The Greatest Literary Moments in Film (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Film)

Ling Low
  • By
  • Arts
  • Last updated: Tuesday, 11 January 2011 at 1:59 pm

Untitled 15 300x204 The Greatest Literary Moments in Film (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Film)The upcoming release of Never Let Me Go, adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s widely acclaimed novel, will doubtless prompt a familiar anxiety in cinema audiences.  Palms will sweat over plot deviation, expletives will be uttered about the casting of Keira Knightley.  The fear that a film will butcher a beloved book is so widespread that you sometimes wonder how people gave vent to their feelings before online film forums existed.  With recent film adaptations including box office epics such as the Harry Potter series, as well as Oscar hits like Slumdog Millionnaire and A Single Man, book lovers certainly have a lot of fodder.

It is easy to see the relationship between film and literature as unfairly one-sided: the film industry as the young upstart stealing the ideas of its older, storytelling sister.  But we are so used to expecting the film to be “not as good” as the book that we often forget that films give something back to literature too.  I’m not talking about adaptations, although there are some excellent examples of those.  There are also films that celebrate writing and writers, such as Bright Star, Jane Campion’s beautiful biopic of John Keats.  There are films, too, that celebrate readers – who could forget Robin Williams as the inspirational teacher to archetype all inspirational teachers in Dead Poets Society?

Then there are the films that are not films about reading or writing, but about something else – probably ordinary people.  Yet these films feature books in some way, and books are part of them, just as books are part of people in real life.  These are the films that may, strangely, do the most for literature of all, and can create the most unshakeable associations for the audience.  In one of my favourite romantic comedies, The Truth About Cats & Dogs, the male lead gives the woman he loves a copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s letters to Jean Paul Sartre.  Ever since seeing this film, I have lived in hope that one day, someone will present me with a copy of de Beauvoir’s letters.  I’ll probably marry that person.

This may sound like a somewhat extreme reaction, and I’ll admit to being more romantic than most when it comes to books.  But is it uncommon?  After the Sex and the City film was released, bookshops received numerous requests from fans of the film hunting down a copy of Love Letters of Great Men Vol 1 – the book from which Carrie Bradshaw reads to Big, and which he later quotes at their wedding. This collection of letters, however, didn’t actually exist.  Spotting a heart-shaped gap in the market, publisher Macmillan compiled a volume to approximate it, and thus a book born on celluloid arrived onto real bookshelves.  More extraordinary still is that its non-existent sequel, Love Letters of Great Men Vol 2, was published earlier this year – although I understand it makes no appearance in Sex and the City 2.

A fictional book based on real letters is one thing, but fictional fiction can be equally enthralling.  A book that many cinephiles would love to read is Sonata for a Good Man by Georg Dreyman, the writer-protagonist of the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others.  Under a communist government in East Germany, Dreyman is targeted by the Stasi as a potential troublemaker, and assigned an agent who eavesdrops on his life.  However, the agent feels increasingly intimate with the people he is secretly monitoring (via reading some Brecht, I might add), and protects the writer from the authorities.  Years later, after the unification of Germany, Dreyman discovers this and dedicates his novel to the man whom he knows only as “Agent HGW XX/7”.  The heart-rending end of the film is set in a bookshop with the former agent – now a postman – purchasing a copy of ‘his’ book.

Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset films also use a book, and bookshop, to bridge a gap of time and space that might otherwise be impossible for its protagonists to cross.  In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine meet on a train travelling through Europe and impulsively decide to spend the rest of the day together in Vienna.  But after an evening of exchanging soulful thoughts and no contact details, they don’t know if they will ever see each other again.  We only find out ten years later, when cast and crew re-united for Before Sunset.  The sequel opens in the Shakespeare and Co. bookshop in Paris.  Jesse, now a writer, is promoting his new book: a novel about a girl he once met on a train.  Celine walks into the shop.  “You wanna know why I wrote that stupid book?” he says to her later.  “So that you might come to a reading in Paris, and I could walk up to you and ask, ‘Where the fuck were you?’”

Film and literature are the two great storytelling forms of our times.  If there is sibling rivalry between them, then there is also love.  Films can introduce us to writers for the first time; they can remind us of the power of reading; they can even bring into being books that didn’t exist before.  Then there are the moments of true literary eloquence, such as one that appears in Sam Raimi’s zombie gore-fest Evil Dead 2.  One of the characters, having hacked off his own infected zombie hand, traps it underneath a bucket, and puts a book on top.  The book?

A Farewell to Arms. Zombie hands may come off, but it would be impossible for our post-modern age to separate books and films so easily.

- Article copyright Ling Low

  • Chris Riches

    It will take a very brave producer to take on Kazuo Ishiguro’s greatest novel, “The Unconsoled” a Kafkaesque romp through an imaginary world.

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