“The book is always better” is one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that people tend to parrot back and forth to each other without really believing. It’s obviously untrue in a dozen different ways: even if we leave aside all the ways that books and films being just fundamentally different artforms makes direct comparison reductive at best, I don’t think anyone would argue that The Godfather or Jaws are better books than films, because the books are enjoyable pulpy novels and the films are masterpieces. Besides, good and great films are adapted from books that nobody cares about, or has even heard of, all the time. It’s hardly worth taking “the book is always better” seriously as an idea because the weight of counterexample is so strong.
But people still say it, as a way to fill a silence if nothing else. You mention some new film adaptation of a literary classic or a recent bestseller, and they say, “well, I think the book is always better,” as you nod along sagely, even though neither of you actually think that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a pale imitation of the novel. “The book is always better” is just the visible trace of something larger, in how we think about adaptation and how different mediums relate to one another.
I don’t think most people are heavily committed to the idea of fidelity in adaptation – vanishingly few people, even among critics and academics, are heavily committed to any literary theories – but it ends up being how we talk about adaptation anyway, at least when it comes to adapting novels into films. Is it faithful to the book; is it faithful to the spirit of the book; does it make too many changes or leave too much out. The adaptation’s relationship to its source is subservient: it succeeds by diligently recreating its source in a new medium and fails by not doing so. But films and novels are such different forms that it is literally impossible to adapt one into the other without major changes. So talking about fidelity to the “spirit” of the book, a thing which does not exist, acts as a Get Out of Jail Free card. Calling an adaptation true to the spirit of the book usually means little more than “it made changes which I personally liked”.
I’ve been critical of faithfulness in adaptation for a long time – at least since I fell in love with Robert Redford’s Ordinary People as a TCM-watching teen and then foolishly decided to read Judith Guest’s shitty novel – but it’s such an engrained way of thinking that I can’t help but lapse back into it. If I dislike a film adaptation of a book I really love, I have to actively the fight the idea in my own head that the problem is that the film is not enough like the book. The Harry Potter series should have been really easy to adapt in some ways, because it’s an opportunity to tell the story without JK Rowling’s sometimes clunky prose (how often do people “overbalance” in those books?). But the Harry Potter films are very bad and the books are good. I can articulate lots of reasons for the films being bad without reference to the books – they are astonishingly ugly once David Yates takes over as director, for one thing, a dark dull palette of browns in these magical movies for kids – but it’s hard not to eventually circle back around to how different they made Ron Weasley or whatever.
My least favourite genre of criticism is criticising a film (or book, or play, or whatever) for not being a totally different film (or book or play). The pathetic, foot-stomping whine of “why didn’t this happen instead?”, failing to engage with the work that actually exists at all. Complaining that Trainwreck isn’t a completely different film about how Amy Schumer’s character being single is empowering, instead of a romcom about an alcoholic; that Marie Antoinette doesn’t show the Revolution and Marie’s beheading; that Wes Anderson keeps making films in the style of Wes Anderson, even. Engaging deeply with the work is the critic’s job, and by that measure, “why didn’t this happen instead” is useless. It’s pitching your screenplay. And there’s nothing wrong with pitching your screenplay, but it’s not film criticism.
But when it comes to talking about adaptations and their sources, the “why didn’t this happen”s come so easily that it’s hard to keep them at bay. That they come so easily is partly why they’re so common. “[T]his is such an easy way to show off some fake kind of erudition,” Pauline Kael wrote in her review of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, “even newspaper reviewers can demonstrate that they’ve read a book by complaining how different the movie is from the novel.”
I love Kael’s review of Lolita. I love her witty, fluid prose, how she skewers a critical response obsessed with comparing it to the novel (“they don’t complain this much about Hollywood’s changes in biblical stories”), and her incisive analysis of Peter Sellers’s performance: “There has been much critical condescension toward Sellers, who’s alleged to be an impersonator rather than an actor, a man with many masks but no character. Now Sellers does a turn with the critics’ terms: his Quilty is a character employing masks, an actor with a merciless talent for impersonation.” I read Kael’s review and I almost love Kubrick’s Lolita in a way that I don’t actually watching it.
Kubrick’s Lolita is flawed in ways that make it easy to complain about too much being changed or too much left out. Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, the deathbed confession of college professor and paedophile Humbert Humbert, is extraordinary and brilliant, and Kubrick’s film is both obviously different and a real mixed bag. Kael makes fun of the idea that sixteen-year-old Sue Lyon was too old to play Lolita (“Besides, wasn’t the girl who played Lolita practically a matron?”), but she’s old enough that it makes Humbert less the monster that he is in the novel than a pathetic figure, hopelessly devoted to a girl whose life is so much bigger than his part in it. Kael gleefully mocks the New Republic for suggesting that if Humbert had narrated the film, “the temper of the original” could have been “tastefully preserved”, but there is something strange in that shift away from Humbert’s perspective. There are things that novel does that the film cannot, either due to the nature of the medium – its suffocating first-person point of view, its use of language – or due to studio censorship – its eroticism – that feel so central to the novel that the film can feel strangely pointless in comparison.
But when I stop thinking about the film Lolita in terms of the novel, it reveals an abundance of pleasures entirely its own. Peter Sellers’s performance as Quilty, posing in various disguises throughout, is perfect; I could listen to him say “normal looking” forever and laugh every time. It’s got a wonderful vein of slapstick and farce running through it that the novel doesn’t: stuff like Humbert noisily attempting to set up a cot bed couldn’t possibly work on the page, but in the film it’s hilarious. The film has flaws, too, that are its own: its pacing is weird and lags in places, and its opening scene – at the end of the story, when Humbert goes to kill Quilty, before flashing back to the beginning – doesn’t work without any set-up. It’s impossible for me to fully separate the film from the novel, but the more I separate them in the mind, the more I get out of Kubrick’s Lolita.
Kael makes this case for taking an adaptation entirely on its own independent terms so well in her review of Lolita that it makes her review of A Clockwork Orange baffling. A Clockwork Orange is deeply connected to Lolita in my mind: Kubrick’s second attempt to adapt an unadaptable novel, defined in equal part by its overwhelming first-person narration, unique use of language, and lightning-rod controversial content.
A Clockwork Orange, the Anthony Burgess novel, is a dazzling stylistic experiment, written exclusively in the Russian-inflected teen slang of a future dystopia. The rhythm and momentum of prose pulls you along as you adjust to its unfamiliar language: it’s like the way your ear adjusts when watch good Shakespeare, but done entirely on the page. It’s also an intensely moral book about the nature of evil and free will. Alex is a violent rapist roaming the street with his gang of thugs, and after he’s sent to prison, he’s given an experimental new treatment to make him incapable of acts of violence. Thoughts of violence (or hearing Beethoven, which was played during the treatment) make him feel horrifically sick. I think people tend to reflexively lean on Burgess’s Catholicism to describe its moral outlook – especially since the extent to which Burgess was lapsed seems unclear – but it does register in a deeply Catholic part of my heart. It’s about what it means to do evil to evil people, what it means to rob the wicked of the capacity for moral choice.
For Kael, the point of the novel is that the sadistic version of Alex and the “good” version are both clockwork oranges: mechanised creatures created by a society that deprives people of moral choice. His bad behaviour pre-conditioning is the result of another, less direct form of conditioning. Kael writes that the film follows the plot closely but “the meanings are turned around”: the ending, where Alex’s conditioning against violence is reversed, is drained of its irony and instead treated as a triumph, a “victory in which we all share”.
Kael’s critique rests largely on unfavourable comparisons with the novel: that it’s slow and lumbering in comparison with the novel’s zippy pace, that its use of futuristic teen slang comes off much more arch than on the page, but mostly, its framing of Alex, and how that corrupts the moral structure of the novel. She says that many of the novel’s obstacles to our identification with Alex, like his paedophilia and animal cruelty, are removed, while his suffering is emphasised to the exclusion of all else. “The ‘straight’ people are far more twisted than Alex; they seem inhuman and incapable of suffering. He alone suffers,” she writes, “And how he suffers! He’s a male Little Nell… Kubrick pours on the hearts and flowers; what is done to Alex is far worse than what Alex has done, so society itself can be felt to justify Alex’s hoodlumism.”
But Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange is an intensely moral work, probably rivalled for moral clarity in his filmography only by Paths of Glory. Its moral focus is tilted differently to the novel’s but is just as sharp.
I think that too much is generally made of audience “identification” – it’s somehow both an oversimplification and overcomplication of watching a film, alternately imagining the median audience’s identificatory powers as extremely elastic (easily identifying with the most uncomfortable, unsavoury characters at the slightest suggestion) or extraordinarily narrow (sharply divided on gender lines) depending on the argument. I have watched A Clockwork Orange many times and never felt that I was “identifying” with Alex, because Alex is a monster. But I get what Kael means, because I enjoy Alex very much. Malcolm McDowell’s performance is lightning in a bottle, taking these small flashes and moments from his performance as an aspiring school shooter in If… and expanding them into a fully sustained character. It might be my favourite acting performance of all time. But what I admire so much about it is how utterly compelling he is while playing a complete psychopath with zero interiority. I couldn’t identify with Alex if I wanted to because there’s nothing there to identify with: he’s not just shallow, he’s empty.
This is what undergirds the film’s morality: it’s interested in how society and the state treat people as irredeemable as Alex. Even though it follows the novel so closely, the film strikes me as more interested in the politics of crime and punishment than free will as a philosophical issue. It’s more a matter of emphasis than of difference: they’re two sides of the same thematic coin, really. But the film has an especial satirical eye for the political uses of Alex. The prison warden complaining that the conditioning is, essentially, liberal bullshit by emphasising rehabilitation over punishment, even as we see that what they do to him has nothing to do with rehabilitation and is far worse punishment than a prison sentence. Frank Alexander (a truly insane Patrick Magee) thinking that what was done to Alex is a horrible act of state brutality right up until the moment he realises Alex led the gang who brutalised and raped his wife. The scale of the photo op that the government minister has with Alex once he’s been “cured”, with flowers and dozens of journalists and six-foot speakers blasting Beethoven.
Kael writes that Clockwork Orange carries over Kubrick’s “jokey adolescent view of hypocritical, sexually dirty authority figures” from Dr. Strangelove. Along with its emphasis of Alex’s suffering, this makes the film essentially vicious and nihilistic. It’s about Alex vs. The Establishment, putting us firmly on Alex’s side. For Kael, by not making the same point she got from the book about both the sadistic Alex and the “good” Alex being mechanised creatures, the film fails to have any real moral perspective at all.
But the film’s disdain for hypocritical authority figures and how they try to use Alex for political ends is an incisive critique of state violence. With the exception of the prison chaplain, the only objections any character has to the conditioning treatment is that it’s too soft on crime. It’s barely an exaggeration on how we react to acts of violence by the state now, from the extraordinary to the mundane: people try to justify murders by police by pointing to alleged crimes of the victims all the time, as if committing a crime means you deserve to die; huge swathes of people support the death penalty, even in countries where it has been abolished for decades; it is, somehow, a political non-issue that the United States is currently involved in the longest war of its history and bombing several other countries besides. Kael writes that Kubrick assumes the “new attitude” that everything is rotten and there is no moral difference between the violent and their victims. But this seems crazy, when the point the film makes is so simple and obvious and true: Alex is the lowest of the low, a monster that no-one could love, and so the state can do what they like with him. The “cure” – carried out entirely for PR reasons after Alex’s suicide attempt – involves brain surgery that they don’t even tell Alex about (when he tells the nurse he had strange dreams about his head being cut open, she brushes him off).
Kael’s review of Clockwork Orange holds onto the source text too closely, filtering her dislike for the film through her obvious love of the novel. It’s a way of thinking I recognise in my own reaction to Kubrick’s Lolita. And it’s a way of thinking that’s ultimately limiting, like putting frosted glass between yourself and the screen. I think the critic should cultivate a kind of disinterest in the source. Not that you shouldn’t bring a wider knowledge of culture and society to what you’re watching, but that you should treat an adaptation’s source as just another part of that culture, one of a thousand possible intertexts that may or may not help you think more deeply about the film. Comparisons between an adaptation and its source can definitely sometimes be interesting – it is probably easier to grasp what a work of genius Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is if you understand how she upended the novel’s structure – but it is more often than not, like Kael wrote about Lolita, a way of showing off that you’ve read a book.
I read and loved A Clockwork Orange years before I would watch the film, but when I think about Kubrick’s film, I don’t think about the book at all. I think about its many indelible images – Alex in his cricket whites and black hat, false eyelashes on one of his eyes, drinking a glass of milk – and about Wendy Carlos’s music, Rossini and Elgar and Beethoven on Moog synthesiser. I think about hardly being able to pull my eyes away from Malcolm McDowell even as I am repulsed by him. Burgress’s novel reads like it’s unfilmable, but Kubrick’s film is so cinematic that it makes you wonder how A Clockwork Orange could ever have been anything else.