The Film of the Book: Two critics take a look at screen adaptations of best sellers from the UK

«The history of screen adaptations is as old and checkered as cinema itself,» commented Xan Brooks during a discussion on «The Film of the Book» hosted by the British Council on Tuesday evening at the Stoa tou Vivliou. Brooks looked at recent film adaptations of British books in general, while Ninos Fenek Mikelidis, film critic at the Eleftherotypia daily and organizer of the Panorama Film Festival, contrasted screen adaptations of books by British writer Graham Greene. Writers virtually disappear from films they’ve sold to Hollywood, Brooks explained. Often, he says, the signature on their contract was the last piece of writing authors did after arriving in Hollywood. Yet cinema, with its «sleazy, slapstick beginnings, has an ongoing cultural cringe towards literature, and also a hunger for money.» Until recently, he said, filmmakers in the United States drew mainly on their own literature, making film noir movies, out of the hard-boiled fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett for example, but in the last five years, Hollywood has starting making films from a certain type of British best seller that seems to guarantee box-office success. Typically, he says, these books are «user-friendly, plot-led, character-driven, middlebrow fiction with zippy characters.» One key to their suitability for adaptation, Brooks suggests, is that «a lot of them are written by journalists or people who started out as journalists. They may have more insight into the marketplace, and they have all grown up in a film culture.» One trend which Brooks predicts will grow is the film being made from a book that hasn’t even been published yet. He cited the example of Working Title, a company with close ties to Miramax, «which is making a film of Mil Millington’s ‘Things my Girlfriend and I Argued,’ originally a column in The Observer. Working Title asked the writer to do a book, which is not finished yet, but the film is being fast-tracked.» Though Hollywood sees such adaptations as risk-minimizers bringing their own guaranteed audience, some have flopped: «Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,» «Possession,» «Charlotte Gray,» and «Killing Me Softly» are some of the more blatant examples. The formula isn’t necessarily foolproof, warned Brooks. But British books are still «the crude oil of Hollywood,» he said, citing the hugely successful screen adaptations of fantasy fiction such as the «Harry Potter» series and the «Lord of the Rings» trilogy, which have set off a new trend as film companies buy up rights to fantasy fiction. Should screenplays be faithful to the original book? «Not necessarily,» believes Mikelidis. «A script must take into account the fact that film is a visual medium,» he said. «The story is important, but it’s secondary.» Some screen versions of Graham Greene’s novels are significantly different from the books, but none the less good for that, in his view. Columbia re-edited the first film version of «The End of the Affair,» removing the flashbacks and putting it into chronological order, for instance. Greene wasn’t best pleased, but the author wrote screenplays himself, perhaps the best known of which is «The Third Man,» and had no illusions about how little relation the finished film might bear to an original script. But Greene did understand the different demands of the medium and the process by which dialogue had to be pared down and changed, says Mikelidis.