“Based on the Novel By” – Is Film Indebted to Literature?

With Hollywood’s ever-growing attraction to adapting the works of literature, we ask, whatever happened to originality?

Despite much advancement in cinematic technology, it seems that certain avenues of contemporary cinema are, in fact, running in reverse. As opposed to the fresh minds of talented screenwriters, Hollywood, for many years, has found their ideas rooted amongst the musky pages of already established books, or as the decades role past, just in any books. As the boundaries between filmmaking and literature become even more blurred, we ask what ever happened to original screenplays? Is Hollywood finally out of ideas?

Cinema history has allowed itself to be dictated by age-old stories that have already been told in some way or another. Whether it’s classic fairy tales, Shakespeare, period dramas, historical biopics or just the run of the mill “based on the novel by”, it seems that Hollywood screenwriters struggle to come up with just a little innovation.

Although we are subjected to more and more of this “falling on literature” way of operation in contemporary filmmaking, film’s history proves that this is in fact nothing new to the cinematic world. The list of classic novels turned classic films is infinite: The Godfather, The Shining, Trainspotting, The English Patient, Silence of the Lambs, The Shawshank Redemption, so on and so forth. Said movies, inclusive of its many alike, has indeed contributed to the way we view cinema today. So are we correct in thinking that this says more about literature than it does about film? In endlessly hijacking novel narratives and churning out some Hollywood factory-made product for the masses, does that mean that the vast filmic empire owes some kind of debt to its literary cousins?

We suddenly have a dichotomy of opinion. Literary scholars would argue superiority, simply because novels have generally always provided the basis for which film could grow. However, film theorists would argue that it is in the reworking of a novel’s narrative into a filmic narrative that helps to keep its pages alive, as it renews its stance in the mainstream.

For the man on the fence, to declare inter-dependence would also be valid. Global franchises such as James Bond, The Lord of the Rings, Twilight, The Hunger Games and Harry Potter are all indebted to their source material because without it, there would be no film franchise. Then again, its source material is similarly indebted to the film that follows it. Cinema has the power to give works of literature time in the spotlight and the recognition that it may not necessarily garner on its own strength.

Over the years, Hollywood has learned, or perhaps has secretly always known, that it is an assurance of fidelity to claim a film to be based on a novel, especially when we deal with bestsellers such as Shutter Island, Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Woman In Black. Whilst inviting this literary stigma to be attached to a particular film, the potential fan base is maximised, as followers of its neighbouring medium are essentially hoodwinked. Moreover, in promoting high-concept advertising strategy, there even lies the risk of persuading one that the filmic version is in fact the superlative; Harry Potter – book or film?

When a novel or piece of writing endures success, those Hollywood studio vultures, suddenly with dollar signs for eyeballs, are quick to push for a cinematic release date; 50 Shades of Grey acts as a good example. This can only ever be one-way traffic though, as whoever heard of a book “based on the film by”?

With the general consensus now being that cinema is dry of original ideas, more and more of us are acclimatising to the quick spreading notion that the best storytelling, in the here and now, belongs to television. However, what people don’t know is even hit TV programmes leech off literature. Dexter, Homeland, True Blood, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire and Bones all derive from literary works already in existence. So, again we ask, what ever happened to originality?

There is a mutual comprehension amongst cinemagoers that says, yes, the majority of our box office titles are in some way tied to specific literary source material. But is it acceptable to believe that we find absolution in the fact that film can offer us something that the book cannot? In the meantime, we continue to wait for the next original screenplay to come along and blow our minds; and blow our minds it will, simply because we are no longer used to it.

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