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Authors – would you like it if your book was made into a film?

At first glance, this sounds like a stupid question on two levels. Firstly, because it’s not very likely to happen – only a tiny minority of books ever get made into films and if yours isn’t already  bit of a household name, it’s probably not going to be one of them. And secondly, because isn’t the answer obvious? A film deal gets you cash up-front and probably a huge rush of interest in your original books. I bet there isn’t a single author, literary or populist, who hasn’t at some point idly dreamed about seeing their book on screen and done a bit of fantasy casting in their head.

So yes, let’s be honest. If Hollywood came calling, brandishing an Oxford Blood screenplay, I wouldn’t say no and I doubt anyone else would either. I’d do it for the money and the exposure and the bragging rights, but that still leaves the deeper question – would I actually like that this was happening?

I started thinking about this because I went to see the film of Cloud Atlas last night. As someone who reads vociferously across a wide range of genres, I struggle to pick one book as my all time favourite, but if I was forced to pick, Cloud Atlas would be a pretty strong contender.

Somewhere on here, I describe my taste in books as “I love to read literary novels that don’t forget about plot and fantasy/paranormal novels that don’t forget about prose. My absolute favourite books are generally those that blur the boundaries between the two categories.”

Cloud Atlas is an unashamedly post-modern literary novel. It has a complex structure, cleverly parodies a number of different writing styles, namechecks philosophers and deals with big questions around the point of existence, the inevitability of conflict and evil and ideas of reincarnation and recurrence. And yet it’s formed of six interconnected stories, one of which is the best futuristic dystopia I’ve ever read and another of which is a post-apocalyptic fantasy. How many books can claim to have been nominated for both the Booker Prize and the Nebula Award?

Oh, and if you’ve read my books or this blog, you might have noticed that I rather like aristocratic historical cads. Robert Frobisher – hot bisexual artistocratic old Etonian composer on the run from 1930s Cambridge (Oxford would have been better but you can’t have everything) – is one of my all time favourite characters.

I’m getting slightly off the point here, but this is a book I can’t help rhapsodising about. If you haven’t read it, go and do so. If you have, read it again because you probably missed lots the first time around.

cloud atlas poster

When I heard there was going to be an all-star film of this masterpiece, I felt excited and horrified in roughly equal measure. In theory, what could be better than a film of a book you love? The opportunity to see all the characters and places you’ve imagined in your head up there on the screen in front of you should be an utter treat. But I’d got my hopes up and had them dashed one too many times to be entirely happy about the idea.

Just before Christmas, I wrote about how much I love The Dark is Rising. A few years ago it was turned into a travesty of an abomination called The Seeker. Having read the synopsis of the film, I couldn’t face watching it in the cinema. I finally cracked and watched it through my fingers when it was on tv a few years later. I can safely say that it is both one of the worst films I have ever seen and bears practically no resemblance to the book it’s meant to be based on. Everything’s been modernised and dumbed down. The hero’s suddenly American, despite one of the greatest charms of this book being its absolute sense of place in the Home Counties and then Wales and Cornwall in the sequels. The film was utterly panned by critics, book fans and those poor hapless people who happened to go and see it. I couldn’t help but think that if they’d actually made a faithful adaptation of the brilliant source material it might have done rather better.

This scene is not in the books I have absolutely no idea what it going on here!

This scene is not in the books. I have absolutely no idea what is going on here!

The other adaptation that regularly gets to me is the tv series of the Vampire Diaries. The original books are the ones that originally got me into vampire fiction and though I’ve since read things that are probably technically better, they are still my favourite vampire novels. I was so excited to hear there was going to be a tv series. I watched the first episode in a frenzy of excitement that as the series went on gradually turned into confusion. Where was the plot going? Who were some of these characters? Had the director read the book or just a list of characters names on Wikipedia? About five episodes in I had to stop watching as it was driving me mad. As I tend to visit a lot of paranormal themed websites, I’ve remained vaguely up to date on what’s happening with the plot and most synopsises I read make absolutely no sense to me as a fan of the books.

It’s reasonable light entertainment rather than the jaw-dropping crappiness of the Seeker, but what it’s not is the Vampire Diaries as I know them. If someone wanted to make a high school vampire TV series to capture the Twilight market, I cannot understand for the life of me why they didn’t just write an original story rather than nominally base it on some books and then made an adaptation that has very little to do with them. I’m pretty sure that at the time the books weren’t famous enough to bring a huge fanbase along with them, so that’s not the answer).

Let me pause there and clarify something. When I complain about film adaptations that are nothing like the books, I’m not doing that super- fangirl thing of starting from the point that the text is sacred and nothing can be changed or omitted. I fully appreciate that films are a different media to books. I understand that for reasons of running length and cost, some characters and sub-plots might need to be cut and that for the cinematic experience, action scenes might need to be emphasised and quiet moments of introspection rushed over. I can even accept that parts of the main plot might need to play out subtly differently. The sort of “Nooo, they’ve cut Tom Bombardil from the Lord of the Rings film” thing is not my concern. What I hate is when a book is turned into a film that keeps some character names and a few big events and then spins what basically amounts to a different story around them.

Another of my favourite series is a Song of Ice and Fire, or as everyone now seems to know it, A Game of Thrones. The HBO series gives me faith that good adaptations are possible. That tv series is both a wonderful adapation of the source material and a great piece of entertainment in its own right. Of course, some things had to be changed (and there are one or two changes that I didn’t think were necessary and found a bit irritating) but it’s clear that the screenwriters and directors knew and loved the books and they made something that was recognisably A Song of Ice and Fire. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this has been one of the biggest tv hits in recent years. If you’re starting with good source material, trust it, don’t squander it.

So this brings me back to Cloud Atlas. Two horrific adaptations of my favourite books and one great one – which side was this going to land on? I didn’t think it could possibly be good. Unlike the other books I’ve mentioned, where the main thing I loved was the plot, Cloud Atlas is a book with a capital B. So much of it’s brilliance comes from it’s structure and the way it’s written. It could also fairly be described as basically six short stories. How on earth would it work as a film considering the problems directors seem to have with adapting basic linear narratives?

To my frustration, the film opened in the UK nearly five months after it had opened in the US, which is almost unheard of. Wildly impatient to see what the directors had done to it, I went on opening night, dragging along my reluctant fiancé who has often heard me going on about the book to anyone who’d listen but who wasn’t entirely convinced.

I reassured myself that Ben Whishaw (swoon) was playing Robert Frobisher. Even if everything else was horrible, at least I could enjoy watching one of my favourite actors play one of my favourite characters.

If Ben Whishaw was cased as Tom Flyte, I'd happily let them make the story be about zombies and set in Australia.

If Ben Whishaw was cased as Tom Flyte, I’d happily let them make the story be about zombies and set in Australia.

Somewhat to my amazement, I loved the film. It was brilliant. The individual stories were well told and the overarching themes were brought out and with a few exceptions (only one of which really bothered me – for anyone who has read it, they took away the twist from the end of Somni’s story), it was oddly faithful to the book. My fiancé really enjoyed it. Hurrah.

So to return to my original question. Say there was a film adaptation of Oxford Blood. I’ve gleefully cashed my royalty cheques and seen a boost in book sales – so that’s all good. But now it’s time to actually watch the thing. Am I overjoyed or horrified?

Let’s face it, there’ll be at least a few things that have changed. And if I get this defensive about books I’ve merely read, how would I ever cope with a book I’d written? Not to mention the fact that having been to Oxford, the slightest inaccuracy about what life is like at the university would probably get my hackles up.

And then there are the big issues. Most film productions are American, and they seem to like to have at least some American connection. Surely they couldn’t move the action to Harvard and rename the society the Confederates could they? But I have a horrible suspicion that they would at the very least make Harriet a visiting American student.

I’d also imagine that a director would pick an audience and play with it, so the blood and sex would either be ramped up to ten or completely toned down. I’d prefer the former if it came to it, but either would feel odd. I’m trying to decide what plot changes I could live with and which I couldn’t, but so far I’m drawing a blank on the latter.

The next thing is the characters. Apparently Anne Rice was beyond furious when she heard that Tom Cruise was going to be playing Lestat in the adaptation of Interview with the Vampire. I think if my film was getting such big name stars I’d probably manage to grin and bear it, but seeing a character in a film who doesn’t look like the book character in your head if disorientating – I imagine it’d be a thousand times worse if they look and sound nothing like the characters you’ve spent hours creating, who you sometimes dream about, who are in most part based on an unholy alliance of historical portraits and people I know.

What I really need is an actor who looks like this

What I really need is an actor who looks like this

Does any of this matter? After all, a bad adaptation doesn’t destroy the original book. I think the problem, whether we’re talking hypothetically about Oxford Blood or practically about real adaptations is that more people tend to watch films than read. Even minimally successful films will have a bigger audience than all but the absolute best selling books. Therefore for many people, the film is likely to be their first exposure to the material and they’ll generally believe that that’s broadly what the books are like. Apart from everything else, when watching Cloud Atlas I was worried it would be bad and my fiancé would wonder why I like the book so much. Also, once an adaptation has been made, there probably won’t be another one or at least not for decades. So every bad adaptation of a book means a good, faithful adaptation that is never going to happen. I’ll probably never get my wonderful, life affirming, “the scenes on the screen look just like the pictures in my head” versions of Vampire Diaries or the Dark is Rising, and however much I re-read the books, that’s a sad thought. If it was Oxford Blood, it would be a horrifying one.

So authors, apart from the base emotion of “woo, I’m going to be rich” how would you feel about an adaptation of your novel? Readers, do you tend to like book to film adaptations? Which do you like or hate and why? And what does anyone think of Cloud Atlas, the book or the film?

Ps. Check out this link for a very interesting article on this issue by David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas:  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390443675404578060870111158076.html