Lost In Translation: From Page To Screen

July 6, 2019
With JFF Fringe screening three recent Japanese films adapted from books, we look at a whole shelf of books that changed significantly in their journey from page to screen.


The second novel from J.M Ledgard (a veteran foreign correspondent for The Economist whose journalistic pursuits have sent him bouncing all around the globe), Submergence is a worthy follow-up to the author’s highly acclaimed debut, Giraffe. Like that impressive fictional bow, Submergence is a novel of big ideas, which looks with a keen and incisive eye at the various fractures currently splitting the world across its battered-and-bruised circumference.

“Journalism is fascinated with the moment, and with things which are breaking,” Ledgard told The Star. “Literature looks at the whole. It can be cosmic.” It is this quality which truly informs Submergence, the story of an English spy held captive in Nairobi and a French-Australian marine biologist charting life in the deepest reaches of the ocean.

The book, however, is really about a million things, from geopolitics and terrorism to science, environmentalism, and humankind’s place in the universe. When he came to adapt Submergence, however, director Wim Wenders (working from a script by Erin Dignam) made the decision to distill the novel’s more expansive concerns into a more concise piece. In particular, Wenders chose to embrace the more positive aspects of Ledgard’s deeply cerebral tome. The result is a slightly more conventional and much more accessible romantic drama than J.M Ledgard had originally created.

“The love story made it doable for me,” Wenders told Variety. “The film deals with a lot of violence and hate. I felt the only way for me to even approach it was to oppose something to that. To quote Martin Luther King, ‘You cannot defeat hate with hate. You cannot drive out darkness with darkness.”



Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 head trip A Clockwork Orange is heralded as one of the most controversial films ever made. With unapologetic debauchery and sexual violence, Kubrick’s stylistic showcase of adolescence at its worst is now one of the most oft-referenced cult films of the seventies.

Not everyone found Kubrick’s film to be such a success, with opposing reviews describing it as “a sexless, inhuman film” and “an ideological mess.” But it was one person in particular whose opposition to the film was most prevalent – Anthony Burgess, the author of the 1962 novella on which Kubrick’s film was based. While the film essentially remains true to the book – a tale of juvenile delinquency and controversial government reform set in a not-too-distant future – Burgess openly resented the way in which the book’s ending was omitted.

“I had to accede to this lopping,” the author confessed in his autobiography, “but I was not happy about it. My young narrator ends the story by growing up and renouncing violence as a childish toy.”

In Kubrick’s defence, he had simply read the US version of the book, which abandons Burgess’ final chapter of metanoia in place of a darker ending. “I had not read this version until I had virtually finished the screenplay,” the director admitted in Michel Ciment’s book, Kubrick. “But it is, as far as I am concerned, unconvincing and inconsistent. I never gave any serious consideration to using it.”

So when Kubrick released the film, and had lead character Alex revert back to his diabolical ways without an air of moral consequence, Burgess felt as though the director had distorted his novel into a fable of irredeemable evil. “Much of my later life has been expended on Xeroxing statements of intention,” Burgess vented, “while Kubrick coolly basks in the rewards of his misdemeanour.”


HE DIED WITH A FELAFEL IN HIS HAND (2001) John Birmingham’s 1994 cult book, He Died With A Falafel In His Hand, is a hilariously candid account of share housing experiences across Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. The semi-autobiographical book, which collectively describes Birmingham’s various dubious housemates, features comical true stories of encounters with all sorts of oddball characters, ranging from strung-out junkies to paranoid schizophrenics.

In 2001, director Richard Lowenstein (Dogs In Space) made a decidedly different adaptation, changing the dynamics of the author’s raw anecdotes into a docile journey of soul-searching.

“I’ll admit that I was very skeptical at first,” Birmingham admitted to Pixelsurgeon. The author had initially drafted two screenplays before leaving the production. “The book has no constant thread. I knew that it would take a lot of work to write from the original.” Without a cohesive storyline, Lowenstein centered on Birmingham’s character (played in the film by Noah Taylor), and used his efforts in becoming a professional writer as the main arc of the story.

But with Taylor’s powdered portrayal of the author as a frail neurotic, much of Birmingham’s comical idiosyncrasies were lost. “John is a fairly tough character in real life,” Lowenstein has confessed. “I felt that I needed more emotional connection. I basically did reinvent that character for Noah.”

Said reinvention was so drastic that Lowenstein had to rename the character at the author’s request. “Noah put a lot of himself in there,” Birmingham revealed. “I didn’t want my name attached to that character.” Despite some instances taken from the book, the film is distinctly different, and lacks the frat-house muster that gives the book its blunt originality. “It doesn’t have that grunge chaos of the book,” Lowenstein has admitted. “I just looked to the book as source material. I didn’t really want to do a reproduction of the book. A lot of the aficionados of the book get a little miffed!”


DIE HARD (1988) Die Hard has become renowned as the ultimate action film since its release in 1988, while its lead character, wisecracking cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), is acclaimed as one of the greatest movie characters of all time. The book that began it all, however, was not as successful as its cinematic counterpart.

In 1968, crime novelist Roderick Thorp’s The Detective was adapted for the big screen, with Frank Sinatra in the titular role. So successful was the adaptation that Thorp was hired to write Nothing Lasts Forever, with the intention of it being adapted into a film sequel. When Sinatra surprisingly turned down the opportunity to reprise the role, the novel descended into obscurity…and eventually into the 20th Century Fox archives.

Twenty years later, however, producer Joel Silver stumbled upon the book, and with director John McTiernan (Predator) at his side, the Die Hard franchise was born. Although McTiernan’s adaptation follows the book closely, the novel’s distinctly darker tone, which depicts a German terrorist attack on an American oil corporation, was replaced with comedy. “It had very little humour, and seemed to take itself very seriously,” McTiernan admitted in The Directors: Take Two. “I never found terrorism entertaining, but a good robbery is fun.”

So Thorp’s tale of political terrorism was altered into a caper story, with the older Joe Leland character transforming into a younger John McClane, who battles to save his wife rather than his estranged daughter when a gang of hi-tech thieves take over a corporate skyscraper.

“I basically structured it as A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the director revealed. “Something happens that turns the world upside down, and in the morning, the two lovers are reunited.” By using this formula, McTiernan created an action film with heart, which proved successful amongst critics and viewers alike. In a nice twist, it even turned Thorp’s forgotten novel into a paperback bestseller. “So many action movies are mean at heart,” McTiernan exclaimed. “They’re just no fun!”

Scene from The Scarlet Letter, 1995, starring Demi Moore

THE SCARLET LETTER (1995) Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter is acclaimed as a literary masterpiece and one of the most powerful works of American fiction. Roland Joffe’s (The Killing Fields) 1995 cinematic adaptation, on the other hand, is condemned as one of film history’s worst, even winning a Razzie Award for Worst Remake.

But how was Hawthorne’s magnum opus so grievously turned into a disaster on celluloid? The clue lies in the film’s opening credits, which state that it has been “freely adapted from the novel.” Despite the majority of the characters appearing in the film, Joffe grossly deviates from the book, both sexing up and dumbing down Hawthorne’s concepts.

Take main character Hester Prynne, the young woman who, after giving birth to a bastard child, is condemned to wearing a scarlet letter as a symbol of her adultery. In the novel, Hawthorne explores the way in which Prynne lives as a scourge in a Puritan town and gallantly conducts herself with pride and dignity despite her circumstances. In the film, however, Prynne (Demi Moore) is a sharp-tongued vixen who is more intent on acting as a pillar for women’s rights than humbly raising her child.

At the time of the book’s publication, tales of adultery were regarded as extremely risque, which is perhaps why Joffe chose to adapt the book in the way that he did, in the hope of stirring up some form of artistic controversy. Yet, where Hawthorne’s descriptions were subtle and terse, Joffe’s lingering sex scenes and gun-blazing Indian battle finale wholly destroyed the essence of the story. Unsurprisingly, the adaptation was both a critical and financial disaster.

Following its release, Joffe withdrew from Hollywood for several years. “I was totally attacked for changing the ending of the book,” Joffe told DVD Movie Guide. “If you want to criticise it, you should criticise Hawthorne for not putting Indians in there!”


I AM LEGEND (2007) Richard Matheson’s 1954 horror tome I Am Legend reigns as one of sci-fi’s most influential novels, and is responsible for transplanting the romanticism of vampire lore into a more scientifically based framework, as well as popularising the concept of a post-pandemic apocalyptic world. So when news broke that Francis Lawrence (Constantine) was adapting Matheson’s novel for the third time (after The Last Man On Earth in 1964 and The Omega Man in 1971), excitement stirred as to how the book would be translated to the screen in such a digitally advanced time.

The result? It’s quite successful, until things start to go wrong three-quarters of the way in. Harmless deviations from the book – like the desolate New York setting, main character Robert Neville’s (Will Smith) military background, and the world-ending infection originating as a cancer-cure-gone-wrong – proved to be acceptable celluloid adjustments that ultimately enhanced the overall story. Unfortunately, Lawrence’s other changes steered the film into a gradual downward spiral. After countless rewrites (which continued throughout filming), Lawrence finally portrayed Matheson’s vampires as over-enhanced computer-generated skinheads of limited intelligence, clearly shifting away from the book’s vampires, who remain inherently human despite being infected.

The most questionable alteration that Lawrence made, however, was to the ending, which excises the entire point of the novel, and deservedly received much criticism upon the film’s release. According to Lawrence, his original ending featured a perspective shift revealing the way in which the vampires view Neville: namely, as a murderous fiend who hunts and experiments on their kind. That coda bears much resemblance to the novel, in which Neville realises that he is the biological deviant: the last, the legend, in a now obsolete race.

“It’s a much more realistic ending,” Lawrence admitted to Craveonline.com. It was promptly scrapped, however, and replaced with a bizarre serving of religious symbolism, which Lawrence describes as his “mythical saviour version.”


BLADE RUNNER (1982) Self-confessed “fictionalised philosopher” Philip K. Dick was a legendary science fiction author who translated his paranoia about monopolistic corporations and authoritarian governments into complex, futuristic tales. In 1977, screenwriter Hampton Fancher coaxed the author into allowing an adaptation of his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? The film – the sci-fi noir cult classic Blade Runner (which will soon be copping the belated sequel treatment) – was famously directed by Ridley Scott (Alien), and despite mediocre opening reviews is now (several versions later) heralded as an influential building block for the sci-fi film genre.

But as Dick’s story passed through the hands of three different screenwriters, it changed from a tale of suffocating post-nuclear desolation, loneliness and psychological unrest into a tale of lost identity placed within the teeming dystopia of a “future-medieval” city. Although Scott’s film stayed true to the main premise of the book, which ultimately questions what it is to be human, the film ejected many of Dick’s innovative concepts. Social status, human empathy, mood organs, and the quasi-religion Mercerism were dropped in favour of focusing on cop Rick Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) struggle in discovering whether he is a human or replicant. The film ambiguously posits a number of explanations – perhaps Dick’s concepts were too complex for Hollywood to tackle, or untranslatable for viewing. Alternatively, it could have been down to the fact that Ridley Scott never actually finished reading the book before he shot the film.

In any case, when Dick refused to rewrite his novel for the film’s release, he only further demonstrated the way in which books are so often dumbed down for the cinema. “Blade Runner’s people were putting tremendous pressure on us to do the tie-in novelisation,” Dick told The Twilight Zone Magazine. “I did not want to write what I call the ‘El Cheapo’ novel.”


TOUCHING THE VOID (2003) When Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set out to climb in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, they embarked on an adventure that they would never forget. After reaching the summit, Simpson broke his leg, leaving Yates with the arduous task of lowering him back down the mountain. But the climbers’ circumstances only worsened, and Simpson was left to fight for his very survival.

Three years later, Simpson recounted his story in the book Touching The Void, which became widely regarded amongst mountaineers. The rights to adapt his epic tale were highly sought after, and after some years, director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King Of Scotland) acquired them, but not without concerns.

“The book consists almost entirely of internal monologue,” he explained to The Guardian. “How do you make an accessible film out of that?” His solution? To turn the tale into a docudrama. By “throwing out the book” and utilising the mountaineers’ personal accounts, Macdonald brought new life to the tale, using controversial reconstruction to fill the gaps.

“That was the challenge – to make TV’s hoariest conventions work onscreen,” he admitted. “The answer was to keep the documentary element straightforward and the dramatic elements as real as possible.” Macdonald journeyed back to the scene of the accident with Simpson and Yates to reconstruct the calamity with as much realism as he could. Yet tensions arose when the mountaineers were once again confronted with their chilling past.

“The atmosphere became poisonous. Towards the end, neither Simpson nor Yates was talking to me,” Macdonald recounted. “They were caught up with their private demons, which I was responsible for unleashing.” Bad feelings aside, Simpson was pleased to have his story rehashed as a documentary, but Yates, according to Macdonald, had mixed feelings about the film. “Yates hasn’t spoken to me since we returned from Peru. I hear that he doesn’t like it.”

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FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC (1987) V. C. Andrews’ debut 1979 novel Flowers In The Attic – a tale of deception, incest and murder in which four children are hidden away in an attic by their conspiring mother and grandmother – was a controversial success, having been banned in certain American states and removed from numerous school libraries.

Despite the controversy, the book gained a strong following, and in 1987 was adapted for the screen by producers Sy Levin and Thomas Fries. With Wes Craven (Scream) initially on board to direct, the production was set in motion, but both producers found Craven’s script to be heavily graphic and violent, and it was subsequently dropped in favour of a more demure script by TV director Jeffrey Bloom, who was also offered a spot in the director’s chair.

Bloom has openly recounted the many difficulties that he faced with the producers during the making of the film, and the director eventually left the project when requests were made for re-shoots that deviated from Andrews’ original story. “It was an unhappy directorial experience,” Bloom told The Complete V.C. Andrews. “There were seven producers, each of whom wanted a different movie. I felt that we should be faithful to the book. Regrettably, people involved felt otherwise.”

The adaptation ended up as a critical failure, and many of the controversial issues that the book explores were either omitted or poorly developed, particularly the incestuous sexual tension between the characters of Chris and Cathy Dollanganger. The biggest change that the story underwent was seen in the ending, where the children’s mother, Corrine Dollanganger, is killed. It was a far cry from the novel, and Corrine in fact featured in the many books that followed in Andrews’ Dollanganger series. “The ending was not mine,” Bloom revealed. “I walked away when they asked me to write and direct a scene in which the kids kill the mother. I tried to remind them that the book was part of a series, and that the mother needs to be alive at the end. They didn’t care. I quit.”


JURASSIC PARK (1993) Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel Jurassic Park – a pioneering tale of genetic modification and dinosaur cloning – sparked huge interest. His innovative story, which seamlessly blends scientific fact and fiction, was so inspiring that director Steven Spielberg acquired the rights to adapt the novel a year before its publication.

During production, Spielberg was insistent on working closely with Crichton, wanting the author to personally adapt the novel. “I didn’t have it in mind to do the script,” Crichton confessed to Cinefantastique, “but Steven said, ‘We need somebody to pare this into some kind of manageable shape.’”

Yet, following Crichton’s draft, screenwriter David Koepp (Spider-Man) was hired to adjust various characters and excise scenes that were deemed too violent, such as one dinosaur’s attack on newborn babies. “The movie has to stand alone,” Koepp explained to Wisconsin Screenwriters Forum. “Movies and books are so different. You need to retain the spirit. After that, anything goes. You don’t really owe anything to the author.”

Other notable changes that Koepp made were the way in which John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) – who sets the plot in motion –was conveyed as a jolly naturalist rather than an obstinate tycoon, and an omitted scene in which the dinosaur island is bombed by the Costa Rican National Guard while the film’s main characters escape in a helicopter. Spielberg’s changes ultimately proved successful, and the film was a major hit, going on to win three Oscars and becoming one of the biggest grossing films of all time. Yet, despite the film’s success, Spielberg’s notable (and often criticised) sentimentality was all too apparent, with the director losing Crichton’s stark and scientific tone.

Being no stranger to adaptations, however, Crichton was none too fussed about the light-hearted spin. “A movie like Jurassic Park is not the format to have extended discussions on the scientific paradigm,” he said.


I, ROBOT (2004) Sci-fi Grand Master Isaac Asimov’s 1950 collection of short stories entitled I, Robot ushered in a new age of robotic fiction that explored human psychology and artificial intelligence, and the way in which humans and robots might co-exist in the future. With The Three Laws Of Robotics, Asimov introduced concepts that revolutionised the robot in the science fiction genre, but despite his inventive ideas, numerous failed attempts resulted in the book being considered unfilmable.

Three decades later, when merged with a wholly unrelated screenplay by Jeff Vintar, director Alex Proyas’ I, Robot was finally released. With the exception of Asimov’s Three Laws, however, the film does not actually follow the stories from the book at all. Instead, it uses an entirely new plot with merely loose references to the author’s characters and ideas: a robot hiding amongst a mass of robots identical to him (inspired by Little Lost Robot), and a supercomputer’s destructive implementation of The Three Laws (inspired by The Evitable Conflict). The most pointed example of how loose the adaptation became is demonstrated with the character of Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynihan), a robo-psychologist at US Robotics. Calvin features in several of the book’s stories, and plays an integral part in Asimov’s collection, with the book structured as an account of Calvin’s memories from her time working with robotics.

Yet when megastar Will Smith heard news of the film being made, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman was immediately hired to rewrite the script, adding larger action scenes and introducing a new lead character in the form of Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith), with the robopsychologist subsequently reduced to a supporting role. “Akiva came on to do the Will Smith rewrites,” Vintar told Screenwriter’s Utopia, “meaning that he took the film in the direction of a Will Smith event film. When Will came on, the robot count went up from fifty to a thousand!”


THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996) With nine Oscar wins, Anthony Minghella’s (The Talented Mr. Ripley) adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel The English Patient was a phenomenal success. With outstanding performances and breathtaking imagery, Minghella beautifully translated the Sri-Lankan born novelist’s tortuous tale of consuming passion and aching loss.

During production, Ondaatje worked closely with the English director, whose intention was to remain close to his source. “Staying true to the book was important,” Minghella told SPLICEDwire. “It’s so fragmented. People thought that I was bombing to do it, but I had such a dream of what the film could be.” This intimate collaboration is evidently what made the film the success that it was. Rather than Minghella changing the story to encompass his vision alone, the two were honest about what would and what wouldn’t work when translating the book to film.

Examples are found with each character who, in the book, individually unfold their stories: there’s Hana, the shell-shocked nurse who watches over the burned patient of the title in an attempt to atone for the death of her father; Caravaggio, Hana’s long-time family friend who displays a romantic and maternal love towards her; and Kip, the emotionally withdrawn Indian sapper who, by developing a passionate bond with Hana, consequently gains confidence in others.

“Film is more visceral, and more immediate,” Ondaatje explained to Salon about why these characters were not fully explored in the adaptation. “Anthony was aware of this, and took the stuff that he couldn’t put in and worked it into other characters.” What Minghella chose to omit from the book worked and, by concentrating on the character of Almasy’s love affair with Katharine Clifton, an exquisite tale was brought to life. “In the book, the relationship with Katharine and Almasy is only in the patient’s mind,” Ondaatje said. “That was such a wonder – something that I touched on briefly was emphasised so strongly in the film. It is quite wondrous.”


FEVER PITCH (2005) Nick Hornby’s 1992 book Fever Pitch is a humorous autobiographical memoir recounting his obsessive relationship with the Arsenal football team over a 24-year period. The book, which describes Hornby’s attempt to cope with a lack of identity and burgeoning depression by totally immersing himself in the British football club, was the first to touch upon fanatical football fandom, and has since become synonymous with sports fans worldwide.

Having initially been adapted for a film of the same name in 1997 starring Colin Firth, the story was taken stateside eight years later. It was rewritten and directed by The Farrelly Brothers (There’s Something About Mary), and focused on the Boston Red Sox baseball team – America’s answer to Arsenal’s once disastrous football club. The adaptation-of-the-adaptation-of-the-book was far removed from Hornby’s journal and, despite focusing on a man’s bizarre obsession with a sports team, the film neglects to explore many of the book’s bleak qualities, which ultimately made it the success that it was. The factors – a distant father, unfulfilling jobs, and failed relationships – that ultimately lead to Hornby seeking psychiatric help underwent a romantic facelift courtesy of The Farrelly Brothers.

Their film focuses on Ben Wrightman (Jimmy Fallon) and his decision to curtail his baseball mania in order to keep the girl of his dreams (Drew Barrymore) – a premise only momentarily touched upon in the latter half of Hornby’s book. Yet the British author, who never imagined that his book could be adapted into a film, was nevertheless pleased, and agreed that the light-hearted approach was a fitting alteration. “I always understand when people want to change things, and I never mind in the slightest,” Hornby told Little White Lies. “A film is a film and a book is a book. The book stays in the bookshops even after the film has disappeared, so none of that troubles me!”

JFF Fringe is screening the following films:

July 25 (Thursday)
The Crimes That Bind

August 15 (Thursday)
Penguin Highway

August 29 (Thursday)
Birds Without Names

Screening times for all films

The JFF Fringe is on at Event George Street Cinema in Sydney.

Tickets ($15 + booking fee if online) are on sale at the cinema and online.


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