• Thu. May 30th, 2024

Hollywood is Not Ruining our Favourite Books

ByFreddy Lowe

Jul 28, 2023
Image of the Hollywood sign

We always hear that Hollywood ruins good literature.  The idea is that films are never as good as the source material and that modern adaptations of classics misrepresent and ‘ruin’ the original text.

The happy news is that this isn’t true. There are two reasons why it’s not true.  One of them is philosophical in nature, and the second is mathematical.  Let’s explore the latter first.

People believe this fallacy for very human reasons. We all have traumatic memories of favourite books being royally botched by screen versions: some that spring to my mind are Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and the truly awful 1974, And Then There Were None with Richard Attenborough.  We may also remember mediocre books that made surprisingly good films: The Woman in Black is one example.  Some would say the same about The Lord of the Rings. Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho sank without a trace before it spawned one of the best films ever made.

So, it’s not that this doesn’t happen.  Hollywood can be known to ruin good books or improve upon poor ones.  However, this generalisation is a mathematical fallacy.  When we approach this question of books vs films, we only consider a tiny sample of stories, namely, our favourite books and films.  We forget the many other stories that made mediocre examples of both. If we read a book and find it dull, we won’t watch the film (or there may not be one!).  Equally, when a mediocre film is released, we are certainly not inspired to read its source material.  We are more likely to remember instances where either the book or film was outstandingly good, and therefore its adaptational counterpart was unlikely to match up. We forget the less extreme cases because we only consider the very best of each.

This is called “Berkson’s Paradox” and was explored by the mathematician Hannah Fry in a fascinating – and more detailed – Numberphile video. It was coined by Joseph Berkson, a scientist who found bizarre and spurious negative correlations between different diseases in hospitals.  For instance, were you to study two groups of hospital patients – one group with debilitating stomach pain, the other with severe ingrowing toenails – you would probably find that the stomach sufferers had better toenails and the toenail sufferers generally had no stomach pain.  Does that mean we should ruin our toenails to avoid stomach trouble?  Of course not. The patients are hospitalised because they have an extreme case of one or the other. The billions of other people with mild instances of both symptoms aren’t hospitalised and are therefore excluded from the data. This negative correlation doesn’t exist; it appears that way from our limited sample.  The same applies to books and films.

Now let’s consider the more philosophical argument. Take another look at the books I mentioned being botched by film versions: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.  There is a common denominator between these books: they are all incredibly famous. Even though they have received adaptations that should never have seen the light of day, they have remained very popular. The reason? They have remained relevant in the modern day.

Literature survives not just on its own merits but on the back of art’s evolution over time. People talk about books; that is how our favourite books stay alive. The challenge for any estate maintaining the legacy of a now-dead author is to rejuvenate public interest in their work, that is to say, to get people talking about them again. Communication and literary discussion are the bedrock of literature’s survival. And what better way to keep people talking than producing new and exciting screen versions adapted for different generations?

Say what you will about Mamma Mia: there is no way that my generation would sing “Lay All Your Love On Me” at a party were it not for Dominic Cooper and Amanda Seyfried’s sexy beach duet. That film, for all its haters, kept ABBA relevant. Consider the live-action remake of Mulan: fans of the original cartoon may cringe, but many viewers new to the story will watch the cartoon because they saw the remake. It is the same with literature. As much as I hated the John-Malkovich-starring ABC Murders, its release made my classmates discuss Agatha Christie in ways I had never seen before. Screen adaptations – even terrible ones – keep the old stories alive for new generations.

Radically different film adaptations have always existed.  Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn features an added pantomime villain called ‘Sir Humphrey Pengallan’. Daphne du Maurier’s legacy has survived. The 1940 Pride and Prejudice sees Darcy give Lizzy an archery lesson wearing costumes straight out of Gone with the Wind – and the Bennet family has a squawking pet bird. Austen’s novel has survived.  There’s a film called Murder Ahoy! in which the killer challenges Miss Marple to a fencing match. Christie’s legacy has survived. After a new Bond actor was announced, there was online fury about how this was the wrong man and that he would botch 007’s legacy. That actor’s name was Daniel Craig. You tell me if Bond has survived!

There has always been adaptational outrage, and our favourite stories somehow seem to stay in print. The truth is that the screen medium is an artistic miracle. It provides the perfect platform for reinventing stories in radical ways.  Who knows what the future of Poirot, Marple, Hamlet, or Willy Wonka will look like? It will be different and unexpected, that’s for certain. Hollywood is not ‘ruining’ the books. It is directing whole new generations to return to them. And that can only be a phenomenal thing.

Image Credit: “Hollywood” by Marcus Vegas is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

By Freddy Lowe

Former Literature Editor Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh International Book Festival