Hillingdon Libraries staff second literary challenge of 2016 was to read a book that has been translated into film.
This theme was explored as it has become cultural cliche that to say that the written word consistently surpasses the visual screenplay. While I am traditional books biggest advocate, you have to admit that the media of film is an art in its own right that can often explore themes and details that are difficult to express in a book.
We have 13 reviews for you from 13 wonderful members of library staff. The big question being – is the book always better?
1. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Before I read this book, I saw the film. A dodgy pirate VHS video copy at that, because the film was not available at the time – not banned, as often claimed, but withdrawn from distribution in the UK by Kubrick after he received threats against his family. The film is a sonic and visual assault that juxtaposes gut-churning ultraviolence with Singin’ in the Rain. It’s now available in glorious high definition and is a dazzling if terrifying watch. (Local fact – some scenes were filmed at Brunel University.) The film puts the violence on screen, but book does something much cleverer and ultimately more disturbing.
The inventiveness of the language, via the first person narration of Alex, the psychopathic teenager who narrates the story, distances you from the violence. Yes, you’re reading about an old man being beaten up for money – but it becomes the tolchocking of an old veck for a malenky bit of cutter. This is Nadsat, Burgess’ invented teen slang based on Russian. So we become brainwashed – not only do we start to understand the language as we read but we aren’t as appalled as we should be by what’s being described, and Alex is worryingly good company with a wonderful way of expressing himself.
Before too long, Alex is imprisoned for the murder of an old woman (a starry ptitsa) and enters a government behaviour modification programme himself to cure him of his evil urges. It works, but at the cost of his free will – a philosophical problem that Burgess explores through the voices of authority in politics, law and religion. Alex isn’t choosing to do good, instead he’s forced not to do evil.
The film was based on the American edition of the novel, which didn’t include the last chapter. This gave the film a more downbeat ending than Burgess intended as well as destroying the elegance of the book’s structure – 3 parts of 7 chapters each equalling 21 chapters, 21 being the age Alex is when the novel ends. Adulthood finds him free of his conditioning, but choosing to turn his back on his youthful thuggery because it’s lost its appeal. It’s a less sensational conclusion but one that makes sense and closes the action of the book on a sober, reflective note. A work of genius.
5 out of 5 stars
Darren – Uxbridge Library
2. The Maze Runner by James Dashner
I absolutely loved this book. It tells the story of a group of boys who find themselves mysteriously secluded on a enclosed piece of land surrounded only by a giant ever changing maze. The story tells of the community that has been built by these boys and follows the story of Thomas who arrives at the maze and is determined to find his way out. Obviously placed in this compound with no idea why or who by the boy’s develop a way of living, hierarchy and relationships with each other as they try to solve the mystery. It is only when Thomas arrives that they really start looking for clues and answers and his appearance starts to upset the balance of the previous boys way of living as he pushes the boundaries and asks the questions to try and escape. I was worried that The Maze Runner would be too similar to The Hunger Games. Although there are loose similarities there wasn’t a major clash between the two novels and it didn’t make me want to compare/judge them side by side. In fact I found myself being drawn back to my school reading where we were given Lord of The Flies to read and actually themes of that seemed more similar. I am pleased of this because it meant the book stood in it’s own right. It wasn’t ‘just another YA Hunger Games wanna be’ it was a brilliant individual novel in my opinion.
5 out of 5 stars
Richard – Harefield Library
3. The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
The novel and the film follow the same broad outline of making you root in some ways for a psychopathic killer, but the novel is more subtly done. Ripley is an orphaned misfit, manipulative, amoral, a master of lies and disguise, worming his way into the affections of a rich young American man before (spoiler alert) killing him and assuming his identity. The author retains our sympathy for him by sharing his mental processes as he assesses the risks of each step and improvises successfully when danger threatens. The film, unable without a voice-over to mirror all this, compensates with extra melodrama (an abandoned pregnant mistress for the doomed heir; a third murder to protect Ripley’s secret.) It’s sumptuously shot and splendidly acted, but coarsens and simplifies the book’s impact. Chalk one up to the readers!
5 out of 5 stars
Mike – Eastcote Library
4. Half A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I have been meaning to read this book for years and I am so glad I finally have. Once I started I was really keen to find out what happened to the characters. The story was told so well, with all the central characters stories intertwining. I don’t often like books that don’t run in chronological order, but in this novel it was really effective, hinting at things that had happened, to keep you guessing. I really knew nothing about the civil war in 1960’s Nigeria and the creation of the separate state of Biafra, so it was really interesting finding out about these events through the characters stories. I am not sure if I would like to watch the film as some of the scenes described in the book were quite gruesome; regarding the soldiers actions towards civilians. I would highly recommend the novel, as it was so well written and historically informative too.
5 out of 5 stars
Siobhan – Uxbridge Library
5. Atonement by Ian McEwan
Atonement: a resonant yet simple abstract idea, which says it all of this brilliant novel in terms of theme, characterisation and plot! Cast in four parts, set variously in 1935, 1940 and 1999 in England and France, we read of a 13 year old girl who tells a big fib, which lands a man in prison for sexual assault of a minor. The epigraph from Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (posthumous, 1818) references the dangers of an adolescent female, over-active imagination, and possible consequences for all involved. But, whereas Austen is relatively light, wryly ironic and even comic about these possibilities, McEwan is far darker and more-deadly serious. The cost to the protagonists is high, yet skilfully veiled to the reader until the final pages, and is both heart-rending and dramatically satisfying, though tragic for…well, read the book and weep! The style of the writing is clear and Realist on the whole, and the tone and genre basically melodramatic and romantic. It could be said to be a work for both sexes to enjoy, as (like most classic fiction and poetry) it entwines the age old combination of Love and War into the moral and ethical frameworks of its central theme, the eponymous ‘Atonement’! Likewise, the film version (2007) captures all these aspects whilst simultaneously condensing a fairly-long novel into two hours or so of cinema. Look out for the 6 minute uncut tracking shot of the Dunkirk evacuation, it was actually made on Redcar sea front in Yorkshire!
5 out of 5 stars
Len – Harefield Library
6. Perfume – Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind
The novel is a gripping story about a murderer, driven by the sense of smell, as he was on the search to create a perfume, whose scent would cause people to fall into awe and admiration of him.
The novel is set in the 18th century France and I would highly recommend this book. I originally read it in his original German version and I enjoyed the english translation as much.
5 out of 5 stars
Franka – Hayes End Library
7. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
Initially I had watched the film half asleep, but then I had the book recommended hundreds of times by friends until recently I decided to finally read it. I’m not sure where to start! The book was brilliant, the magic and mystery of it all and the constant plot twists that left me hanging and reading until the early hours. After finishing the book, I decided to rewatch the film with a newly acquired view of the book. I was horrendously disappointed by the film, nothing was left to the imagination and twenty minutes into the film they’d uncovered all the best parts of the book, no mystery, no magic. I think I will stick to letting my imagination create the movie rather than Hollywood. The characters had a specific look in my head and on screen they didn’t look the same. I’d recommend the book to others but not the movie nor the new TV series. The book has everything ticked off for a YA book, romance, action and a cunning victim. My only main problem with the book was the difficult vocabulary, as this book is intended for teenagers/younger children I found myself having to google what half of the words meant and it took away from the flowing plot of the story. I look forward to reading the next book and seeing where the plot leads to.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Alison – Relief Library Assistant (She could be anywhere)
8. Howl by Allen Ginsberg
I had never thought of reading beat poetry (too pseudy) until I caught the 2010 film ‘Howl’, based on a collection of Allen Ginsberg’s poems. ‘Howl’, published 1955, caused an obscenity trial in the States – there are several references to drug use and sexuality, especially homosexuality. But to dwell on the poems’ supposed shock value is to miss the point. ‘Howl’ undoubtedly trawls the dirty, miserable underbelly of mid-20th century America, but it does so with a breathless, visionary energy which is deliberately hallucinogenic.Ginsberg fused opposing images to get his ideas across. In the title poem, we move from those ‘who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets’ to men ‘who bared their brains to heaven…and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated’. Like trains racketing ‘through snow toward lonesome farms’, we plunge headlong, from ‘Harlem crowned with flame under the tubercular sky’ to ‘the visible madman doom of the wards of the madtowns of the east’. Howl’ is an unblinking look at a transforming America. Ginsberg shows us all the bright possibilities of the impending free love and drugs culture, and the grimey reality of it at the same time. One line says it all, celebrating (or mourning) those ‘who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish’. Read it and have your mind expanded (legally of course). Films based on this are ‘Howl’ 2010 and ‘Kill Your Darlings’ 2013.
4 out of 5 stars
Paul – Uxbridge Library
9. Carrie by Stephen King
Stephen King’s first novel Carrie (which has been made into a movie twice) follows an American high school girl ‘Carrie’ who appears to have telekinetic powers. She is bullied and ridiculed as she doesn’t fit in at school, her ‘Mom’ has extreme religious views and Carrie seems very naive for her age. Although the book deals with the supernatural, I found it moving in it’s portrayal of Carrie and her plight. King uses different ways of telling the story, which moves it along at a much faster pace than having just one storyteller. It’s a great story, moving and emotive, graphic at times. It’s a book that has stayed with me after reading. I have seen the original film, but many years ago, a hazy memory now apart from the dramatic ending, which is not in the book!
4 out of 5 stars
Marie-Louise – Hayes End Library
10. Beloved by Toni Morrison
While in the full throws of reading this story I did not enjoy it. It was confusing and mythical, using colloquial language with strikingly graphic sex and violence – but now that I can look at it as a whole I am really impressed and slightly unnerved at the effect it had and still has on me.
It is essentially about an escaped black slave called Sethe, who travels from Kentucky to Ohio and who at the beginning of the book lives in a haunted house with her youngest daughter and mother-in-law. This spirit is dangerous and upsets things at the misery of all the family.
When Paul D, another slave from Sethe’s plantation comes to find a place to stay, he manages to remove the spirit from the house and things begin to change in a positive way for the family. But this can only last for so long….very soon a young girl appears on the doorstep of the family home saying that her name is Beloved – the very name of Sethe’s previous elder daughter who died. The girl is confused and doesn’t really make much sense and almost immediately Sethe comes to accept her as the daughter who she lost that has come back to her. Sethe & Paul D start a relationship which Beloved very oddly becomes involved in almost forcing Paul D into sleeping with her.
You then get in an insight into Sethe’s back story as a slave and this is what disturbed me most. Horrific things happened to her at the hands of her masters, her children as taken away from her at birth, her breast milk is stolen and the beatings, as well as rapes, are viscerally cruel. You go with her when she escapes with her youngest child after her worst beating and tries to make her way to her mother-in-law’s house in Ohio. She makes it there at the expense of her health and is reunited with her 3 other children. Then her slave master finds her – she does what she can to make her children safe, but whether or not she is justified is another matter.
The story has a relatively happy and tied up ending, with Beloved essentially disappearing in a whisp of smoke and Sethe & Paul D accepting each other as they are. Her youngest daugher Denver even gets a job. As to whether this is literary fiction, horror, fantasy or even a murder mystery baffles me – I am inclined to think it is all 4 genres rolled into one. I must say that when I watched the film I followed the story a lot easier and sympathised with the main character a lot more. The power of the language and what the slaves had to endure has struck me hard and will stay with me for a long time. Definitely worth reading.
4 out of 5 stars
Lara – Harefield Library
11. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
The book is a heart-rending story about the circumstances leading to a young girl leaving Enniscorthy for New York in the 1950s.The matter of fact style of writing hides the enormity of the events which affected the family.Ellis the main character has a sister Rose who longs for a glamorous life away from dreary Enniscorthy but it is Ellis who is sent to America,because one of the sisters has to stay with her widowed mother.Ellis,through her hardworking efforts begins to do well in America but only when she meets an Italian-American man that she begins to live.She is suddenly recalled to Ireland for the heart breaking funeral of her sister.Rose and the uncanny fact that on this trip back she meets the man who is her soulmate but unfortunately Tony had insisted she marry him before she went back to Ireland so once again Ellis has to return to fulfill her responsibilities.There are no breaks for this girl who has never reneged on her responsibilites to anyone.The film although with an excellent cast does not quite pin down the heartbreaking choices this girl has to make and the acceptance by her of the cards fate has dealt her.
4 out of 5 stars
Marian – Northwood Hills Library
12. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
Unusually for me I actually knew about the film before the book when I saw the trailer starring Chloe Moretz and then put two and two together when I started seeing the book in the windows of various Waterstones. From the trailer I thought I was going to be reading a book similar to The Hunger Games or the Divergent series but actually other than it being YA & Dystopian it was very different. For a start The 5th Wave has aliens and I’m not talking the ET kind. Aliens have invaded Earth and are on a mission to wipe-out mankind and of course being a YA novel there are a number of teenagers and children who have plans to stop them. The book’s straplines describe it as both scary & terrifying but I really didn’t feel that when reading it, at times it is intense but for me the fact that the story is told via different points of view sometimes left me just a little to confused as to which character I was reading about. It took a while for me to settle into Rick Yancey’s writing style and to work out who everyone was but once I hit the final quarter of the book things really started to ramp up and I started to find myself invested in the characters. I’ve yet to see the film but I will watch it once it is out on DVD or on Sky.The 5th Wave is book one in the series with The Infinite Sea already out and book 3, The Last Star due out in May. It’s certainly worth a read if you like sci-fi/dystopian books but in my opinion there are far better ones out there.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Sam – Manor Farm Library
13. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
First serialised in France between 1909-1910, Phantom of the Opera was neither commercially or critically successful. It was not until the successful film of 1925 (sold more as a vehicle for Lon Chaney, the man of a thousand faces) and the exuberant stage musical that the novel began to receive considerable attention. It is notable that the framing device used in the novel is that of a narrator interested in solving the mysteries of the Paris Opera House. The author, Gaston Leroux, was originally a mystery writer inspired by Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. The narrator attempts to work out the origin of all these mysterious circumstances and subsequently prove the existence of the legendary Phantom. One of the constant themes of the novel is an attempt to explain the apparently supernatural with cold reason and logic, perhaps inspired by the successful Sherlock Holmes stories. The novel also differs from subsequent adaptations in that it details the background of the Phantom, explaining his mastery of rope tricks and illusions. However, while there is often something cold and detached about the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Phantom of the Opera is a novel that dives fully into Gothic and melodramatic excess. Raol, Christine’s less monstrous love interest, is often described as weeping and his emotions, which switch constantly, are as thunderous as the soundtrack which would accompany the stage musical. He is a man that suffers greatly and openly for his romantic love in a way that might surprise modern readers. It is a novel that is difficult not to read with a wry eye but, having entered the spirit of the thing, it is a novel that is easy to enjoy for it’s unapologetic excess of melodrama. It is a bombastic approach to very old themes of supernatural/logic, the Faustian bargain, the power of music, love/lust, the perils of romantic love and, to a certain degree, the way in which aesthetic values of a society can be so confining to those that contradict them. It is notable that novel, film and stage musical all ask us to sympathise with the Phantom and that to Christine the darkness is contained within the troubled monster rather than in his appearance.
3 out of 5 stars
Mark – Uxbridge Library
So which would you vote for – film or book?
Thanks for reading!