Book to film can be a real horror story

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Special to The Times

“Blindness,” Nobel Prize-winner Jose Saramago’s 1997 allegorical novel about an epidemic of sightlessness that threatens to destroy society, is told in a stream-of-consciousness style that reads like a fever dream. Not exactly “Harry Potter,” straight-to-the-big-screen material.

Yet, Don McKellar saw in it a screenplay and Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”) saw in that screenplay a film he could direct. And the fact that “Blindness” is now multiplex fodder, with the film opening Friday, is a testament to the willingness of moviemakers to tackle -- sometimes against great odds -- some of the toughest literary works.

“The more successful the work of art is in the medium for which it was originally created, the more it’s going to resist a translation into another medium,” says writer-director Nicholas Meyer, whose adaptation of the Philip Roth novel “The Dying Animal” was recently filmed as the Ben Kingsley movie “Elegy.”


“The better the book, the harder it’s going to be to find a cinematic equivalent and the more important it is that you should” be able to make an equivalent, Meyer says. “If you try ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ ” he says in a reference to a less-than-stellar 1958 film adaptation, “and you don’t bring it off, you have to go to movie jail.”

In other words, conventional wisdom is that pop novels make better movies because, says Joe Penhall, who wrote the screenplay for a film version of Cormac McCarthy’s bestseller “The Road,” slated for a Nov. 14 release, “pot-boilers motor on plot and story, and film loves plot and story.”

In a pop novel, “the emphasis is on narrative,” Meyer adds, “and if something is pure narrative, it may be a movie traveling under another name. What you are looking for in a book is how to find not the movie but a movie that could be extracted from the book in question. If it is narrative, that’s easier than if the novel has complex thematic or linguistic elements to it.”

Take “The Godfather”: pop-junk novel, masterful, epic movie. Or “Gone With the Wind”: not exactly a literary classic but a bang-up film. And all those detective novels like “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep.” This doesn’t mean there haven’t been successful literary adaptations -- “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Oliver Twist” and “Sense and Sensibility” are prime examples -- it’s just that cinema history is littered with failed attempts to adapt great works. Like the overblown 1965 film version of “Lord Jim,” with Peter O’Toole; the bears-almost-no-relation-to-the-source-material 2002 remake of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” with Guy Pearce; or 2007’s gorgeously produced but leaden film version of “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

For Meirelles, it’s as simple -- or as complicated -- as keeping the spirit of the film intact. “The plot can be changed, but the spirit, the film and the book have to point in the same direction, and sometimes to achieve that, you have to change a lot,” he says.

“If it’s a good book, it’s good because it’s literary and has satisfied literary conventions,” screenwriter McKellar says. “A good movie satisfies movie conventions, and transferring to another media is difficult.”


Still, McKellar says adapting “Blindness” was not as difficult as it might seem. “It’s not as hard as some books,” he says. “There’s not a lot of internal dialogue, and it’s very action-driven, chronological. The problem is more the content and the tone -- it’s very dark at times.”

That darkness also overwhelms “The Road,” the story of a father and son navigating their way through a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape caused by an unknown disaster. The novel is more stripped down than “Blindness,” filled with dialogue and spare but evocative description.

“I thought [the book] had film written all over it,” Penhall says. “It has great set pieces, great atmosphere and settings, heart-wrenching emotion, sci-fi, horror -- several genres all going at once but elevated to a very sophisticated level.”

An important step

Every screenwriter is different, but both Penhall and McKellar say that part of their process is to read the book several times -- Penhall read “The Road” on six occasions -- then put it down, think about it, maybe outline it and try to figure out what stays in a film version and what gets cut out.

“You have to do a disciplined mind trick, where you don’t think about the movie” while reading the book, Meyer says. “Then you think, ‘What do I think about this? What is preservable? What is possible to translate?’ ”

In the case of “Blindness,” McKellar says, “the author’s voice has a specific tone, almost irony, humor. That allows you to endure the difficult things in the book because it’s very dark at times and I had to find a cinematic equivalent for the author’s voice.”


At first, Meirelles hoped that equivalent would be narration throughout the film, but he soon believed that approach was too limiting to the book’s many layers. “The voice-over has been a big issue for us; Don McKellar didn’t like it, I insisted, but when I watched the film in Cannes, I felt it was guiding the audience, and the story is so open -- you can see it from so many points of view,” he says. “It was reducing it to one point of view. The film feels like a dream, maybe a nightmare, you just have to be there and experience, and if you guide too much, you have a different way of seeing it.”

So it all comes down to the approach for translating it to the new medium.

“You need to know how the novel works,” Penhall says, “really study its entrails, then crack the code of how to transform it from one art form to another -- while keeping it relatively intact.”

He and McKellar believe that is exactly what they’ve been able to do. The film version of “Blindness” follows the book’s plot rather closely, and McKellar feels the strength of the screenplay is the book’s theme -- how humans, individually and collectively, face the most adverse conditions -- which, he says, “I could always fall back on as well as the central character [a sighted woman played by Julianne Moore] and the premise.”

Penhall, while noting that “The Road” is “very cerebral, which is harder to do than a simple narrative,” also feels he maintained the author’s vision. “People thought it would be tough to do because they assumed you’d have to change it radically,” he says. “The toughest part was believing that people really wanted something faithful to Cormac’s voice and vision without the usual -- ‘opening it out.’ Once they convinced me, the rest was easy.”

Whether these adaptations really do work is, of course, for critics and audiences to decide. But one thing is for certain: No matter the future for “Blindness” and “The Road,” Hollywood will continue to seek out difficult works to adapt.

But with so many failures along the way, you sometimes have to wonder why.

“Because it’s there,” Meyer says. “There is a popular notion that you can make anything into a movie. And it just isn’t true. People lose millions because they don’t understand that.”