Adapting to adaptations


Aren't you filled with joy each time you come across a movie you love watching as much as you loved reading the book it's based on?  

Gorky Park is my most favourite movie adaption ever. Published in 1981, the novel put award-winning crime writer Martin Cruz Smith at the top of the bestseller list and has been described as "the thriller of the 80s". Set in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, our imaginations had to work overtime to visualise the settings and characters. Our engagement with a rag tag bunch of dodgy Russians and corrupt Americans, the complex plot, and our romantic notions of life in the USSR made the book a real treat. Two years later the film came out and it didn't put a foot wrong. Dennis Potter's brilliant screenplay is matched by great acting and inspired casting. Who but Alexei Sayle could have played a better pre-perestroika villain even though at the time he was known only as a stand up comic? For obvious reasons the real Gorky Park, and the rest of the Soviet Union for that matter, were out of bounds and the film was shot in Helsinki. Despite that the overwhelming bleakness of an imagined Soviet landscape - physical, social and political - was evoked in such a way that it only enhances Cruz Smith's thriller.  

Another beauty (quite literally) is Sally Potter's Orlando. Unlike Gorky Park, the film barely sticks to the original "plot" but what makes it a gorgeous spectacle is the way it reflects the novel's playfulness and glitz; all those frills, frocks and Robert Plant wigs have the effect of carrying us along with Orlando on her quest. The movie also demonstrates the author's and director's  love for their respective muses. If the novel is a love letter to Vita Sackville-West (and the rest of the nobility when they are being noble), then the film is a love letter to Virginia Woolf and her fabulous creation, Orlando. The sumptuousness that permeates the novel and the film is what makes them both so irresistible - very much like Orlando and his/her inspiration, the pearl-laden eccentrix, Vita Sackville-West. 

My final favourite was discovered recently. I was introduced to the inimitable Jean Rhys and her amazing novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, as an English Lit undergraduate in the UK. Unfortunately we were forced to sit through a terrible adaptation of Rhys's final masterpiece so it was delightful to watch on TV the other night a very classy BBC adaptation. The novel tells the story of the first Mrs Rochester, Bertha Mason. Antoinette, as she is known before her husband renames her, is a wealthy plantation heiress who is married off (or rather sold off) by her half brother to the gormless Edward Rochester. As a second son, Rochester seems only capable of making his fortune by acquiring Antoinette's. What I loved so much about the adaptation was the way in which it subtly but clearly reflects Rhys's critique of upper class marriage as a form of slavery, which the self-righteous Rochester says he deplores. Driven to madness by her husband's cruelty, Antoinette is confined to the attic while he pursues sane Jane. The comparison between Antoinette's imprisonment and colonial slavery is enacted in the final denouement when she burns down the house her husband bought with her money, just as her childhood home in Jamaica was destroyed during the slave revolts. Go check it out - the movie and the book.