There are always some concessions when a film is made based on a book rather than an original screenplay. A plot may be reduced to fit a film’s running time or plot altered to “please” an audience. Of course, there are exceptions of great adaptation of books to film: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and the 1946 version of of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. But there are also particularly heinous film versions of classic works of literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was released with Demi Moore as Hester Prynne in 1995, and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome was released with Liam Neeson in the title role in 1993. Both films included scenes that damage the integrity of the original work. Film versions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein starting in 1931 have brainwashed audiences into thinking The Monster cannot speak or has a square, green or bolted head. Other films have captured the spirit of a text, but renamed characters or rearranged events to the point of confusion such as the 1993 version featuring Daniel Day-Lewis in James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of Mohicans. There are students who watch these versions instead of reading, and they usually do poorly on quizzes or tests.
Students will always look for any “easy” way to complete an assignment and watching a film is certainly easy, but they cheat themselves of a wonderful reading experience. For example, there are many excellent versions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. A student can commit to the 5.5 hours of the BBC 1995 mini-series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle or spend two hours watching the more recent 2005 film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.Watching either film however, does not provide an appreciation for Austen’s language, her use of comic understatement. In the text, Elizabeth Bennet is confronted by her distant cousin, a Mr. Collins, who insists on proposing marriage. Despite her initial protestations, he relentlessly presses his case saying, “You may assure yourself that no ungenerous reproach shall ever pass my lips when we are married.” At that moment, Austen slips in the most hilarious one-sentence statement: “It was absolutely necessary to interrupt him now.” How cleverly Austen chose that word absolute: (adj) not mixed or adulterated; pure, complete; outright; (noun) something that is free from any restriction or condition. Elizabeth does interrupts him…with comic genius.
When I want to add a popular contemporary novel, I do consider about how a film adaptation will impact student understanding. Should I invest department funds in this text when there is a well-publicized film available? When I introduced The Road by Cormac MacCarthy, there was no film. Once the film was released in 2009, however, I worried if students would have the same appreciation for the text. Thankfully, they do, thanks to a very bleak film production.
This past year, I accumulated 20 used copies of Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Little Fan for my world literature curriculum. Several girls liked the story of friendship between women who have endured the Chinese custom of foot-binding, and a teachers’ book club also used the texts. The investment was $20-$30 rather than the retail cost $8.91/copy or $178.20 at Amazon. Unfortunately, the movie release is scheduled for this weekend, July 2011. I wonder the impact the film may have on my students. Will they read the book because of the film? Will they read the book despite the film? Will the film matter at all in their understanding?
Currently, classic novels are available as free downloads on the Internet (public domain), and in all likelihood, my department will not be purchasing new copies of the works of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Upton Sinclair, Charlotte Bronte, or Stephen Crane. We will rely on the secondary market to provide copies for students who do not have electronic devices or who prefer reading a paper text. Teachers are painfully aware that there are films based on adaptations on the novels of these authors, but we hope to convince students that the films are no substitute for the original work. The message of the author is best understood in the written word. Absolutely.