‘Did you see the film?’
‘Yes, but it was not as good as the book.’
Is the book as good as the film or vice versa? At the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka, a discussion took place between a film director Lord (David) Puttnam and four authors who have had their books made into films or TV series.
Lord Puttnam: Best known for his film ‘Chariots of Fire’ and many others.
Shrabani Basu whose book and TV documentary ‘Victoria and Abdul’ have been widely admired.
Maylis de Kerangel, a French author of ‘Mend the Living’ about the two sides of a heart transplant, donor and recipient.
Sebastian Faulks, author of Charlotte Grey and Birdsong and other books that have been made into film.
Alexander McCall Smith whose series ‘The No I Ladies Detective Agency’ has a strong following both in text and on TV.
There are two poles to the argument. Take the money on offer and run to the bank or to insist, as author and artist, on full control over the way your work is presented even to the point of halting production if you are dissatisfied with what the director is doing.
Somewhere in between lies the path to success.
Film directors are the guys who arrange the story-line, the camera angles, costume, actions and the creative, artistic part of a film. Producers are the guys who see to the contracts and funding and marketing.
In the beginning, when the film rights are being negotiated, you may have the chance to decide which director to go with. There has to be a chemistry, some mutual respect, some give and take between the two unless the author walks away and leaves it entirely to the director.
Both author and director understand story-telling but from different points of view. The author feels he understands the readers, what they want and expect. He has a clear view of his ‘integrity’ of things that must be included and not altered.
The director, on the other hand, knows that film is a visual medium and the story has to be told within 100 minutes. He knows that the audience will be a different one from the readership and include more young people. Young people go out to the cinema, old folk stay home and read.
Sebastian Faulks had the most liberal view. Let them get on with it, he did not mind that the ending of Charlotte Grey was different in the film. Perhaps he was too busy with his next book to be distracted by the film people.
He told us he thought that the film ’The English Patient’ was better than the book but a combination of Michael Ondaatje, author, and Anthony Minghella, director, was sure to be a success.
Faulks has written a James Bond novel for film. He described the tensions between the Fleming family, Ian Fleming wrote the original books, and the Broccoli family who make the films as like the Montagues and Capulets. He laughed and said that the book which he wrote in six weeks, is unlikely to reach the printing press.
Alexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith, whose No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series has been translated into a TV series, likes to keep an eye on things. The books are not just set in Botswana, they are Botswanan, they follow the culture and mores of the country. Smith has lived there for many years and knows.
If left, the screenplay will become an English detective story set in Africa. Smith insists that his heroine, Precious Ramotswe, be of ample Botswanan proportions. Botswana figures of speech and cadence must be preserved as well as their way of doing things.
Maylis de Kerangal
In her book ‘Mend the Living’ Maylis de Kerangal, a French author, explored the donor of a heart for transplant and the feeling of his family. ‘Take the heart but please not the eyes.’ They asked. In the film the director emphasised more the reaction and feelings of the recipient to her new lease of life than to the donor and his family.
Researching Victoria and Abdul was a long and thorough process. The book, by Shrabani Basu, is a piece of untold history which the author wished to be recorded accurately on film. There was some discussion about whether Abdul had a beard or not. He had a beard in real life, so he must have one in the film insisted the author.
Lord Putnam, David Puttnam, the non-author in the panel has many successful films to his credit, ‘Chariots of Fire’ is well known. He said he did not mind authors contributing to the screenplay but he did not want them on the set. One man, the director must have control of the set and, if there are two or more, interference slows down the filming and flattens the performance of the actors.
In Puttnam’s opinion, the best films develop from ideas translated straight to screenplay without being filtered through a book.
All agreed that the author should write the book they want to write without thinking about possible film rights. Books with bits added, subtracted or modified in order to attract a film director will fail.
The audience had a lively interaction with the discussants and were agreed that the golden thread between author and reader weaves a slightly different pattern in all our imaginations. In film the pattern weaver is the director, and his pattern will not be the same as yours. Sit back and enjoy the difference.
Does the appearance of the film enhance book sales? Yes, all were agreed.
With that, we all shuffled out of the air-conditioned Hall de Galle into the hot, humid, dusty Galle Fort and some of us strolled along the ramparts beside the sparkling ocean to the shade of the Dutch Hospital where ice cool Lion lager is dispensed for a modest fee.