March 3, 2016, by Guest Blogger

The Book Was Better?

Leaving campus yesterday, I passed a student whose T-shirt stated uncompromisingly THE BOOK WAS BETTER. Sound stuff, and words to live one’s professional, personal and emotional lives by. And it started me wondering about films and adaptations which cunningly got around this problem by going a bit sideways. Refusing to just reproduce the original, these versions strike out in their own direction. Are they better than the book? It’s a question which seems beside the point…


Many of us first watched this screen classic without ever knowing that it was based on Jane Austen’s Emma. Filled with sly jokes about literary history, Clueless prepared us for university life by demonstrating the value of enduring friendship and mocking people who quote Polonius with a straight face. Who amongst us has not faced a culinary disaster by muttering at the smoking oven “Awww, honey, ya baked!” or attempted to end an argument by declaring “…and in conclusion, may I remind you, it does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty!”

One of the glories of Clueless – aside from all the other glories – is the process of realization which it causes in the audience. That “aaahhh!” of working out that this is Emma rewritten, or that a particular element of the novel has been translated into Cher’s life in ways we can identify. And this is a novel about Emma’s own realization that she has been misreading her own life so far. That “aaahhh!” brings us further into the novel’s emotional world, partly by not being a straightforward filming of it.

A Cock and Bull Story

Lawrence Sterne’s eighteenth-century novel, entitled The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was the basis of this shapeless, glorious postmodern celeb-fest of a film. Faced with a book in which the author keeps explaining the situation which lead to his birth at such length that he realizes he is spending more time writing than is passing in his narrative…Michael Winterbottom decided to cast Alan Partridge as the hero.

Sorry, Steve Coogan, he cast Steve Coogan. And then filmed other members of the cast annoying him by going “a-HA!” at him. A book about the impossibility of writing one’s life becomes a film about the impossibility of making a film of that book. And how the human condition probably has something to do with the fact that deep down, almost everyone fancies Gillian Anderson.

The History of King Lear

No, not the Shakespeare play, though it’s based on the Shakespeare play. In one of the most remarkable pieces of adaptation in literary history, the Restoration playwright Nahum Tate read King Lear and decided that this script could basically do with just, like, cheering up, IYSWIM? In his version, which was much more popular than the original for ages (hence its appearing on a pop culture list), King Lear doesn’t die, and neither does Cordelia.

The bad people die, whilst the good ones live happily ever after, some of them having married a fetching and aristocratic young man along the way. It’s tragedy, if tragedy was just less darn unfair on a girl. Tate’s version is admittedly the result of the theatrical culture of the Restoration, and of a differing approach to textual meaning. But it is also King Lear with a happy ending, which is rather magnificent, in a way.

Blog post by Dr Jem Bloomfield, Assistant Professor in our School of English. 

Image credit: David Orban on Flickr

Posted in FilmLiterature