Re-Judging a Book by Its Cinematic Cover

[14 June 2005]

By Jennifer Makowsky

I’ll never forget the first time I stumbled upon Winona Ryder’s wide-eyed stare on the cover of the book Girl, Interrupted.I believe I made a noise akin to howling. Actually, I don’t remember the exact nature of my vocal outburst, but it was loud enough to draw the attention of the person standing behind the information counter at Borders. My instantaneous knee-jerk reaction came about not because I think Ms. Ryder is an untalented pop tart (although I’m sure it didn’t help the matter), but because the powers that be had taken a book I liked and, in my opinion, substantially cheapened it.

The original cover, which had depicted a long, menacing hallway in a psychiatric ward suggested the dark honesty of the book’s content—a firsthand look at a woman’s battle with Borderline Personality Disorder. It hinted at the emotional volatility within the pages. Now, with Ms. Ryder on the cover, the tome suddenly had happy-ending Hollywood written all over it, a facet threatening to overshadow the book’s integrity with tabloid images, popping paparazzi bulbs and speeches from Angelina Jolie as Best Supporting Actress.

Like most bibliophiles, I often cringe when a favorite book is transformed for the big screen. It doesn’t mean I won’t give it a chance though. When I finally did get around to seeing Girl, Interrupted I liked the movie as its own entity. But as a borderline head case myself, I found that it didn’t truly address the specifics of the psychological problem that was at the center of the book. The movie did, however, manage to convey the basics, i.e., the main character’s journey from vulnerability and mental illness to self-awareness and recovery.

Like most movie adaptations, the issues in the film were tied up far too neatly and everything about the character’s struggle was tailor made to maximize box office appeal. When Ms. Ryder gets into a cab for the long ride home, only to realize that she’s talking to the same driver who drove her to the institution in the beginning, I was reminded of the predictable nature of most movies, and the unpredictable nature of the literary form.

Luckily, not all films are as Hollywoodized or misconstrued. Sofia Coppola was able to adapt Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides without taking any of the usual big screen liberties. She stayed so true to the story in fact, that as I watched the movie, I was stunned at how closely the gorgeous cinematography invoked the visuals that had unfolded in my mind’s eye as I read the book initially. Coppola kept the novel’s droll, deadpan humor intact and, like Eugenides, beautifully juxtaposed the notion of suburban America against the bleak reality often found underneath.

Of course not all films are as successful in translating the book. There are some that don’t even try. Take the atrocious reworking of Frances Mayes’ Under a Tuscan Sun. Mayes’ book is a charming poetic tribute to Tuscany that revolves around the author renovating an abandoned Italian villa. Because it’s a travelogue and not much happens in the way of plot, director Audrey Wells decided to transform the book into a contrived chick flick involving love gone sour, an emotional meltdown, an Italian beefcake lover, affectionate gay friends, female bonding, blah, blah, blah. In the meantime, the renovation business is used mostly to stir up laughter from the audience.

The Tuscan Sun translation is an excellent example of the obstacles present in making a film out of a book. It has to appeal to the masses, but also stay loyal to a small, but significant group of readers. Touchstone Pictures learned this recently when it took on the enormous challenge of bringing Douglas Adams’ famous sci-fi parody, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to the silver screen. Unlike Under a Tuscan Sun however, Hitchhiker’s Guide captured the essence of the book so well that it will likely confuse anyone who isn’t on intimate terms with the cult classic.

The movie references a multitude of inside jokes, minor throwaways of Douglas’s design that would have whizzed right by me had I not first read the book. A few of my friends who were unfamiliar with the material left the theater feeling confused and “out of the loop,” actually wondering why some moviegoers were carrying towels. All the insular punch lines and knowing winks lead me to think that, maybe, the movie would have been better off leaving some of them out.

But instead, they tried to cram as many of them in as they could, the result being that part of the audience were left alienated and clueless. But that’s almost beside the point. Like the book, the film is a madcap comic adventure definitely worth seeing. I just hope they decide not to replace the original cover — the image that for decades has come to represent the book in the minds of so many Adams fans (hitchhiker’s thumb and bratty planet waving its tongue in the background) — with some silly scene from the movie.

Finding that the original cover of a book has been changed to depict an actor or an element from the movie it’s been made into is very much like finding Oprah’s stamp of approval plastered across the front. Suddenly it’s been blessed by the entirety of the entertainment industry, which naturally begs the question if the book truly requires their validation. Doesn’t it stand on its own? Can’t it exist without the tie-in and hype?

While it’s frustrating for us literary snobs, I imagine it does wonderful things for sales. When Oprah certifies its contents or Hollywood transcribes its pages into hopefully commercial celluloid, we can hardly blame the authors for letting it happen—especially when you consider the discrepancy between the amount paid to authors for their work and the amount paid to actors for their portrayal of the author’s original vision.

There’s a reason for the term “starving artist” and it certainly doesn’t reference the people on the inside of the Hollywood movie making business. Just try imagining Winona Ryder, seated in front of her aging laptop, punching out text while having nothing but Ramen noodles to eat every night for a week. Doesn’t really translate, does it? And when it comes to show business and its dedication to the written word, very little does.

Jennifer studied Literature and Creative Writing at The University of Arizona where she received her MFA. Her fiction and poetry have appeared online and in print. She has also published articles on various pop-culture-related subjects, including the night she almost died to the music of 38 Special and her unhealthy teenage obsession with Duran Duran.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/makowsky050614/