‘The film is no way near as good as the book’. It has been said so many times, about so many different stories, that it seems clichéd to extol the virtues of a book over a film. But clichés become clichés for a reason; they usually hold an element of truth.
Of course film and literature are very different mediums and to compare the two objectively is nearly impossible. Books clearly have an unfair advantage.
Why Books are always better than films
- It is often the case that a book is our first experience of a story. The movie is merely an add-on. How could the film even form a tiny dent in the original mammoth imprint the book made on our minds?
- Reading a book requires commitment. We invest time and energy. Films don’t make the same demands on us; we chomp on our popcorn, passively staring at the big screen for a couple of hours at most. So it follows, the harder you work at something, the greater the reward. Human beings enjoy being challenged. Books force us to use our imaginations, question our morality and engage emotionally in a way that films don’t, thus the satisfaction is far greater.
- When reading a book, we are responsible for the images that are created. The words on the page provide a stimulus for the images in our head, but the images themselves are our own. No two people will picture the same Heathcliffe and Kathy as they read Wuthering Heights. The actors in the film will never look exactly like the characters we have formed for ourselves. They won’t sound or move like them, or live in the house we have imagined. In short, they won’t be them.
- Films will always be abridged versions of books. The director has two hours to tell the same story that has unfolded over several hundred pages. Details, some times entire chapters, will be lost. This leaves us feeling cheated and deprived. If we’ve read the book, we feel the film is only telling us half the truth.
- Finally, books can surprise and shock us. If we are fully invested, they take us on a roller coaster ride of emotions. Novelists do this by only revealing little bits of detail at a time; it’s the difference between showing and telling. It may be that an entire scene takes place at a character’s death-bed in a hospital, but the author chooses not to reveal this detail until halfway through a scene. The characters are chatting normally and then BAM! we discover that one of them only has moments to live. The same surprise element is not achievable in a film; we see from the off that the scene is taking place in a hospital.
Films are Films, Books are Books
So what does all of this teach us? It is better to take the film adaptation of a book at face value, on its own merits. But doing this may prove difficult if a book has spoken to you so deeply that it feels like it was written especially for you. You can’t help but hold the highest of hopes for the movie. Most of the time we can sense the looming disappointment even as we are ordering our hotdog/popcorn/cola combo deal. We accept that in about two hours time we’ll be left feeling disheartened. We long for the emotional engagement we felt as we avidly thumbed the well-worn pages of the book into the early hours of the morning, only to be left with a feeling of emptiness and anti-climax. All of this is to be expected.
When Good Stories Go Bad
But there are occasions when a movie adaptation of a book can have an even more devastating impact. The occasions when you are left feeling angry as the credits roll. The occasions when you find yourself silently screaming, ‘How could they take such a beautifully written, deeply insightful story and turn it into a piece of trite, corny trash?’ Now I would say that I’m usually pretty easy to please, but the film adaptation of One Day left me asking just that.
The trouble with the film is that the story is so compacted we lose many vital elements of Emma and Dexter’s journey. Their relationship and the world they live in feels unreal and unrecognisable. Each chapter in the book accounts for one day, allowing for real insight into what has happened in the intervening year and how this has shaped our protagonists’ lives. Each year in the film accounts for 8 minutes of screen time at best and in some cases is shoe-horned into a snapshot of no more than a few seconds; there is no way we can really get to grips with the developments of the previous year, let alone glean how this may have effected the characters.
Ann Hathaway as Emma Morley
My other major problem with the movie of One Day is the casting of Ann Hathaway in the role of Emma. This relates to the point I made earlier; each reader creates their very own version of a character. Don’t get me wrong, I think Ann Hathaway is a wonderful actress when cast in the right role, but she is simply not my Emma Morley.
At the time of the film’s release, many critics chose to focus on Hathaway’s inability to do a convincing English accent. Well, as someone who hales from up North, I can say with confidence that there were bigger problems than Hathaway’s take on a generic dialect; the character is from Leeds. Unfortunately, Ann Hathaway leaps from delivering Oscar Wilde in one sentence to a full-on Pigeon fancying, flat-cap wearing, Eeh by gummer in the next.
But even this didn’t really bother me. Emma is written as a slightly frumpy, slightly over-weight wannabe intellectual from a working class family; she's clumsy, funny and self-conscious. No matter how many pairs of NHS prescription spectacles you place on Ann Hathaway’s nose, she is a Hollywood movie star through and through. She can’t help but be glamorous. I understand commercially why the producers wanted her to play the role, but I don’t understand pulling people into the cinema with a big name, only to disappoint them with a half-cocked version of what is otherwise a beautiful story.
On reflection, I think the film adaptation of One Day was doomed from the off. How could you possibly capture a twenty year story in just over 90 minutes?
Of course, all of this is highly subjective. Chances are that if you’ve never read the David Nicholls novel and you want to absorb yourself in an unchallenging 90 minutes of cinema, you’ll find the film of One Day a perfectly acceptable Rom-Com/light weight drama. But it doesn’t pack the punch of the novel. The big moment in the climax of the story had me practically jumping out of my seat in shock and, seconds later, in floods of tears as I sat reading on my daily tube journey. The same moment in the movie barely evoked an intake of breath.