Novel to Movie Adaptations – John Updike
The death of John Updike earlier this week, prompted lots of comment on and analysis of his prolific work. His most famous books are his Rabbit series (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit At Rest; and Rabbit Remembered). Both Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest received the Pulitzer Prize, America’s highest literary honor. Updike described his subject matter in the Rabbit series as “the American small town and Protestant middle class.” This kind of setting and characters has always been rich territory for American films but didn’t translate into cinematic success for Updike. Why?
A film of Rabbit, Run was made in 1970. It was not a popular success. There were a few other adaptations of his work for TV, but his biggest cinematic success was The Witches Of Eastwick (starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer).
Why did so few of Updike’s works translate effectively to the screen? Because his books are largely interior– filled with a character’s thoughts, feelings and insights. His characters’ rich inner lives are what make his novels so evocative. In a film adaptation, the screenwriter must make those internal moments external and active.
When looking for a novel to adapt, look for a story that has a strong external narrative. Find a story in which a character’s actions lead to specific external consequences with real impact and which effect important transformation in the character or others. Find stories in which emotion, meaning and insight can be portrayed through action. No matter how brilliant the book, no matter how many awards it’s won no matter how popular it is– if the book doesn’t have dramatic, observable and impactful action it is not a good candidate for a movie adaptation.
The cliche is that second-rate books make first-rate movies and first-rate books make second-rate movies. Deeply-felt interior novels make delicious reading but simply do not translate to the screen.