Novelistic adaptations faithful by degrees

Filmmakers struggle against readers' imaginations

Tales abound of authors who feel their novels were butchered by Hollywood, and of faithful readers who fervently wish the adaptations had been more like the sources. But it doesn’t always have to be that way.

This year, an unusually high number of film adaptations of popular novels — among them “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and, to some extent, “The Shipping News” — have been well received by fans on page and -screen, as well as most critics.

Still, adherents of obsessively cultish novels like “Lord of the Rings” are not easily converted to another’s vision of the story. Once the book has taken hold of a reader’s imagination, it’s sometimes impossible to shake. Cognizant of this, many filmmakers play along as best they can. Others forge ahead with their own take, aware that their medium imposes restrictions and circumstances by which novelists are not bound when sitting at their keyboards.

Retaining the essence

“You try to use the book as inspiration, but to be truthful to the novel you have to depart from the story,” says director Lasse Hallstrom (“Shipping News,” “The Cider House Rules”). “You have to condense, to compress, to interpret. That’s why they call it ‘adaptation.’ You can’t start looking at readers’ expectations of the novel and wonder how they will react. I would go nuts. If our ambition had been to not upset readers, we’d have still been shooting — and still failing to capture the novel.”

Robert Nelson Jacobs, who adapted “Shipping” from the Pulitzer-winning book by E. Annie Proulx, says writing a screenplay based on a popular novel is a double-edged sword.

“When I found out I’d gotten the job, a lot of my friends said, ‘I love that book.’ That makes you nervous,” he says. “What you try to do is to live with the book for a while and to honor the spirit of the book without being slavish to the letter.”

Jacobs — who is writing an adaptation for Hallstrom on the life of the boxer Jim Braddock, in which Russell Crowe has agreed to star — says that when one toys with an author’s work, there’ a fear that the novelist will object.

Anxious for approval

“We were all on pins and needles, wondering what she would think,” he says, referring to Proulx. “But that was one of the best moments for me, when I found out that Annie loved the movie. Annie’s reaction was the most important one of all. She very wisely recognizes that a film and a book are very different animals.”

Sharon Maguire, who helmed “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” agrees that the popularity of a book “does make you quite nervous” when it comes time to roll camera, although she doesn’t believe it’s necessarily an obstacle.

“People definitely had a pre-conceived notion of the character, of who she was.. But I found that everyone’s preconceived notion was different, which gave me a slight loophole in which I could be free with some ideas.”

Solid source material helps, she says, and Helen Fielding’s novel — adapted by Fielding, Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis — provided just that.

“There might be a single event that you could use it even if you didn’t adapt it word for word,” says Maguire, who late in the process dropped a subplot about Bridget’s mother being involved in a Portuguese time-share fraud. Toward the end of the movie, a scene was added of a confrontation at a birthday party involving the three main characters, played by Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant.

The novel was kept close at hand during production. “We did keep going back to the book, especially when we’d come unstuck,” Maguire says. “Every time a draft came in, if there was a particular section that wasn’t working, we’d look in the book to see how we could do it differently.”

For Chris Columbus, director of “Potter,” the book’s astounding success was in no way a hindrance to its conversion to the bigscreen.

“Harry Potter was probably the most artistically liberating project I’ve ever done,” Columbus says. “By and large, it’s a fairly faithful adaptation because the book worked, the characters worked. If you love the story, you don’t go into it thinking, ‘I’m going to combine all three books into one.'”

The book’s author, J.K. Rowling, who at the time of shooting was busy writing the series’ fifth tome, spent a mere two days on the set, Columbus says, but she had already given her blessing to what he was doing.

“Essentially, my vision gelled with hers,” says Columbus, who had met the author in a Scottish hotel after he was attached to the project. “I told her my vision. She could have easily said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and walked out of the room, but she was excited about it. We became collaborators. There was never a moment when she said, ‘You must do this.’ She was the easiest person in the world to work with.”

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