Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
Had you picked up a copy of John LeCarré's thriller, The Constant Gardener
, six months ago, you would have found a sedate, humble-looking book: subdued aqua tones, brown lettering, and the silhouettes of flying insects.
Pick up a copy today -- if you can find one -- and you find quite a different picture: the face of the actor Ralph Fiennes, dirty, bruised, struggling across an African savannah. In a transparent, almost profile above him, like a cathedral mosaic, you see Fiennes and the actress Rachel Weisz in an embrace. Both co-star in the movie adaptation of LeCarré's novel. And, as modern publishing custom appears to dictate, both now appear on the cover of the book itself.
This phenomenon has been going on for some time. In 1990, LeCarré's The Russia House
was adapted for the screen, and today one can still find dog-eared copies of the novel with Sean Connery
and Michelle Pfeiffer on the cover, cheek to cheek. It has become an expected, and not altogether pleasant, reality in modern literature: if a book becomes a movie, the cover becomes a movie poster. And underneath the image on the cover, you will read those familiar, tantalizing words: "Now a Major Motion Picture."
There are more examples than we can discuss: thrillers (Thomas Harris' Red Dragon
now sport Anthony Hopkins' sinister sneer on the cover), modern novels (Michael Cunningham's The Hours
features Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman in sad assembly), and even works by novelists now considered canonical (Graham Greene's The Quiet American
shows Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser under a fiery brushstroke image of a geisha). The trend is everywhere.
And it is extremely irritating.
To see a book cover updated with images of movie actors, in various states of distress, anguish, ecstasy, or earnest contemplation, is like a seed in the teeth. Why? One reason is that the movie followed the book, and not the other way around. Although the movie has been adapted from
the book, a sort of devolution has taken place; the work of fiction that inspired the film has now become a billboard that serves it. Original literature is reduced to a new kind of movie tie-in
It is helpful here to distinguish between the movie tie-in and the movie adaptation. A movie tie-in is marketed with the release of a movie. The novelization of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith
, by Matthew Woodring Stover, accompanied the movie's release (and in this rare case, preceded it). By contrast, the photograph of Hopkins and Emma Thompson on the cover of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day
followed the movie's success. The book was branded with the movie image.
This cheats us as readers. It assumes we are only consumers of products, rather than digesters of art. It assumes we don't mind having our art packaged in recognizable wrappers
, a family of products easy to spot. Like many covert messages in our capitalist marketplace, the unspoken message runs something like this: Buy the book and be a part of something. A fad, a movement, everyone is doing it. Ride the wave, don't be left out. Even if we don't want to participate in this commoditization, we may not have a choice. Unless you are buying used or at a bookstore with slow turnover, you will not find a copy of The Constant Gardener
with the original cover today.
What may be worse is that this phenomenon cheats our actual reading experience. One of the joys of reading is the priming of the imagination. Words, tone, characters shape the flow of pictures and thought in our mind so that we are see the events of the book our
way. Each of us experiences a novel's events singularly and uniquely.
But once a film image
has been attached, it is not so easy to separate our mental pictures from the ones supplied for us. The images are delivered ready-made. In a way, this is a kind of relief; we don't have to work so hard to conjure up our own experience. We get lazy. We let the book cover fill in the blanks. And we lose out on one of the great exercises of living: the use of our imagination. Think of Harry Potter. The lankier, shy Harry I pictured when I read the books has now been morphed in my mind into a sort of stretched-out Daniel Radcliffe from the movie adaptations. It's nearly impossible for my mind to stick to its original image.
I don't mind walking great distances. But give me a moving sidewalk in an airport, and I absolutely need to be on it. If it's shut down for repairs, I feel irritated, and the walk is twice as tiring. My reader's imagination is a similar beast: a joyful exercise until another source of movement is introduced. Equipped with the book cover, who can resist it? Who can now flex those imagination muscles?
My copy of The English Patient
bears the kissing faces of Ralph Fiennes (there he is, again) and Kristin Scott Thomas. I saw the movie before I read the book. Thus it was a surprise to me that most of the story revolves not around Fiennes' and Thomas' characters, but around the military nurse, Hana, and the Sikh soldier, Kip. What the cover (and the movie) led me to expect did not map to what I eventually read.
But the cover reminded me of the movie, which I had loved. The photograph stirred up the emotions I felt while watching the film. I wanted to feel them again. I bought the book.
Hollywood's tendency to crank out similar movies is easy to understand. These people are Industry people just like textile manufacturers are Industry people and they produce and market what sells. If disaster movies are doing well, it's really no coincidence that two producers will settle on asteroids, piece together a respectable cast and get busy shooting, worrying about a script later.
But there's sometimes another layer of explanation underneath the capitalism. A few years ago, three directors rushed into production of Alexander the Great
movies at the same time. Historical and literary properties get hot just like the rest of us. And in books and faux-intellectual circles Alexander was it a few years ago in the same way that Jane Austen or Marvel comics have had a lot of currency of late.
Other times, technology provides the answer to the riddle of sameness. Computer animated films, for example, are chosen to give animators practice with the latest hard to render material. Hair and movement giving you trouble? Everyone make a bug movie
. Water the next great challenge? Fish pictures. Metal the new hot area for improvement? Expect cartoons about robots and cars.
But what's going on now is a bit harder to figure. When Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo open in Yours, Mine & Ours
on Wednesday, they will be following hot on the heels of 2003's retread of Cheaper by the Dozen
. Then, next month, Steve Martin will strike back with Cheaper by the Dozen 2
. Why? What is the force driving producers to remake movies about huge families? Is this the way that the upswell of conservative and Christian
thought is making its way into the mainstream media? Is this an unforeseen aftershock of the Passion
-quake? Has the government's abstinence only stance crept way out west? In short, should we brace ourselves for a spate of films with titles like It's a Wonderful Life in a Persistent Vegetative State