Adapting book characters to films: talking to Christopher Priest and Michael Marshall Smith

Prestige 2006 It was over lunch at Si Italy in Hastings that I asked Christopher Priest about the film adaptation of his book, the Prestige. He’d spend a significant amount of time researching the lives of stage magicians and learning how their tricks were done, and so I thought a lot must have been at stake for him when the film was made, creatively speaking.

“It was so strange watching the film, I later wrote a book on the experience,” Chris reflects. “Some of the scenes were great, others a bit disappointing; like, why would Scarlet Johansson’s character give Angier (Hugh Jackman) Borden’s (played by Christian Bale) diary, if she’s fallen in love with Borden and knows what’s going to be done with the diary? And the ending, it was nothing like the book and rather weak.”

Scarlett Johansson aScarlett Johansson

Chris seemed to have mixed feelings about the film, but I could also detect a certain amount of pride that it was made. His reaction was nothing like Anne Rice’s famous denouncement of Interview with a Vampire (She originally wanted Rutger Hauer, not Tom Cruise).

Tom Cruise Rutger Hauer

But what about the choice of actors, I asked. Did you like them? “Hugh Jackman was far too beautiful,” Chris laughed. “His character in the book was a sly, sharp-faced man.”

I don’t envy authors who spend years on a novel, painstakingly crafting a character so that the body reflects the mind and vice versa, only to have Hollywood carve it all up for a ninety page script that stars actors who are all muscles or cleavage. It’s great for the audiences, but a shambles for character development and an author’s perseverance. The best characters in fiction are hardly ever beautiful silver screen creatures. Instead, their bodies are often as deeply flawed as the rest of them.

On the other hand, sometimes you read a book and an actor immediately springs to mind as the character. This probably has to do with the fact that we are increasingly geared towards visual impressions as a species, and can quickly retrieve an actor to fill the imaginary space in our minds – a lazy heuristic trick, no doubt.

MMSI once asked Michael Marshal Smith which actor he would cast as Zandt, the brooding and dangerous ex-policeman from the bestselling Strawmen thriller series. He thought James Woods would make a great double. I was stunned. Up to that point I’d clearly imagined an older Scott Glenn in the role – playing pretty much the same bastard as he did in Vertical Limit. It left me with a sense of vertigo, that the author should have imagined an actor different to mine. But it was a stark reminder why reading and imagining is such an intensely personal yet fragile experience.

James Woods Compare actors who might have starred as Zandt in the Strawmen series.
Scott Glen

Occasionally, a director casts actors who perfectly capture the characters of a book. Peter Jackson did an incredible job casting the entire Lord of the Rings list. In fact, he did such a fine job, my mind now refuses to conjure up anything but Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood and Christopher Lee. It’s a little sad that the intimate two-way relationship between the reader and author can be wiped out by a good film. Lord of the rings

In Peter Jackson’s case, I can’t hold it against him because his work, I feel, has ultimately added to my reading experience. But in the case of that horrible reinvention of Hellblazer, starring Keanu Reeves as John Constantin, I firmly believe the director and his pack of producers should all be shot at dawn for their blasphemy. I refuse to watch the film, precisely because I know it would ruin the ephemeral ghosts of my imaginings, rather than give them form.

John ConstantinSpot the difference in anti-heroes. Keanu Reeves


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