It has been a week particularly focused on screen adaptations of acclaimed books.
Last weekend saw the premiere of the television show American Gods that is based on one of my favourite novels by Neil Gaiman; needless to say, I’m hooked. I’ve also just begun watching the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which is proving to be a chilling experience. And a few days ago, I heard – with a fair amount of scepticism – that L.M. Montgomery’s beloved Anne Of Green Gables is being adapted for a series on streaming service Netflix, albeit one that is supposed to explore a darker side of the story.
Which might be why, while reading The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, my mind kept turning to its film adaptation. More specifically, it led me to ponder upon the difficulty of adapting works like Ishiguro’s for the screen.
The Remains Of The Day is one of his best-regarded novels – no small feat, since the writer has a slew of highly-lauded books to his name – and was awarded the 1989 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Even today, it is often touted to be one of the best post-war British novels. And with good reason.
The novel displays all of the aspects that Ishiguro has become known for: his eloquent and meditative use of language, a deceptive simplicity that conceals miles of hidden depth, an innate empathy, and, perhaps most of all, the beautiful use of interiority.
It might be this last aspect that makes his books so challenging to adapt for a visual medium.
In the case of The Remains Of The Day, the story is much the same in the movie. Set in 1950s England, it revolves around ageing butler Stevens, who has spent much of his life in the service of Lord Darlington. Upon his master’s death, the mansion is bought by an American, and Stevens stays on.
The story begins with Stevens receiving a letter from the former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, which hints that her marriage may be ending and that she might be interested in being re-employed at Darlington Hall. This encourages Stevens to take a motoring trip through the English countryside to meet with her. During this time, he reflects on his past experiences at Darlington Hall, and particularly on his efforts to be a truly great butler.
For Stevens, the crux of this lies in what he calls “dignity”, the ability to maintain absolute calm and control under any circumstance, to make this his state of being. A great butler, according to him, puts his employer and service above all else.
In reflecting so, Stevens reveals a past mutual attraction with Miss Kenton, albeit one that was never acted on due to his strict sense of duty. He further begins to ponder upon his employer, and ultimately starts to question whether Lord Darlington had been worthy of such unwavering loyalty.
It is an elegiac story with its undertone of sadness, and perhaps even more potent because we experience it along with Stevens’ dawning understanding.
The 1993 film adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson is a fine piece of work. As a cinematic experience, it is near perfect (it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, though it didn’t win any). But in comparison to the subtle way Ishiguro lets us into the main character’s inner world in the book, the movie feels almost overwrought.
In the book, Ishiguro slowly, delicately lays a path for us into Stevens’ story, a path built so gradually with anecdotes, observations, and memories that we hardly remember when we became so intimately acquainted with the butler. It is a tale told almost entirely from the inside, which only adds to our investment in it.
This, of course, is almost impossible to achieve on screen, and so Hopkins’ Stevens is a character caught between his self-imposed stoicism and his own emotions or desires. The literary Stevens’ struggle was so internal it was almost imperceptible, even to himself; in contrast, the screen Stevens, because of the visual medium, has to externalise this struggle somehow. But in doing so, the very character of Stevens is altered.
The same issue crops up in another Ishiguro adaptation, the 2010 movie Never Let Me Go starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley. Again, it is an excellent movie with pitch-perfect performances.
Yet, because Ishiguro’s 2005 novel derived so much of its power from the first person point of view of its narrator, Kathy (Mulligan’s character in the movie), the film couldn’t help but feel detached. In the book, Ishiguro wraps us up in Kathy’s thoughts. In the movie, we are observers – involved, engaged, empathetic observers, but still, from the outside.
The visual medium, whether TV or film, is fundamentally different from books; expecting them to work upon their audience in the same way is not only unfair but self-limiting. Much of a book’s magic simply cannot be transferred to the screen; the interiority of many of Ishiguro’s stories, for instance. But experiencing how filmmakers try to transmute that onto the screen, however, is certainly a pleasure all its own – especially when they succeed.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.