Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Let Movies Colonize Your Mind at Books On Film at the TIFF Bell Lightbox

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Film still from Felicia's Journey, directed by Atom Egoyan. Image courtesy of TIFF.

As a reader, you’re conflicted. You’re excited to see the movie because you loved the book, but you know you’ll spend the entire film looking for differences between the two. Watching the movie first can cause other problems: I, for example, am reluctant to read Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants because I have no desire to spend a few weeks picturing Reese Witherspoon in a 1930s fingerwave.

When asked about this dilemma, Eleanor Watchel, host of CBC’s Writers and Company, paraphrases a guest from last year’s Books on Film series at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Literary scholar Linda Hutcheon talked about how “movies colonize your mind,” Watchel says, “in the sense that once you see the movie, even if you read the book, you can’t shut out the image of the characters or the visuals or the way it’s been shaped, and you find yourself reacting to the changes that are made in the adaptation.”

Watchel prefers to read the book first, freeing herself up to appreciate the film as “an equally enjoyable, differently enjoyable work of art.”

Books on Film returns to the TIFF Bell Lightbox this month with six films and special guests carefully curated by Wachtel, who will again host the series. For this year’s lineup, Wachtel selected the classic Jane Eyre, contemporary classics Death in Venice, Howards End and The Third Man and two films based on novels with living authors, Affliction and Felicia’s Journey, which kicks of the series tonight with director Atom Egoyan. After each screening the special guest — the filmmaker, author or an expert — will share their thoughts on the film and the delicate art of adaptation.

Russell Banks, author of Affliction, understands the process from both sides: although primarily a novelist he’s also written screenplays, including an adaptation of Jack Keroauc’s On the Road. Banks says one of the biggest challenges is what to leave out: a book may take fourteen to twenty hours to read, but most movies only run for two. It isn’t necessarily a matter of choosing the most important parts of a novel, either. It’s about choosing the elements that will make the best movie.

Banks worked closely with director Paul Schrader, who adapted Affliction, a story about a troubled cop in a small New Hampshire town, into the 1997 film of the same name. But Banks says this version of the story was Schrader’s to make. “I think what it comes down to is trust,” Banks says. “If you trust the filmmaker as a filmmaker, you’re interested in his work.” He felt similarly about Egoyan’s adaptation of his novel The Sweet Hereafter, released the same year. “The book takes care of itself, it has its own life,” says Banks, who will speak after the Affliction screening on Feb. 27. “I don’t ever worry about that particularly. I just hope that it’s a good film because I like good films.”

Banks is currently writing a screenplay based on his novel The Darling for Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve, and although he considers himself a devoted novelist, he recognizes film for its virtues. “I’d like to think everything I want to do I can do better in fiction,” Banks says. “But the fact is there’s a kind of compression and speed that’s available in film that’s very hard to get in fiction. The movement of time and fast cuts you can do in film, it’s very difficult to sustain and connect in fiction.”

Prolific director James Ivory, who will speak at Books on Film in June, worked closely with writer Ruth Jhabvala on the adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End and many others. He speaks pragmatically about the decisions a director must make to turn a book into a movie: dialogue, for example, can be too long or complicated, and often only one of every three sentences can be used. “It’s an enormous amount that has to be left behind,” Ivory says. While much is left behind, new elements are added. In Howards End, Ivory and Jhabvala added a boat scene that shows the consummation of the illicit affair between Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast, which is mentioned in the novel as fact, but lacking detail. “We needed to show their falling into each other’s arms and the development of their relationship,” Ivory says.

When it comes to casting — a sensitive spot for diehard book fans who insist, say, that The Hunger Games’ Cato should be much bigger than actor Alexander Ludwig — Ivory says directors have to more or less throw out a character’s physical attributes, if described, and focus instead on finding an actor who embodies the character’s essence.

For Margaret Schlegel in Howards End, for example, Ivory sought “a very, very sane seeming and articulate woman.” Emma Thompson had Margaret’s self-awareness, her way with words — and carries the film beautifully.

Wachtel says its important to recognize that directors and screenplay writers have tremendous latitude. They aren’t just bringing a story to life on the screen, they’re refashioning that story to make something new.

“One of the most famous adapters is Shakespeare, who would draw on various historical chronicles and then make something completely his own, (using) different scenes and language,” she says. “I think that’s what happens in successful transformations from books to cinema.”

Books on Film begins Feb. 6 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Nicole Baute is a writer and bookworm in Toronto. Her journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star and Toronto Life magazine, and she’s currently enrolled in the Humber School for Writers fiction program. When not reading, writing or rummaging through the fridge, Baute edits EAT IT: A literary cookbook of food, sex and feminism, scheduled for release fall 2012. She also blogs about writing here.

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