet and which is the Labour of Love. For a safe bet, Harry Potter was used in order to convey that this categorisation does not immediately have anything to do with the quality of the movie; it just means that its production has more to do with dollar signs in the eyes of studio executives rather than a nuanced interpretation of the actual source material. The movies based on Dan Browns bestsellers were also in this mould, as will be Fifty Shades of Grey when the script is finished tomorrow and is released next week. A safe bet can be good, but the odds for success are stacked against it.
A Labour of Love is different, as usually it is instigated and followed through passionately by a true lover of the source material, or indeed of the potential of this source material. Though the title of this category is a little romantic and idealised, it too also does not have much bearing on the quality of the finished movie. On The Road (2012) is an awful movie, yet it is truly a labour of love. The detail in the movie and the performances are impeccable, yet the creators simply cared too much about the books legacy, and clinged to the source material, which was quite unfilmable. In contrast, another unfilmable labour of love was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which from the very beginning was obviously Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, so fans of the book could just sit back and watch his interpretation. Stanley Kubrick also saw the potential in The Shining and made it his own, and far different from how Stephen King originally imagined it. A labour of love adaptation is motivated primarily by wishing to convey a unique view of the source material to the general public. There is no guarantee that this unique view will be accepted or acceptable, but I think most would agree that this type of adaptation is preferable to the generic cash-in of a Safe Bet.
Every few years articles appear in film sections of newspapers noting the prevalence of book adaptations coming out in cinemas these days, and the journalists then take this to mean that society as a whole is running out of fresh ideas and is doomed merely to rehash the past. I don’t blame movie producers for wanting to churn out as many popular book adaptations as possible, or for not caring about their quality. Film is a tough, expensive business, and filming an adaptation of an extremely popular book mitigates this risk immensely by already guaranteeing that a substantial part of its fans will pay to see the movie, even purely out of curiosity. It’s a safe bet, as in the opening weekend of release production costs may be reclaimed even if it turns out the movie is terrible. If some thought goes into the adaptation, fine, fans of the book get to see one bold reimagining of their beloved book, and can discuss it later with other fans. Rarely however will either of these types of adaptations really satisfy the fans of the book, they merely satisfy the bank balances of movie studios, a deflated publishing industry and sometimes just an egotistical auteur.
The adaptation is rarely for us, so should fans of a book really be as excited as magazine articles always claim they are? It is also rare that an adaptation of a book is as good as its source material, or even watchable in its own right. Most likely it will fall well below the expectations of fans of the book, but these fans should know that already. The movie should be a curiosity, nothing else. If it is good, then fine, but otherwise, don’t expect much. We shouldn’t have to rely on Hollywood to show us the correct version of the amazing story we have already played out in our own heads.