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Moving Across Mediums: Assessing the Adaptations of Hugo and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


In the past month, I got to see two very different film adaptations of books that I loved: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (which adapts Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret) and Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (an adaptation of John le Carré’s novel of the same title). Although both feature science fictional elements (if you don’t believe me about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, then check out my earlier blog post on the subject), they could not be more different. Hugo is a children’s story, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is as far from middle-grade as one can get. And yet, their screen adaptations got me thinking about the nature of prose and film, and on the differences in storytelling between the two mediums.

Why The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are Compelling

Both Selznick’s middle-grade novel and le Carré’s spy novel are excellent works of fiction, captivating and moving on multiple levels. What makes these books so good is the way in which they unfold with unity of plot, theme, and character. At its most basic level, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the story of how a young orphan named Hugo finds a family, and how an old man named George finds himself with Hugo’s help. Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the story of how an old retired spy is dragged back into the murky world of betrayal he had (ostensibly) left behind.

Selznick and le Carré are very different storytellers. More than half of Selznick’s book is told visually through gorgeous drawings. A picture is worth a thousand words, and as a world-building device Selznick’s drawings perform beautifully: his opening sequence introduces us to 1930s Paris, to the Gare Montparnasse, to our hero Hugo, and to the old man at the train station. In a handful of drawings, Selznick quickly draws us into Hugo’s world and engages us with his two primary characters. When Selznick switches into prose, we already suspect what comes next, even if we can’t articulate it. Selznick uses his drawings to lend emotional immediacy to his story, thus accelerating the rate at which we invest in his characters.

Le Carré doesn’t use illustrations. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is all told in prose, and deals with the very difficult themes of betrayal, loyalty, and motivation. Although the book follows George Smiley, it actually features a broad cast of characters. Le Carré’s omniscient narrator takes us in and out of their heads smoothly, giving us insight into everyone’s motivations, concerns, and emotional states. And while Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a spy novel, a great deal of its prose focuses on the (seemingly) banal personal relationships of Smiley, his wife, and his friends. By showing us both the intellectual game of espionage and its more private underside, le Carré earns our investment in the character: we understand the degree to which Smiley is conflicted with his charge, we understand the degree to which the chase both excites him and disappoints him, and we understand why his companions and quarries act the way they do. His personal concerns, and those of his friends and enemies, serve to establish moral equivalence, to humanize them for the reader.

Both books feature multiple, related plotlines, and all of these plotlines oscillate around the same themes. The different converging plots involving Hugo, his father’s automaton, the old toyshop owner, and the Station Inspector who hunts the orphan child all swirl to greater or lesser extent around the question of family and acceptance. The same holds true for George Smiley: the A plot of Smiley’s hunt for the traitor puts into concrete action the themes of le Carré’s B and C plots (Smiley’s relationship with his deceased mentor, and Smiley’s relationship with his wife). This unity of action, theme, and emotion closes the emotional distance that would otherwise have been built between the characters and the reader. And ultimately, it is this unity that makes the stories compelling.

The Differences Between Film and Prose

Obviously, there are many differences between text and film. However, I like to believe that good storytelling transcends the medium and that the underlying goals of storytelling are universal: we want the audience to be engaged, we want them to be interested, we want them to turn the page. However, different techniques are employed in different media to achieve our intended narrative effects. In a real sense, authors and film-makers are master manipulators: it is our job to evoke some kind of response on the part of our audience. If we evoke the response we intended, then we’re doing a good job. If we evoke a different (or the opposite) response, then we’ve made a mistake.

Narrative Tools in Prose: Events Shown, Information Shared, Language Used

The Narrative Tools in Prose

In prose, our primary tools are the events that we depict, the information we impart to the reader, and the language we use to do both. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification: I could probably talk about choosing a single metaphor for a day or two if given the chance. Yet nonetheless, it is our job as creators to choose what we want to present and how to present it. In prose, all of these tools are in the author’s control (although to be fair, good editors have their say, too). When we write, we make conscious choices as to what information our reader needs, when they need to get that information, and how that information is delivered to them.

Narrative Tools in Film

Narrative Tools in Film

In film, it’s a little more complicated. At the most basic level, movie-makers have the same two basic tools as authors: they select the events they wish to show, and decide the information they wish to impart to their viewer. However, language is only one of the many devices they have available to accomplish both goals. Actors convey a wealth of information on multiple levels: their facial expressions, movement, and tone of voice all are part of the storytelling and are only partially (at best) under the screenwriter or director’s control. Then, directors choose what visuals are presented in the film, how shots are set up, how a scene gets lit, and how it gets staged. This is conveyed visually, but can be used to elicit an emotional or intellectual response in the audience. And the soundtrack adds an emotional undertone to the visual events, guiding the audience into a certain desired state. And finally, we get the language that is used in the dialog itself.

This is not to say that there are more moving parts in film-making. There aren’t, despite what movie makers might say. It’s just that the moving parts are very different from those faced in prose, and I think that when writing and directing an adaption it is incumbent upon us to bear in mind the differences in technique that both mediums work with.

Why Hugo Works as an Adaptation

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is probably one of the best film adaptations I have ever seen for the simple reason that it tells the same story that the book told, hitting the same narrative notes and evoking the same emotions in me as an audience member. While Scorsese may have chosen different events to show, different information to share with the audience, and of course made his own choices on cinematography, soundtrack, etc., his adaptation stayed true to the overarching flow of Selznick’s story. Hugo achieved the same type of unity in plot, theme, and character as The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and as the original book’s story was excellent, so too was its film adaptation.

To be fair, Scorsese’s task was made easier by Selznick’s beautiful illustrations. The book was itself already heavily cinematic, with illustrations that conformed to most of the classic structures of visual storytelling: establishing shots, action shots, close-ups to communicate facts and emotions, etc. Since half of Selznick’s book consisted of detailed illustrations, much of the visual storytelling had already been done. I expect this made Scorsese’s task at least somewhat easier, since Selznick had already made a slew of decisions regarding the story’s visual narrative.

Of course, this is not to suggest that Scorsese, the actors, and the screenwriter John Logan didn’t have a lot to do with the finished product. But it is very clear that they were heavily influenced (as is only right for an adaptation) by Selznick’s original book. By letting Selznick’s illustrations and storytelling influence their choices, they were able to capture his thematic and tonal focus, leading to a finished work as beautiful, compelling, and moving as the original.

Why Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Does Not Work as an Adaptation

Unfortunately, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy does not work nearly as well as Scorsese’s Hugo. It remains a good movie: the cinematography is solid, the music is excellent, the acting great, and the writing good. It clearly tried to stay true to the original source material, but by de-emphasizing the characters’ personal lives it weakened the overall product.

The film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy engages us on an intellectual level: George Smiley (played well by Gary Oldman) and company keep the audience at an emotional distance, presumably just as they keep themselves emotionally removed from the sordid work that they do. That leaves us with the intellectual mystery of the whodunit: we are engaged with the story because we want to identify the traitor…not because we care about what happens to any of the characters.

Superficially, this is consistent with the book: le Carré portrays most of his characters, and Smiley in particular, as emotionally distant. Yet le Carré shows us that their reticence to engage emotionally is a sham: by showing us their emotional reactions to their personal lives, we know the characters to be living, breathing, feeling human beings. Alfredson chose to de-emphasize this emotional dimension of the story, and his movie suffers for it.

It is telling that the two characters who I found most engaging in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy were the two shown to be emotionally invested in their own stories: the naive Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who tragically falls in love with a Russian agent, and Peter Guilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who kicks his lover out of his flat to keep him safe. It is precisely because these two characters are shown to be more than cold-blooded apparatchiks that they evoke an emotional response. We can identify with their concerns, and can feel empathy for their troubles.

The emotional concerns of the other – more principal – characters are merely alluded to, and not really explored. It could be argued that those concerns are purposefully left between the lines, there for the discerning viewer to pick up and project onto the screen. That may well have been the reasoning, but I for one found the effect flawed: if that was the intent, it didn’t work for me. The movie was engaging on an intellectual level, but fell short of the unified intellectual/emotional impact evoked by the original book.

Advice for Book-to-Movie Adapters

It seems to me that putting together a good film adaptation of a great book relies on a careful examination of why a book worked, and then translating the techniques that worked in prose form to film. If the method by which a book worked were correctly identified, then a good filmmaker should be able to achieve similar effects using the tools available to them. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially in a Hollywood driven by consensus decision-making.

What are some other examples of good adaptations? Why did they work? Or how about some terrible adaptations, and why did they fall apart? Love to have some more perspectives!

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I loved Hugo, but haven’t read the book yet. Still, it was interesting to read your discussion of how it fares as an adaptation.

    I think the makers of film adaptations of books do ask themselves why the book worked or is popular — but they don’t always find the right answers. “It has talking animals and spunky children!” they might say, and assume that is most of what needs to be taken from the source book (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), forgetting that the pace of the story and the handling of the characters is even more important. Another recent movie that didn’t work as an adaptation is The Eagle (2011), based on one of my favorite books, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth. It’s a fine movie on its own merits, but it made bewildering decisions regarding the plot and characters. The book is remarkably lean and focused — it has as perfect a unity as I’ve seen in any novel. There are only a few characters, but they all are placed very carefully to make unique contributions to the tone and theme of the story. But the movie eliminated even these few characters and their vital contributions, so we were left with an even simpler story that no longer made as much sense. Then a crucial element in the two protagonists’ relationship was reversed, ostensibly in the name of tension, which had the unfortunate effect of draining the relationship of most of its depth and strength and completely changing Sutcliff’s carefully-built themes. The movie is interesting on its own, but it fails as an adaptation because it completely missed Sutcliff’s point.

    An adaptation that fared surprisingly well was 2005’s Bridge to Terabithia. Despite being made by Disney and being advertised as a CGI Narnia-style adventure (facts which greatly alarmed me), it ended up staying remarkably true not just to the book’s plot, but to its tone and personality as well. It has a gentle pace and is invested properly in its characters’ lives. The CGI is barely there at all. Because the movie understood the characters and their struggles in the same way the book does, it was able to move me on exactly the same levels. I felt like those kids were my friends, and it was heartbreaking, and then inspiring, to see how they lived, loved, lost, and moved on.

    February 5, 2012
    • I’ll definitely have to take a look at both adaptations (and read The Eagle, since I haven’t yet, although a bunch of folks have recommended it!). I’m glad to hear that the adaptation of Bridge to Terabithia did such a good job: after seeing the adaptations of The Dark is Rising and The Golden Compass I’ve been particularly leery of MG/YA adaptations (though Hugo has gone a long way to renewing my faith).

      February 7, 2012

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