To Read Or To Watch: 5 Classic Novels And Their Movie Adaptations

Posted on August 11, 2014 in Books, Lists, Media

By Shivani Makkar:

“The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books.”

These words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow perfectly capture the magic that can be found within the pages of a good book. Solitude can never be more fulfilling than with a novel in one’s hand. It is essentially the art of storytelling that captures as well as manifests the human need to connect with another, to create, if only through imagination.

The practice of making movies based on novels, especially the classic ones, allows such stories to reach a wider audience. But I believe it loses something in the process. We are no longer the creators; we are simply viewers. A door of this colour, a house of that size, the face that (oh hell!) is nothing like the character you imagined in your head. It defines. But the books are endless. An escape in so many ways from having everything decided for us.

Despite this apparent bias that I hold in favour of the written word, I attempt here, to review some classic novels and their movie adaptations, with an objective eye.

1. Wuthering Heights
“He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”

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Redefining love; this classic is a radical break from the mainstream perception about relationships. The pages leave one shaken, for it is a lesson that nothing, not even ‘love’, can be romanticised. It is a good question to ask whether the book is a love story or a hate story, for the deep evil that defines Heathcliff, or the streak of meanness that is there in the Earnshaw siblings, makes it hard for the reader to sympathise with the characters. But this is the genius of Emily Bronte. Her characters might not be gentle, kind people, who want to do good for the world, but that in no way means that they cannot love with a passion that proves self-destructive for both Heathcliff and Catherine. In fact, the only self-redeeming quality that they have is their love for each other. Heathcliff especially, is both inhuman and deeply sensitive at the same time. The novel, throughout, has a dark undertone, symbolised by the wild moors, the near perpetual stormy weather, and the even darker temperaments of the people inhabiting the Heights.

The movie adaptation of 1992 leaves a lot to be desired. The revengeful love between the main characters, and the self-consuming nature of their passion does not come through strong enough, and one is disappointed at how hollow the most desperate love story of all times seems. Even dialogue delivery lacks the intensity that it requires. Juliette Binoche could have done better justice to the mischievous, rebellious character of Catherine, and seems too mature for her age. One of the many disappointing scenes where this comes across is at the return of Heathcliff, where all the reactions of the people in the scene seem to have been turned off. The movie in no way compares with the depth of the novel that will remain a must read for all book lovers to come.

2. 1984
“We shall meet in a place where there is no darkness.”

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George Orwell’s work almost seemed like a futuristic warning for the nations of the world. It narrates the horrors of a totalitarian state in a raw, brutal way, through the narration of Winston Smith, who unwillingly notices the mindless, sheep-like behaviour of the people around him, brainwashed into believing that the government, or the ever-elusive “Big Brother”, is their saviour, from the life of starvation, pain and death. The book very delicately delves into the human mind, the intricacies of human nature, and how propaganda makes us into willing puppets for an external authority. From ‘INGSOC’ to ‘newspeak’, to ‘thought crime’, Orwell’s best makes one wonder about the manipulation of the mind that society is going through, and to what extent can we defy our basic instincts at the command of an external authority.

Michael Radford’s visualization of the classic novel nicely complements Orwell’s written word, but the imagination does not extend as far as the book requires. Scenes such as the interactions between Winston and Julia do not hold the deep sense of rebellion and amazement that comes across while reading the book. Even the horrors of the torture chamber don’t seem vivid enough to leave one with a sense of revulsion. However, the bleak condition of the houses, the sallow skin and skeletal look of Smith, played by John Hurt, and the act of writing in his diary, overall give a good picture of Orwell’s imagined, or rather predicted, world.

3. Of Mice and Men
“I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.”

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This is a novel that most beautifully touches upon the complexities of friendship, responsibility, power and love. The short text encompasses the larger than life characters of George and Lennie, who are as different as one could imagine, yet the bond of friendship holds them together, and Steinbeck’s characters have immortalised themselves in history for the way they give a new meaning to human relationships. The contrast between the two, one physically powerful, and the other mentally so, hovers throughout. What one takes away from it is the simplicity of Lennie, his devotion to George, the passion for their farm, and how in the final scene, even the act of pulling a gun on Lennie seems like a generosity on George’s part.

The movie adaptation of John Steinbeck’s work is a masterpiece. It brings out the exact themes that the book addresses, and in just as much depth. The applause worthy portrayal of the two main characters, and even Curly, brings the story to life in a genuine, delicate way. The reluctant, but fatherly attitude of George, perfectly captured by Gary Sinise, easily makes one feel like they are standing in his shoes. But the show stealer is no doubt John Malkovich who plays Lennie. Starting from the scene of being caught carrying a dead rat in his pocket, he just raises the bar for affection. Truly the work of a genius.

4. Anna Karenina
“Whatever our fate is or may be, we have made it and do not complain of it.”

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The size of the book scared off many; Tolstoy made the rest fall in love with literature. Yes it is a huge saga, with several characters playing out their acts across the city and, with a lot more affection, the countryside. It is a look into the 19th century Russian society, sewing a tragedy around the rebellious and fiercely independent, Anna Karenina, who is to become an outcast for falling in love with an officer outside her passionless marriage. The sensitive take on issues of infidelity, women’s position in the society, gender stereotypes, love and betrayal, and societal acceptance, could not have been done better by anyone other than the great Russian writer who was a big influence on Gandhi as well.

The screenplay is a unique representation where instead of real locations, the scenes are played out on the sets of a stage, which smoothly fold from one to the next. If one can overlook the distraction of such a direction, the movie does not fair badly next to the book. The lack of a narrator in the novel, works well for the movie, which allows a glimpse into the psyche of every character. Keira Knightly dons the skin of Anna with a panache that is refreshing, and the tumultuous love, her struggle with her conscience, and ultimately her break down, come across beautifully. There is no doubt that a large work such as this one loses out a lot when confined to a few hours of screen time; however, the tale unfolds with flair, and one is hooked from the beginning.

5. Pride and Prejudice
“I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.”

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Deemed as one of the finest romances of all times, it is easy to appreciate the uniqueness of the novel from the very first sentence. Jane Austen attempts to take an almost satirical view of the mannerisms of 19th century England, intelligently questions the women’s socialization that only ever expects them to be silly, to find rich husbands, and to produce babies. Elizabeth Bennet, in this sense, proves to be a feminist icon to this day. The novel primarily is the hate-turned-love story between Mr. Darcy, a man too proud, and Ms. Bennet, who is too prejudiced. Her family is a collage of extreme personalities, and one of the most endearing relationships that come across is between Elizabeth and her father. Through the various balls, corseted ladies, and officers from the regiments, the pages of the book subtly question it all and teaches one to look beyond the image.

The 2005 movie adaptation was a good effort at transporting the viewer to a different era, and the lead actors fell into the role effortlessly. However, the 1995 BBC series, despite moving at a glacial pace, does it better justice. Colin Firth is Darcy reincarnate, and the series treats the story with rather mature, calmer eyes that seems lacking in the movie version. Nevertheless, it is a sheer pleasure to see Austen’s characters come to life.

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