August 23, 2013

All you’ve ever needed is your pencils and your imaginary worlds: How ‘The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones’ compares from book to film

I was on a cruise around the Pacific Islands in December last year, stretched out on a sun bed with Anna Karenina on my lap, when I first heard about The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare.

My younger sister was reading one of the paperbacks in the series. I can’t remember which one, but I do remember feeling intrigued by the rapid page at which she flicked through the pages. She was so engrossed that the cocktails, pools and spas on the decks of the cruise ship seemed to have no allure.

I looked at the front cover of the paperback, and immediately lost interest. It looked like any other young adult fantasy novel with its caricature of a lead character on the cover, shrouded in light against a dark and brooding background.

I still asked what it was about and she begrudgingly spared a few minutes to run through the basics of the story – of Jace and Clary, the demon hunters, and their exciting adventures against werewolves and vampires and an assortment of other dangerous and mythical creatures.

I feigned interest for a moment, and then turned back to Anna to Count Vronsky. And I didn’t give Cassandra Clare a second thought.

When the previews for the film version of City of Bones – the first book in the series – were shown on TV, I felt only a slight flicker in my memory. And it was with the interests of this blog alone that I again asked my sister about the series, and at her insistence decided to give it a go.

The first few chapters were hard going. The way the Clare set up the story seemed strained, and the characters clich├ęd. Of course there was a beautiful yet unassuming and unconfident female lead, and of course she had a geeky best friend who was secretly in love with her. And here comes the bad boy, the love interest and would steal her heart, and his cool and attractive sidekicks. And together this is the group of teenagers that would save the world without asking the adults for any help. Sigh.

I’m 27 years old. There are too many books in the world, and not enough time to read them all. I didn’t want to waste my time reliving the same old story about teenage angst and love triangles set in a magical sub-human reality.

But I persisted, and soon enough I too was turning page after page in quick succession. Something about the story pulled me in. The world was imaginative; its characters were endearingly flawed; and there was enough intrigue to keep me guessing. I laughed out loud a number of times at Clary and Jace’s witty sarcastic banter, and I found myself caring about what happened to them.

But – spoiler alert – when it was revealed just a few short chapters from the end of the book that Clary and Jace were brother and sister, I involuntarily yelled “No!!”

I texted my sister:

Me: “It’s so shit that Jace is her brother!!”

She: “Yeah. Keep reading though it gets worse!”

Me: “Does she still have a crush on him in the next book? I don’t think I could read that… It’s too ‘Flowers in the Attic.’”

I was so disappointed. This twist completely ruined it for me. I lost all interest in reading what would inevitably be a series of books about a troubled brother-and-sister duo despairingly fighting their romantic feelings for each other. Ick.

I told my sister that I was determined not to read another book, so she might as well tell me the key plot points of what happened next. Spoiler alert number two – thankfully, apparently you learn in book THREE (!!) that Jace and Clary are in fact NOT brother and sister. It was all an evil ruse by Valentine. Woo eee, you got me Cassandra Clare. Well played.

This knowledge took away the ick factor and I felt much better about the series. I finished City of Bones this afternoon, and I have just returned from seeing the movie. And I was pleasantly pleased.

As is often the case, there were LOTS of deviations from the book – but in my opinion they were all well warranted and made the film much more cinematically effective. By showing scenes that were beyond Clary’s first person point of view – like the interactions between her mother and Luke in the kitchen when they discovered that she had been drawing runes – added interesting new elements to the story.

My sister tells me that many of the ‘new’ facts that were revealed in the film were actually revealed in later books. For example, we were not supposed to know YET that Clary’s mother put herself into the coma, or that Valentine experimented with demon blood. We were also not supposed to know at this stage in the story that Clary and Jace are not brother and sister…

Yes, that’s right. I was very pleased that the filmmakers decided that the audience didn’t have to wait for this revelation. In the film, it was at Hodge’s suggestion that Valentine break the hearts of Jace and Clary by lying about their lineage. By doing this, their heartbreak could be keenly felt by the audience, without allowing the ick factor to seep in.

Very clever.

There were some other key changes, that helped to make the film a bit more action packed and dramatic:
  • In the book, Simon is turned into a rat at Magnus Bane’s party and is mistakenly kidnapped from Clary’s bag and taken to a vampire lair. In the film, he is not turned into a rat at all, but is intentionally poisoned and kidnapped and strung up in the lair by vampires who were after the Mortal Cup all along.
  • In the film Simon has a brief dalliance with Isabelle to make Clary jealous. There is no such dalliance in the film – Isabelle is much too aloof, and Simon too dweeby. It wouldn’t have been believable at all.
  • In the film, Clary notices Simon’s vampire bites. In the book, no one is aware that Simon was bitten. My sister said that revealing this fact so early will have significant impacts on the second film. I’ll have to take her word for it for now.
  • There is very little detail in the book about the back-story of the former generation – of Clary, Jace, Alec and Isabelle’s parents, and the actions of ‘The Circle’. Perhaps this will become more important in the second film?
  • Clary is given the opportunity to kick ass and she experiments with runes in the films. This must be something that she builds up to more gradually in the books.
  • Rather than fleeing The Institute at the end when his curse is lifted, Hodge stays on and has a role in the battle. In fact, everyone has a role to play in the final scenes (except for Alec, who is still unconscious) and the battle is in The Institute rather than at Valentine’s hideout. This was much more effective - I didn't like that all of the drama in the book was played out in a fancy room with only Luke and Valentine involved in the fighting.
  • The portal is also at The Institute in the film, whereas in the book there are two portals – one in Dorothea’s flat, and the other at the old asylum where Valentine is hiding.
  • The film doesn’t have any of the “Forsaken” – the tortured and now monstrous humans who inhabited Clary’s apartment and then acted as Valentine’s army.
  • In the book, as far as we are aware by the end, Valentine escaped through the portal with the Mortal Cup. In the film, Clary flummoxes him with a replica and hides the real cup back inside the tarot card.
In all, I have to say that despite my initial reservations and snobbishness, I did come to enjoy this story. This is a series that I will follow with some interest. And the film did succeed on improving upon what was already a solid original.

The verdict:

How does the film rate: 4/5

How does the film rate as an adaptation: 4/5

Total: 8/10

Book or Big Screen: Big Screen

August 11, 2013

Would you like to live, with your soul in the grave: How ‘Wuthering Heights’ compares from book to film

Full declaration: Wuthering Heights is my favourite novel.

I have multiple copies, both old and new, paperback and leather bound. I have a large framed Spineless classics version above my bed. I sing the Kate Bush song repeatedly in my car.

There’s something that appeals to me about Catherine and Heathcliff – two of the most flawed literary characters of all time – who are so alike that they equally love and loathe each other. Their love is unconditional, they are meant to be together, and yet it is their own choices and follies that prevent it. They love each other with such ferocity that it only causes pain to themselves and everyone around them.

I don’t know what this says about my own character, but there is just something about the complete imperfection of Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship that appeals to me…

But anyway – as you would if noticed if you read my last review, I can be quite particular about how my favourite novel is adapted to the big screen. In my opinion, the 2011 film by Andrea Arnold didn’t cut the mustard.

I re-read every book before I review it – so while Wuthering Heights is so fresh in my mind, I thought I’d compare it to another film version. This time, the comparison will be of the 1970 version starring Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder-Marshall.

Before the opening credits, the film begins with Catherine’s funeral, whose tombstone is surrounded by villagers. Only two of the mourners, Ellen Dean and Edgar Linton, appear to be grieving. When a glassy-eyed Edgar looks out beyond the churchyard, he sees Heathcliff on horseback on the crest of a hill.

Catherine’s funeral acts as the bookend for the film – the beginning, as well as the end. Like the 2011 film, this version also ends with Catherine’s death and completely omits the second half of the novel.

In my last review, I criticised Andrea Arnold for depriving viewers of the half of the story that offered any form of hope or resolution – but with this version I felt more forgiving. In the closing scenes, director Robert Fuest shows Heathcliff chasing Catherine’s ghost through the moors and to Wuthering Heights. Catherine’s ghost is smiling as a gunshot rings out, and it is all over.

This is a completely different ending to that which was written by Emily Bronte. In the novel, Heathcliff lives more than twenty years after Catherine – long enough to wreak havoc on the lives of the next generation of the Linton and Earnshaw families.

In Arnold’s film, the end credits roll with Heathcliff throwing himself against a wall. There is no light, no resolution. At least in Fuest’s concocted ending, the story has finality.

The Heathcliff of the novel only ever dreamed of Catherine haunting him – but in this film gets what he desires. And even though they are both dead, and all is effectively lost, their ghosts running happily through the moors gives the audience closure.

The 1970 film is in large part a very faithful adaptation. Like in the novel, Nelly has the role as the narrator and moral compass of the story. All the key plot points are there – from Heathcliff’s arrival under the coat of Mr Earnshaw, until his return to Wuthering Heights as an adult.

But along the way there are some noticeable differences:

  • When Mr Earnshaw arrives home with Heathcliff, he makes a point of announcing that the boy has been named after their first son – a boy who died. Much more importance is placed on Heathcliff’s position in the household than Bronte intended.
  • When Heathcliff comes out from under Mr Earnshaw’s coat, it is only Hindley who reacts negatively. In the book, Catherine is equally as petulant and cruel.
  • Hindley is generally treated in a much more favourable light in the film. He is presented as being undeserving of Mr Earnshaw’s poor treatment, and the audience is encouraged to pity him. It is also rewritten that Nelly harbored a desire to be Hindley’s wife.
  • Like in the 2011 film, the ages of the children at key points of the story have been altered. Catherine and Heathcliff appear to be adults when they sit at Mr Earnshaw’s knee on the night that he died. Heathcliff is also completely protected by Hindley’s physical abuse until he was fully grown.
  • Heathcliff is heard calling Mr Earnshaw “father” – something that never occurs in the book. In general, in the book, it is insinuated that the only person that Heathcliff truly cares about is Catherine, and he only tolerates Mr Earnshaw out of convenience. In this film, he seems to have a true admiration and fondness for the man.
  • The discrepancies with their ages are a little off-putting at times. Catherine and Heathcliff are seen meandering through the moors as adults, and generally appear to be acting too childish. Anna Calder-Marshall’s Catherine is generally too giddy and absurd looking for my liking.
  • The scene where Catherine urges Heathcliff to never leave was written into the screenplay. The Catherine of the book would have been too headstrong and confident to fear or beg of anything, even of Heathcliff.
  • Joseph is much more proper, and speaks much better than he does in the book. He is also not as pious or as aggravating. There is no equivalent to Zillah, the maid who replaces Nelly at Wuthering Heights.
  • As mentioned previously, in neglecting the second half of the novel, the film omitted a number of the book’s key characters – Catherine’s daughter Cathy, Heathcliff’s son Linton, and Hindley’s son Hareton. Hareton at least is born, but he is said to have died in infancy. Catherine dies in childbirth, but there is no mention of her daughter lived.
  • Heathcliff is much more physical with Catherine than he is in the book. He lashes out at her once in the barn, and throws her down by the hair in the grounds of Thrushcross Grange. His literary equivalent never harmed Catherine. He was also never shown rolling around on the ground in the throws of love with her either.
  • The pivotal scene where Catherine admits to Nelly that she will marry Edgar is there – and to a point is faithful. Catherine delivers a more succinct version of her speech and Heathcliff overhears from the hall. The difference is that Catherine discovers that Heathcliff overheard her speech before she was able to confess to Nelly her true feelings for him – this is done in the grounds of Wuthering Heights, when she has already begun searching for Heathcliff.
  • In the film, Catherine consents to go away with Heathcliff but it is he that decides to stay put. He is already plotting his revenge on Hindley, and already possesses the deeds to Wuthering Heights, and tells Catherine that he “has things to do” first. This never happens in the book – Catherine never agreed to leave with Heathcliff, she was only ever going to stay with Edgar.
  • Cathy doesn’t poke fun at Isabella for fancying Heathcliff the way that she does in the book. In fact, in the film she doesn’t seem to care two hoots about the blossoming affair between the love of her life and her sister-in-law. She seems completely unfazed and unthreatened by the prospect of it.
  • The scene in the kitchen where Edgar strikes Heathcliff on the gullet and Catherine throws the key in the fire is true to the word on the page – but the fall-out afterwards is much more dramatic. When Heathcliff flees, he fights two men with an iron rod on his way out, and screaming ladies spill from the house. Edgar even takes a shot at him as he runs away.

Despite its differences, this forty-year-old adaptation is true to the spirit of Wuthering Heights, and I believe the filmmakers understood the intentions of Emily Bronte well.

The verdict:

How does the film rate? 3/5

How does the film rate as an adaptation? 4/5

Total score: 7/10

Book or Big Screen? Book

August 3, 2013

All sinners would be miserable in heaven: How ‘Wuthering Heights’ compares from book to film

Adapting Wuthering Heights to the big screen would be a challenge for any filmmaker. The classic novel by Emily Bronte spans forty-odd years and details the lives of two generations in the Earnshaw and Linton households.

The story centres on the depiction of raw human emotion, and instead of pivotal events and plot points to propel the narrative the novel flows through impassioned prolonged speeches and detailed descriptions of the harsh and unforgiving landscape.

Told in a non-linear fashion, the novel begins with the arrival of a Mr Lockwood to Thrushcross Grange, who takes it upon himself to visit his landlord – a Mr Heathcliff at the neighbouring estate, Wuthering Heights.

At Mr Lockwood’s insistence, the housekeeper Ellen Dean (Nelly) soon begins to relay the stories of the prior inhabitants of the two houses. She begins with Mr Heathcliff’s arrival at Wuthering Heights as a young boy, and his blossoming friendship with the young Catherine Earnshaw.

Over the course of the novel, Nelly’s tale continues right through Catherine and Heathcliff’s teenage years, and into their adulthood when Catherine marries Edgar Linton from Thrushcross Grange. After Catherine’s death, the story then continues well into the lives of each of Catherine and Heathcliff’s children.

In bringing the book to the big screen in 2011, writer-director Andrea Arnold was faced with the obvious challenge of how to convincingly cast each of the characters at their various ages – from early childhood, through to adolescence and then into adulthood – and how to condense the sweeping story into one digestible feature-length film.

For Arnold, the answer was to begin with Shannon Beer and Solomon Gaive as the teenage Catherine and Heathcliff, and to end with Kaya Scodelario and James Howson as the relatively young adult-versions of the characters. The film ends with Heathcliff’s reaction to Catherine’s death and the second generation – and therefore the whole second half of the novel – is omitted altogether.

I can see where Arnold was coming from, with only attempting to adapt the first half of the novel. The lore around Wuthering Heights does centre on Catherine and Heathcliff and their passionate and doomed love affair. But by leaving out the rest of the story – of Cathy Linton, Linton Heathcliff and Hareton Earnshaw, and ultimately of Heathcliff’s demise – the film is barely able to progress to the middle before it ends.

Yes, the love that Heathcliff and Catherine share is all consuming. Their obsession for each other is the aspect of the novel that has the most impact, and is therefore the most remembered. But Wuthering Heights is not Romeo and Juliet – it is not about the kind of selfless love between two people that cannot exist without each other. Wuthering Heights is about a love that is so intense and selfish, and causes so much pain, that it could only ever end with one dead and the other mortally wounded.

Andrea Arnold’s 2011 adaptation is extensively pared back – and not only in content. The film is dark, desolate and completely devoid of colour and music – this absence of colour reminds me of an amateur theatre production of Wuthering Heights on an empty wooden stage. Also stripped bare is the dialogue. As mentioned previously, it is the grand speeches that allow the novel to flow, but in the film the characters are largely silent.

One of the most memorable scenes in the novel is when Catherine confesses to Nelly the depth of her love for Heathcliff, yet admits that she has consented to marry Edgar Linton. Unbeknownst to Catherine, Heathcliff overhears her intention to marry but tragically flees before she declares:

“…he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”

This pivotal scene – the only time when Catherine shows forgivable emotion – is completely missing from the film. The audience never hears her confession, and is therefore deprived of the most powerful and heartfelt speech of the novel.

Although frequently described as rough, wild and surly, Heathcliff too is prone to loudly profess his feelings in the novel. Even in his youth, he exclaims:

“She is so immeasurably superior to them – to everybody on earth, is she not, Nelly?”

In the film, Heathcliff is comparatively dumb and mute. The only time that he admits his feelings is when standing in the drawing room at Thrushcross Grange as an adult. The rest of the film is all long looks and brooding silences, and Heathcliff could easily be mistaken for lamenting over his station in life and his cruel treatment at the hands of Hindley Earnshaw, rather than over his heartbreak.

In the novel, the reader is never under any doubt on the deep connection between Catherine and Heathcliff. As children their time together created a sense of fun and frivolity and it was clear that they completed each other and needed nothing else. In the film, a strange sexual connection between the adolescent couple is established with close-ups of Catherine’s hair and neck and lingering shots of Heathcliff’s quivering hand, but Catherine is more wild than affectionate and Heathcliff seems too morose to care.

Consistent with the novel, the film is told retrospectively, but without the help of Nelly or Mr Lockwood. The film begins with grown-up Heathcliff’s reaction to Catherine’s death. Overcome with grief, he throws himself repeatedly against a wall – an act that is reminiscent of his literary equivalent’s days in the grounds of Thrushcross Grange when he ferociously beats his head against the trunk of a tree. Loosely adapted from the novel, it borrows some familiar ideas and imagery – such as Catherine’s initials etched onto the wall, and the branch scratching against the window.

The film then continues with the back-story of Catherine and Heathcliff’s upbringing and growing bond, until it finally comes full circle and we once again see Heathcliff at his height of grief. It is a powerful scene that conveys the extent of Heathcliff’s obsessive devotion to Catherine.

When Catherine dies, she leaves Heathcliff a broken, traumatised and sadistically twisted man. He spends the rest of the novel reaping havoc on everyone that is left living. But by ending the film with Catherine’s death, the film fails to demonstrate the full extent of Heathcliff’s anger and penchant for revenge. All the audience knows is that he is heartbroken. Without showing the next generation, the audience has no idea that Heathcliff spends the rest of his life plotting revenge. They also have no idea that, against all odds, the original story does have a happy ending.

Some other deviations from the book to the big screen:

  • Although uncouth and isolated, the Earnshaws of the book were a respectable land-owning family, considered to be of noble breeding. Wuthering Heights was a country estate – although less grand than Thrushcross Grange, it was considered “the next best in the neighbourhood.” In the book, the family are depicted as poor, simple folk with no illusions of grandeur. The homestead is little more than a dirty shack.
  • In the novel, Heathcliff is described as “a dark-skinned gypsy” with a “degree of under-bred pride.” As Heathcliff is an orphan, the reader never learns of his true origins, but there is the implication that he looks exotic and for that reason it would be unseemly for Catherine to associate with him. In the film, Arnold ups the ante and interprets Heathcliff’s dark skin literally in casting Glave and Howson, who are both of Afro-Caribbean descent. For me, it works.
  • As mentioned previously, Arnold took liberty with the ages of the characters. In the book Heathcliff arrives when Catherine is six and leaves when she is at womanhood. In the film, it is a teenage Catherine that rambles with Heathcliff on the moors. She still appears to be an adolescent when she accepts Edgar’s marriage proposal. The grown-up Catherine (played with great charisma by Kaya Scodelario) is introduced later.
  • In the book, the reader is never under any doubt about Catherine and Heathcliff’s feelings for each other. It is only by their pride and folly, and not through lack of love, that they do not end up together. In the film, it is not so clear – Catherine and Heathcliff do appear to have a strange and slightly inappropriate brother-sister relationship, which is a little unsettling at times (in particular when she begins to lick at his back wounds!), but there is never anything overtly romantic and neither admit their feelings out loud until Heathcliff gruffly admits his feelings as an adult.
  • In the book, when Heathcliff returns from his travels, Catherine is giddy with excitement. In the film she is stern and stubbornly unforgiving of his leaving. The two versions of scenes have the biggest contrast – one Catherine is all laughter and the other has a firm control of her feelings.
  • Although the film Catherine is sufficiently selfish, the adaptation does not show the full extent of her mad ravings – of how she has the habit of trashing about and tearing at pillows with her teeth, and starving herself to deliberately reach a point of delirium.
  • The symbolism of the feathers was a nice touch to the film. In the book, Catherine found a lapwing nest full of tiny skeletons, and makes Heathcliff promise to never shoot one again. In the film, Catherine’s habit of collecting feathers becomes an important part of their childhood bonding and the lapwing becomes a symbol of their closeness.

This adaptation is raw and gritty, and brought down to its roots. Where the novel made grand speeches, the film settled for long looks and silences. Where the book allowed spring to flourish, the film persisted with the wind and the rain.

While Arnold’s adaptation captured the darkness and shades of Wuthering Heights, it neglected its light. Essentially, this is an illiterate version of a literary classic.

The verdict:

How does the film rate? 2/5

How does the film rate as an adaptation? 2/5

Total score: 4/10

Book or Big Screen? Book