Nobody does it Better: Book vs Film – Fight! Panel at the MCM London Comic Con 2019 – with Tasha Suri, Claire North, RJ Barker, Jen Williams and Adrian Tchaikovsky!

 

Okay, so you invite a panel of authors to discuss this modern age-old question – we could probably guess their answer right? In what fantastical reality are some of the top talents of the speculative-fantasy genre going to place the televisual medium over their own?

We’re back at the MCM Comic Con with SFF authors Tasha Suri and RJ Barker (earlier in the Representation in Fantasy Panel – perhaps Zen Cho is in the audience?) now joined by Claire North, Jen Williams and Adrian Tchaikovsky, with Tasha having her first go at moderating. There’s a levity amongst the panel: this is going to be fun…

So, not that Tasha wants things to be too controversial (no spoilers!) but Game of Thrones the TV series – was it any good?

Well the panel are sticking to the books vs film debate with Adrian Tchaikovsky immediately declaring that he’s chickening out on that score: ‘obviously the books aren’t finished’. Jen thought it was interesting, RJ confides that both the books and the TV series are to gory and sad for his tastes while Claire couldn’t give a monkeys for either.

*
How do you define good, she questions of adaptations more generally: Is that getting on with it and cutting out Tom Bombadil? Faithful like Harry Potter? Or is it making the best use of the film medium? And that’s really what we’re going to be talking here: how each medium best tells a story.

Adrian picks up on this noting how you can get away with sprawling casts on the page, whereas on the screen… There are things that need to be cut to make the film medium work, our moderator affirms, then asks what the panel thinks is a good adaptation. For RJ it’s definitely just Watership Down: it took and simplified the book but kept the themes and doesn’t dumb things down (as far as he’s concerned the BBC version never got made). The Princess Bride, the panel rightly agrees, is an excellent adaptation – but then William Goldman did adapt the script from his own book.

Jen Williams points out how nearly every Stephen King book has been adapted, the Shining twice as a film that everyone loves except, famously, King himself and a faithful TV series that just didn’t work.

*
Claire notes that film studios are snapping up books but that time is less kind to film than books, the visual aspect of the former leaving them prone to becoming dated. Adrian raises an interesting point of balance: the immediacy of fight scenes in TV and film can’t be recreated on the page as capturing the full action would be ‘dismally dull’, though the written word can capture what the characters involved are feeling.

Tasha has the next question lined up: How would you feel if someone wanted to change a lot about your book as a film?

‘I feel like if I was given enough money,’ says Claire, ‘that would make me let go.’ Money does help. Adrian sounds largely of the same mind: ‘They are paying for it… It might hurt but you could fall asleep on a huge pile of cash’. Jen would be okay with big changes, naturally so long as they didn’t involve making diverse characters white or straight. Adrian, on a related point and responding to a question on what shouldn’t be adapted, notes how something like Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice would be problematic as the society in it is non-gendered and runs the risk of becoming just another space opera.

But how would they like to see their work adapted? Jen would like to see the Studio Ghibli version of The Winnowing Flame. Adrian Tchaikovsky would like to see Dogs of War directed by Denis Villeneuve, RJ would pick The Name of the Rose director Jean-Jacques Annaud, while Claire wants Danny Boyle because she just wants more Danny Boyle in her life. Tasha would rather give the opportunity to an unknown and see if they did a good job.

*
Talking about the virtues of books Tasha highlights the ‘intimacy of the book’, how the reader can pause in the moment, skip back, reread… ‘The book is more yours than anyone else’s… if that makes any kind of sense’. It does. It was something Leah Moore had talked about in a London Book Fair panel on digital comics, comparing how the traditional comic gives the reader immediate control where with a film – especially at the cinema – viewers are more of a passenger. As a balancing point Claire raises how an edge that film has is its faculty to infuse emotive meaning through acting.

Jen turns the conversation to audiobooks, and how a narrator will phone to get clarification on something while working on the adaptation. It’s a smart point: audiobooks are essentially the mid-point between book and film. Claire relates how she likes to mess with people (generally) and narrators (specifically) by going out of the way to script tongue-twisters in increasingly difficult accents.

I think it’s Claire who also raises how Michael Ondaatje was asked if they minded what was done to The English Patient in the film, to which he replied ‘the book’s still there’. ‘It’s probably the sanest answer an author has given,’ she goes on. It sounds like she means ‘on anything’. Quite possibly she’s right.

*
Back to less appreciated adaptations – and Narnia was mentioned in MCM’s panel description – RJ particularly disliked the film of Prince Caspian, especially because of Eddie Izzard’s voicing of Reepicheep the mouse. Unfortunately, as Adrian Tchaikovsky puts it, ‘All your mouse are belong to him’. Meanwhile Adrian does approve of the changes to the end of Watchmen (I’m largely of the same mind). Claire wishes Mike Carey was present: he would indeed have a unique take, having written the novel and film script of The Girl with All the Gifts simultaneously which, he’d told her, improved the book, encouraging him to streamline it.

Of course perspective is influenced by whether someone reads the book or sees the film first. RJ has already noted the ‘weird backwards pollution from film’. If you’ve read the book first you’ll have your own images of the characters; if you read the book after you’ll be working with the director’s vision.

Tasha says she appreciated the film of Stardust, thinking it presented romance and family well, but then was disappointed by the lack of this in the book. On the other hand, and returning to Claire’s opening comments on de-Bombadiling Lord of the Rings, RJ says he lost patience with the books and now won’t read them but did watch the films.

It reminds me of watching the BBC’s excellent adaptation of The Box of Delights (actually published a year after Tom Bombadil’s solo debut) and getting round to reading it many years later and finding myself doubting it would be accepted for print in the present day. Not that Tolkien entirely got his way – I believe his intention was for Lord of the Rings to be five books – but perhaps these were times of greater authorial control. Modern film adaptations have the opportunity to improve on the original in ways that readers would and do approve.

*
Claire, partly in relation to her earlier observation on how film in the long term suffers from dating, notes how books, being the originating medium, become differently culturally relevant as time goes on: any in the future might receive a further adaptation.

 

In summary authors can hope an adaptation tells their story – literally or thematically – using the strengths of the film medium, capturing action and emotion with the immediacy a book can’t; but can take comfort either way in a not-insignificant wad of cash and additional book sales, as well as knowing the book is still there inviolate for future readers and adaptations.

Fans, now and future, can hope for much of the same, as well as the possibility in an otherwise treasured work that where an author may have dropped a ‘Bombadil’ of style or character, they can look forward to a few hours where, if even in a small way, film does it better.

Otherwise the book wins, every time. 😉

 

Tim Bayley

 

*****

 

Check out more Panel coverage on Carabas here!