I caught myself doing something very out of character last week – excitably and irritably anticipating the TV adaptation of Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling. Look, I even took to Twitter in my madness;
I was half way through listening to the audiobook of the first of the Cormoran Strike books when I came by the intel that Robert Galbraith was the nom de plume of JK Rowling. Apparently, the rest of the world has known about this for the past four years so I turned to my trusted advisor (Google) to bring me up to speed. Whilst simultaneously absorbing vast amounts of gossip, I learnt that the BBC is currently adapting the books for a TV series. I immediately found myself searching for a release date (to no avail) and viewing the cast of characters in an array of candid on-set photos.
I was mortified.
These actors were not the characters I had in my head, not even close. I knew that when I tuned in for the next chapter of my audiobook, the mental images on pause in my mind would be supplanted by the characters I had seen online. This was awful, I felt cheated.
For me, the best part of reading a book is the gradual construction of the author’s world in my head. Page by page, my subconscious brain cements together every detail, bringing to life the words laid down by the author. Despite the fact that thousands of people read the same books as I do, I know not one of them will have created the same visual construct as me, just as I will not have faithfully recreated the one penned by the author.
When you read, you recall your own personal experience to make sense of the words pouring into your head. You build a mental image of the characters, places and situations based on things your mind knows to be real. If the description I am reading tells of a glossy black door with a brass newspaper plate, black iron railings and a streetlight centred above it – my memory will throw up the image of 10 Downing Street because this is an experience my brain can draw on. Yours may bring the image of the door across the street or a house you pass every day on the bus. The world in your head is personal to you, it’s unique and it’s private. This is what I love about reading a book, what’s in my head is mine. All mine.
When a book is adapted into a film or TV series, this element of personal connection is lost. You suddenly have a very real visual image to associate with the characters and settings you read about. The private world in your head is ruthlessly deleted and you are left with a shared vision of the book you didn’t invite in. Gone is the somewhat frumpy Rachel Watson whose daily commute pulled me into Paula Hawkins’ bestseller The Girl on the Train, only to be replaced by a somewhat slimmer, glamorous Emily Blunt who will always be more Devil Wears Prada to me than the casting director’s version of Rachel. But I can’t get that image out of my head now and it’s all wrong.
I have a whole list of books whose adaptation to the screen has forever eroded a chink of joy from rereading a beloved novel. Mr Darcy will forever be Colin Firth, Edward Cullen will always be Robert Pattinson and Harry Potter will always be Daniel Radcliffe. There’s nothing I can do to bring back my personalised characters. Having said this, it doesn’t stop me watching them again and again or rereading the books when the fancy takes me.
On the flip side of this, there are some actors I willingly accepted as replacements for the characters in my head. I’ve discussed this with myself on many occasions (I’m pretty sure I’m not crazy) and have concluded I can’t have had a strong enough concept of the character in the first place. I must have struggled to piece together a vivid picture from the authors’ descriptions. I adored Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf was as close to any wizard I could ever envision. Anthony Hopkins brought Hannibal Lecter to life in a way my brain never could and I am completely entranced by anything that Tim Burton turns his hands to these days. Perhaps the reason is just that the big screen did a better job than me of giving life to these characters.
Adaptations of books are never going away. I made a deal with myself long ago to read any books before I watch them to give myself the opportunity to absorb the imagery the way the author intended, which is why I’m so annoyed that my curiosity crazed Google session ruined The Cuckoo’s Calling for me. On the plus side, I’m glad that everyone ignored my mentally unstable Tweet on the subject. How convenient to be inconsequential for a change.
How do you feel about adaptations? Do you watch first and read later or vice versa? Are you able to retain the characters as you’ve imagined them after you’ve seen the film or TV series?