Literary Adaptations: Episode 2

It's time for another episode of Literary Adaptations! For your reading enjoyment and viewing pleasure I have three new novels that I've read and reviewed and I pit them head to head with their TV or movie adaptations. This project has led me to ponder the question of whether or not the order of the reading and watching matters. My gut says it does, as you'll see below with my discussion. I'm pretty sure that two of the three adaptations appealed less to me because I'd read the book first. 

I could probably design a loose experiment for this, but my intention to do so fails the moment I think about deliberately watching before reading. I don't want to! I always want to read the book first. One way around this is to read the books for movies that I've already seen, or that I saw and then only afterwards realised there is a book. For example I just watched Killers of the Flower Moon on the airplane because I was trapped in my seat for hours and it's a really long movie! But I'd like to read the book. I'd have to do this watch-then-read a lot of times and then take the holistic picture. 

In the end, it sounds a lot less scientific than "gut feeling." But really, who cares? It might be fun, and I'm sure there'd be a blog post in it. 

In the meantime, here are my books-first/adaptation-second analyses. 

Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

📘 Book (2022): 8/10
-listened on audiobook

This is the story of Elizabeth Zott, a chemist in the 1950s who faces many obstacles. There’s romance, loss and grief, and family and friends.

At first I was not enchanted by the narrative; it lacked a bit of focus. But something happened about 20% of the way in: Like a Bunsen burner being lit and hissing its strong blue flame, this book ignited for me. I wanted to hear about Elizabeth and her chemist’s soul and staunch intelligence. I loved how the book introduced peripheral characters and somehow coalesced them into a family of sorts, a band of flawed but wonderful people who find self-discovery and learn lessons along the way.

Lessons in Chemistry was like having an interesting basic hydrocarbon chain, adding branching chains, then adding a few acids, esters and alcohol compounds to create a complex, wonderful structure. It had heavy subject matter, touching on religion, misogyny, sexual assault and domestic abuse, but the tone was positive and hopeful. The main characters were lovely and the baddies got what was coming to them. It was a curious mixture of heavy and light, and somehow it worked.

And now I have a basic idea of how to make delicious coffee with chemistry equipment in your kitchen. Not that I ever will.

🎥 TV Series (2023): 6/10

This eight part limited series was extremely well done, with excellent production quality and good acting. The sets and colours evoked the late 40s to early 60s American aesthetic. I loved the costumes. Brie Larson did a fantastic job of bringing Elizabeth Zott to life on the screen and Lewis Pullman (the son of Bill Pullman–I can totally see the resemblance now that I know) was a suitably difficult but lovable Calvin Evans. Sadly, I thought that daughter Mad was too perfect and cute for me to enjoy her as a character in the adaptation.

What tripped me up and led to the lower rating were the changes from the book. They are substantial. Many have noted that they improve the narrative and that the TV show has added much that will make this a better story experience. Because I liked the book, this reasoning doesn’t work well for me. The most substantial change is to the character of Harriet, whom I found to be rather compelling in the book, and who is now a totally different person with an entirely added plot line that wasn’t in the novel. It’s an excellent role and a great sub-plot, but it was distracting because I knew it was entirely new material. Additionally, in the series there is more emphasis on the romance between Elizabeth and Calvin, and I preferred the book’s approach of less is more.

I suspect that this is a case of the book souring the viewing experience for me. For those who are watching without having first read the novel, I bet none of this will matter too much and it will prove really enjoyable viewing.

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

📘 Book: 10/10

This is a wholly engaging story about Saul Indian Horse, from his young boyhood to his early thirties, narrated in first person from Saul’s point of view. The story of his life is so unique to him, but sadly not unique at all: His parents could not really parent as they’d been victims of the residential school system, and his grandmother died while hiding and then saving him. He spent years at a residential school but found the game of hockey, and that journey occupies much of the novel.

Hockey stands in for so much of life here. It gives purpose and provides family and connection. There’s a oneness with how everything fits together when Saul truly sees the play on the ice. It’s an escape and a way out. That’s good, in some ways, but it also harms. When Saul starts to play on white teams, he faces amped up racism and abuse. It changes him, foments anger deep inside of him, and when he leaves the game he finds alcohol to be a substitute escape.

The escape that hockey provided Saul also harmed because it hid difficult truths. Saul has buried much of his past, and he’ll need to face it before he can find a modicum of peace and the love of the game again. This is a difficult but also very hopeful novel. Wagamese’s writing flowed beautifully, and Saul is a wonderful narrator. Who knew that this would keep me up late at night? I found it hard to put down.

🎥 Movie (2017; Directed by Stephen Campanelli): 8/10

A Canadian production that has won several awards, and I found this movie satisfying. It’s a short film, a rarity these days, running less than two hours and I appreciated the compactness; it doesn't have a lot of extra, drawn out scenes and delves quickly into the narrative, honing in on the critical elements of the story. Unlike many adaptations (see Lessons In Chemistry, above) this movie stayed very faithful to the book, with almost no material changed or added substantially that I could detect. I loved that about it.

Wagamese’s book is so rich in showing Saul’s inner life–his observations, fears and triumphs–that there is no way that a film could capture the richness of the book. Probably, this is not the fault of the film, and rather the brilliance of the book. The acting is fantastic on all counts, and I was so moved by the scene of a young Saul and his grandmother trying to escape sudden winter in the bush, canoeing and trekking until they no longer can. It was perilous and heartbreaking.

What I also liked about the film, and what may make it a reason to watch for some, is the inclusion at the start and end of some of the voices of residential school survivors, some photos of that time, and some information shown on screen about this part of our history. The website for the film is also similarly well presented, with a lot of educational information. Overall, a worthy adaptation.

Carrie by Stephen King

📘 Book (1974): 8/10

This was a reread for me, and what stood out to me with Carrie was how it stands the test of time. The story of a bullied young woman who is abused by her mother in turn, Carrie has paranormal abilities that unleash deadly revenge on the town that has tortured her.

The way that King writes women here is quite insightful. It’s interesting, given that this was his first novel, though I’ve read that his wife Tabitha may have helped a bit too. Chris, the female bully of the piece, may not be admirable, but she is known by King, and thus by us, the reader. He does this in really short sections, which is amazing. There’s a passage about her boyfriend Billy’s car that is so perfectly written and stands in as an explanation of their relationship. And Sue Snell was a great character.

It’s a very simple story, but effective. There’s not much to criticise but perhaps I found the first half more compelling than the second half. The description of the town’s destruction went on and on, and I’m not sure that King set up enough to justify the carnage. In fact, there were some pretty kind adults in this story including the principal and vice-principal, and Miss. Desjardins. In fact, the tentative kindness shown to Carrie as she attends the prom with Tommy by some of the other teens showed that not all was black and white, despite Carrie’s years of torment. They almost all died anyway: perhaps a case of too little too late, or the vagaries of collateral damage. Billy and Chris forced a reckoning, and a collective bill had to be paid.

🎥 Movie (1976): 3/10

This movie is a classic. The image of actor Sissy Spacek standing on the prom stage covered in blood with her wide, stunned eyes is iconic. Perhaps this will be a controversial opinion, but I didn’t like this movie by director Brian daPalma very much. What I liked was the authentic 1970s clothing and aesthetic which was just cool to watch. The whole film is very “fleshy” and I think DaPamla was trying to get at the female body and its fecundity. He was partially successful at this. I also couldn’t look away from that iconic scene with Spacek on the stage.

However, I didn’t like much else. All of the complexity of the inner female voice was lost. Sue Snell’s character was surface-level only, so that her motivations for having Tommy take Carrie to the prom were obscure. And the boys were played for more comedy than in the book. Tommy (as played by William Katz of Greatest American Hero fame–a show I loved when I was young) was laughing all the time and there was too much weird romance between Carrie and him at the prom. And Bobby’s menace was completely dumbed down as played by John Travolta. The ending was played for horror and changed completely. So no, this movie didn’t do justice to the book in my opinion. Again, I think perhaps one may like it more without having read the book first.


What do you think? Any good adaptations you've come across lately? Do you prefer to read or watch first? 

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