Some of the films I like best are those that come from literary source material – novels, short stories, plays. In the coming months, some of the films I’m most looking forward to will be book to film adaptations.

Standing out from the pack for me are Walter Salles’ On the Road (novel by Jack Kerouac) and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald). Now, after seeing the first stills, I am also excited about Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (novel by Leo Tolstoy), starring Keira Knightley in the titular role, Jude Law as her husband, Alexei Karenin, and Aaron Johnson as her lover, Count Vronsky. And David Cronenberg tackling Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis also intrigues me. I’ll admit that I’m less enthusiastic about Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit (novel by J.R.R. Tolkien), although this is just a matter of literary taste, and I am sure there are many of you who are very enthusiastic about this one.

Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina in the forthcoming film
Jude Law as Alexei Karenin, Anna’s husband
Aaron Johnson as Count Vronsky, her lover

These coming attractions are all adaptations of classic and iconic novels that carry great cultural, social and aesthetic weight. The Tolstoy and Fitzgerald have been filmed several times before, some times more successfully than others. These new adaptations, due for release later this year, also carry the burden of expectation, and concurrently, anxiety, for those of us who care about such things.

For me personally, it doesn’t help that On the Road, The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina are among my favourite novels. Or that the anticipation of seeing some scenes brought to life is almost too much – the scene in Gatsby when Jay shows Daisy and Nick his many brightly coloured shirts as a sign of both his success and fragility, is my favourite in a book stuffed to bursting with beautiful passages, and I imagine Lurhmann doing something really wonderful here. Call me crazy, but I desperately want these new films to be worthy of the majesty of their sources – to respect them and refresh them.

But as a cinephile and a bibliophile, I happily accept that cinema and fiction are two very different modes of storytelling, and that what might necessarily work in one medium won’t in the other. A film has to create visual pictures that move action forward. Film is a sensory experience – it shapes narrative with mise-en-scène, editing and soundtrack. Books don’t. Like it or not, writing a film script will require quite a bit of rewriting of your favourite literary text.

All this has got me thinking. When people complain ‘it wasn’t as good as the book’ or ‘it was okay, but I liked the book better,’ what are they really saying? Do you need to read a book or play before seeing the film version to truly appreciate the film? If you do it the other way around – ‘that film really made me want to read the book now’ – what do you lose? What do you gain? If you reread a book after you have seen a film are you forever condemned to see your favourite character in the cinema of your mind as a certain actor played them? Why do we have to declare which we like better – book or film? And why would anyone want the experience they have when reading and the experience they have when viewing a film to be identical anyway?

Lots of questions, and I don’t pretend to have the answers to any of them. And I don’t pretend to know what, definitively, makes a good book to film adaptation. I’m sure there isn’t a science to it. I only know what works for me from what I like. But I don’t expect a book and film to mirror each other or have the same effect on me. I accept that each has to stand on their own merits as individual works of art; that each should be judged by different criteria. I don’t believe that literature is high culture and therefore always good or superior to popular ‘low’ culture like film.

But surely this much is true – these judgments can only be made if you have actually read the original source material. So although I loved David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m not going to say much more about it in this post since I haven’t read the book.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – loved the film, haven’t read the book

I don’t believe that a good adaptation is about the reproduction of word for word dialogue or a film that follows, in a precise chronology, the order of events that unfold in the book. I think a good adaptation is created by something else, something more elusive.

The films I feel most strongly about that have originally been literary texts are certainly films for which I continue to care equally about the novel or story or play. I know this to be true when I can say that I love and respect the original source and its film adaptation equally, because one enhances the experience of the other for me, yet each continues to stand alone, remains unique.

Here I am thinking about films like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Revolutionary Road (2008) – ‘faithful’ adaptations that stand on their own merit as dynamic works of art. No Country for Old Men (2007) can be said to be less ‘faithful’ – some of the novel’s details are rendered more ambiguously, but this suits the Coen’s very particular style and nothing essential is lost in the process. You would be pressed to fault it. Similarly, the masterful Anthony Minghella took a book many said couldn’t be filmed, The English Patient, and created a lyrically sensual film from Michael Ondaatje’s already richly evocative but more imagistic narrative.

To Kill a Mockingbird – one of the greatest book to film adaptations of all time

Another adaptation that has ‘something else’ is The Age of Innocence (directed by Martin Scorsese from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Edith Wharton). I saw this film when it first screened back in 1993, on its opening session of its opening day, which just happened to be the very day after I finished reading the book for the first time. The book was still pumping through my veins when Scorsese brought it to life with such emotion and attention to detail. It was so perfect an adaptation that it is now the benchmark by which I measure most others. Yes, the text was accurately expressed by characters and through Joanne Woodward’s graceful narration, and the narrative unfolded in the exact order of the book, but there was something more at work here. Scorsese had also captured the emotional heart of this novel with a visual language that literally gave the pages that had left my hands only hours earlier, a pulse. It felt like the book I had just read, just as much as it looked and sounded like I expected it to.

My favourite book to film adaptation – the sublime The Age of Innocence

When it comes to adaptation there are definitely some deal breakers. An ending that deviates dramatically from the original is likely to ruin most adaptations. That’s why Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961, Blake Edwards) is a good film, but a bad adaptation, with a crowd-pleasing ending so opposed to what Truman Capote wrote in his 1958 novella that you immediately want to run to your bookshelf to be reminded that things don’t actually end all tied up in a nice romantic bow for Holly Golightly. A change like this can really alter the significance of everything that came before (although cries from some people of ‘betrayal’ or ‘violation’ really are OTT).

Just to totally contradict myself, I also think that films that are not necessarily faithful to their original source material can still be judged successful as artful adaptations. Here I am thinking of films that deviate in significant or interesting ways from the original source.

Cabaret (1972, Bob Fosse) is the final bounty at the end of an adaptation process that began with a short story called ‘Sally Bowles’ by Christopher Isherwood (from his 1939 collection Goodbye to Berlin), which was then adapted by John Van Duten in 1951 into the play I Am a Camera before becoming the 1966 musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb that spawned the film we know and love. I am also thinking of a film like Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola), only very loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but which captures the central ideas of Conrad’s story (‘the horror, the horror’), even if scenes, settings and characters have changed.

Others, such as Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), are faithful to language, but play with setting and style. And films like Clueless (1995), which updates Jane Austen’s Emma, and Ten Things I Hate About You (1999), which follows a similar path as Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, are aimed specifically at younger audiences. These films are less interested in specificity than they are in positioning the skeleton of the classic text in a recognisable context (here, the American high school) to capture the attention of a new audience.

These films adapt with broader, looser brushstrokes that sophists may deem poorly judged or disrespectful or just plain wrong. But I think they triumph in other ways, bringing the original text to life with often bold new visions. That said, boldness for its own sake isn’t always advised. Jane Campion’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1996) is an example of a daring failure filled with choices that I don’t think pay off, such as the opening scene of contemporary Australian women talking about their first kiss.

Despite a cast that included Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Christian Bale and Viggo Mortensen, Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady was a messy adaptation

When they love it, people want fidelity to a book at all costs without really thinking whether this is even possible let alone desirable in the film. Adaptation is a process that by its nature requires a new version of a text being created – to adapt is to adjust or modify in some way. And sometimes this means omitting characters or events in the move from book to film.

Surely this will happen with Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. It’s a big book – not as big as War and Peace, but a total of 838 pages in my Penguin Classics edition, plus it has lots of characters and a few subplots that accentuate the main love story at its core. Books like this are special, difficult cases and when they become films, we should restrain our criticism and take these things into account. How do you render in a 90 minute or 120 minute (or even at the top end nowadays of 150 or 180 minute) shooting script the complexity of a novel like Anna Karenina? Sure, Doctor Zhivago (1965, David Lean) was 197 minutes, but the concentration span of the film-going public today is not what it used to be (how many times do you hear, ‘it was a bit long’ or ‘it was a bit slow’). Will we forgive Wright’s film if it culls some ancillary characters or some scenes that might be deemed non-essential to the integral core of the story? Is the only way to avoid such criticisms to adapt a book into a miniseries of 6 or 8 hours length, which has time to expand and explore?

Evelyn Waugh’s wonderful 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited is a case in point. Despite a cast that included Michael Gambon and Emma Thompson, and two of my favourite young British actors, Matthew Goode and Ben Whishaw as Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte, the 2008 adaptation was a miserable disappointment. Beautiful costumes, beautiful faces, the same glorious castle used for the Flyte family home in the lauded 1981 Granada series, but I am not sure what more can recommend it. When compared to the superb 11 episode miniseries – starring Jeremy Irons as Charles, Anthony Andrews as Sebastian, and other luminaries like John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom – the recent film reads like a novella. And this is strange to me because Waugh’s novel is not, like Tolstoy’s, what I would consider a special, difficult adaptation case.

Brideshead Revisited, the film, is missing something else – the essential feelings that make Waugh’s novel so lovely and ultimately moving and the slowness and nostalgia so gorgeously rendered in the Granada series. This languid mood allowed us into scenes that may have only been a few pages in the finished book but were expanded into what almost feels like real time. I was there sharing long, drunk summer’s days and nights with Charles and Sebastian at Brideshead; I was there on the ship from New York to London with Charles and Julia as they finally fell in love. A great adaptation decreases the distance between audience and screen, the way a great book does between reader and page.

The 1981 miniseries of Brideshead Revisited is the superior adaptation

(Other excellent TV adaptations that unfold over a series of episodes include: Mildred Pierce (novel by James M. Cain), The Line of Beauty (novel by Alan Hollinghurst), The Buddha of Suburbia (novel by Hanif Kureishi), White Teeth (novel by Zadie Smith), North and South (novel by Elizabeth Gaskell), and HBO’s extraordinary Angels in America (play by Tony Kushner)).

On the flipside, while the 1995 BBC miniseries of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (that first brought Colin Firth to many of our attention) was able to take its time to unravel a medium size novel, I wasn’t disappointed with Joe Wright’s truncated film version from 2005 (also starring Keira Knightley, his muse) because it captured all the wit and romance of the original material, and, dare I say, even heightened it for me. This suggests that a great adaptation doesn’t have to be a long one.

The magic of Austen is in Wright’s film – even if all the dialogue and scenes were not. And although I’m pretty sure that Austen didn’t write the following lines spoken by Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) when he comes to Lizzie through the morning mist to declare his love –

If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes have not changed. But one word from you will silence me forever. If, however, your feelings have changed … I would have to tell you, you have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love … I love … I love you. I never wish to be parted from you from this day on …

– I really didn’t mind at all. Gorgeous lines. High romance. Sigh.

A beautiful if not completely accurate moment from Pride and Prejudice

These sorts of deviations were also present in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (2011) starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. But I didn’t care. I found Fukunaga’s reworking of the order of events – starting with Jane’s escape from Thornfield Hall – inspired and effective. And I loved the intensity of the feeling between the film’s two leads. The scene in which Rochester begs Jane to stay and live with him despite his marriage to Bertha Mason is downright sexier than anything in Charlotte Brontë’s novel (‘Who would you offend by living with me? Who would care? … You’d rather drive me to madness than break some mere human law?’). And the film’s final scene evokes romance of the best kind – sure, it’s not where the novel actually ends, but here, it feels right. You might say it even improves on perfection.

Of course, some adaptations are just dreadful. This is true of the film version of The Human Stain (2003). Based on one of Philip Roth’s finest novels, this adaptation failed to do it justice on any level – a poorly cast, overwrought affair from beginning to end. Just thinking about it depresses me.

And yet, Elegy, starring Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz and Dennis Hopper in one of his final roles, which might be seen as less faithful to its original material (Roth’s novella, The Dying Animal) was one of the best films of 2008. It was, pure and simple, an excellent film, with a beautiful script and wonderful performances which you can’t say of The Human Stain.

When we read a great book, we make pictures in our heads of the scenes as they take place. We visualise what a character might look like, or how they sound. Sometimes when we see a film version of this book what we have imagined is matched by what we see. Sometimes it isn’t. And sometimes it is exceeded when we accept the essential differences in the mediums and the power of film to interpret words into a full sensory experience. That’s a good feeling – if we can get past this need to choose one form over the other, I think we can admit our expectations are exceeded more often than not.