Why average novels are fodder for good movies but great books fail on screen

Madhavankutty Pillai in Open:

11141.angle-piA novel’s quality often does not matter to its movie adaptation because cinema works at the surface level—there is no sophisticated way to depict thought as thought. You can have a voiceover in the background or enactment of emotion or, like the Bollywood shortcut of the 60s and 70s, a reflection in the mirror telling the character what he is thinking. There is always another agency needed to show thought. And absence of thought makes characters shallow. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the finest actors today and his portrayal of Lincolnis masterful, but it will always be incomplete because the viewer will never know what he is thinking.

A good movie can be made of an ordinary book as long as there are strong plot points or a grand theme or potential for spectacle. In Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s visual grandeur compensates for the book’s clumsiness. Ironically, the reverse is also true—great novels are often not fodder for great cinema. There have been many movie versions ofCrime and Punishment, but who remembers any of them? It is a work that hinges on inner monologue, which cinema cannot depict. Remove that and you have just the skin without the soul.

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