Readersforum's Blog

October 27, 2011

Lionel Shriver: The dangers of film adaptations

Director Lynne Ramsay (left) with the actors Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller at the Cannes screening of We Need to Talk About Kevin. Photograph: Ian Langsdon/EPA

Awful film adaptations follow authors for the rest of their lives but Lynne Ramsay’s version of my book We Need To Talk About Kevin is terrific.

In grad school, I took a workshop with Scott Spencer, whose excellent novel Endless Love had just been turned into a film. We students were in awe of his prestige. Yet Scott himself was chagrined; for good reason, he hated the movie. Fair enough, with its proceeds he’d been able to buy a ranch in upper New York State. But I wonder if it was worth it. Though a fine writer, Scott Spencer will forever be associated with a cheesy, sentimental film starring the vapid box-office draw Brooke Shields.

So, back in April, I approached my first screening of Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin with trepidation. My agent had warned that, while a fine film would do my profile a world of good, a bad one wouldn’t help me at all, and I suspected she was soft-pedalling the latter possibility. The effect of a truly execrable adaptation is worse than neutral. The stink rubs off. Whenever I urge people to read Endless Love, their faces scrunch. “Oh, gawd,” they say. “Wasn’t that some ghastly film?” I insist how very much better the novel is, but they never rush out to buy the book.

Threading from the Curzon Soho as the final credits rolled this spring – the whole audience stunned, almost perfectly silent at first, eventually murmuring as if in church – I felt I’d dodged a bullet. The film is terrific.

By some stroke of improbable good fortune, I am actually proud to be associated with this adaptation, whose high quality has little to do with me; I didn’t write the screenplay, suggest the inspired casting, or edit an unwieldy four hours of footage into a taut, dreamlike, yet coherent story. Nevertheless, after this week’s UK premiere at the London Film Festival, I’m more intensely sympathetic than ever with writers whose beloved books are mangled into unrecognisable cinematic abortions, to which their names will be permanently attached.

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