The Story is the Thing

bleakhouse_coverAs I work on my upcoming review of 12 Angry Men, I’ve been taking breaks with the 2005 miniseries version of Bleak House, now available on Netflix. I first saw this version a few years ago and enjoyed it. Rewatching it now, I find so much more to admire. Of course the acting is top notch (Gillian Anderson! Carey Mulligan! Anna Maxwell Martin!), and the production values are considerable. But what I find most distinctive about this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ hefty masterpiece is the use of jump cuts to convey a certain mood. We’re looking at a meadow and then BAM! we’ve zeroed in on a carriage carrying Lady Dedlock. This stylistic choice takes a huge novel about a labyrinthine legal case and makes it intimate and modern.

Avid bibliophiles like myself are sometimes guilty of saying about literary adaptations: “It’s good. . . but not as good as the book”– if a book itself is something sacred. It’s not. When someone refers to any kind of art as a sacred thing, they have removed themselves from the art in question. It is no longer something they enjoy and take comfort in. Instead it belongs in a museum.

I’m trying to discipline myself into considering every book and film as itself and nothing more. A film adaptation of a novel–even my favorite novels!– should be judged on its value as a movie. After all, book reading is a private experience. My mental image of Allan Woodcourt is different from everyone else’s. So how can I expect a film to portray exactly my mental experience of a novel?

the hobbit_bookAs I’ve discovered rewatching Bleak House, a film adaptation can in fact update a story and bring it into our modern world. In a different sense, a film can take a story and make it entirely its own. Take for example the most recent adaptation of The Hobbit. I loved the book as a child and liked the film a lot, but they are two different beasts. The book was about a hobbit who had an adventure. The film was about a band of swashbuckling dwarves who happen to have a hobbit in their midst. Of course, the film had its own problems (particularly with the lazy CGI), but in the end I can only judge it on its own merits, not as it relates to the book.

the hobbit_film

I know there are a lot of book lovers out there. What do you think? I love to hear from you!

(I own nothing related to Bleak House or The Hobbit.)