I don't know who coined the phrase 'Don't judge a book by its movie', but I think it's brilliant. Like most literature lovers, I'm often disappointed by screen adaptations of good books. Sometimes I'm even outraged. But every once in a while I can be surprised.
It happened again last week with The Reader, the Oscar-winning film of Bernhard Schlink's epynomous novel about post-war Germany. I watched it on a BA flight between Cape Town and London, and although an aeroplane is never the perfect place to watch any kind of movie, I thought this one at least as good, if not actually better, than the book. I shouldn't have been so surprised. I realised afterwards that the director was Stephen Daldry, responsible for the wonderful screen adaptation of Michael Cunningham's The Hours, one of the rare literary movies of the last couple of years which managed to please the original fans of the book nearly as much as the new fans of the movie.
The Reader, like The Hours, is a book about reading and the power of literature to change lives. Few directors, in this age of action-packed thrillers, have the courage to tackle such a 'static' subject - or the talent to turn it into a commercially successful and critically acclaimed movie. What's more, Stephen Daldry seems to have a way with actresses, like the great George Cukor of The Women fame. He led Nicole Kidman to an Oscar-winning performance as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, and then he did it again with Kate Winslet as the former concentration camp guard Hanna in The Reader. Part of the achievement of The Reader (the film), is that the script stays so true to the book. This is not always possible or even advisable in screen adaptations - but here it works just fine. In fact, the only bit of the film that seems irritatingly sentimental is the ending - which was not in the book, as I verified as soon as my flight landed, in a bookshop at Heathrow Airport.
I really liked both films, but if I have to choose between the two books, I won't hesitate a moment. I adored The Hours - the style, the story, the language, everything - whereas I appreciated The Reader as a marvellous story with a strong moral message, but I wasn't knocked over by the literary style or the language. Perhaps this is because I read the English translation, not the original German text. After all, we never know how much gets lost in translation if we don't have access to the primary language, do we? The Reader, I thought, was a novel written by a clever jurist with a philosophical bent. Whereas The Hours was a novel written by a born and bred novelist for born and bred novel fanatics like myself.
If you don't agree with me, do let me know. I'd also love to hear what your own all-time favourite screen adaptation of a beloved book is. My shortlist includes two magnificent movies of the Italian director Visconti: Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and Giuseppe de Lampedusa's The Leopard. As well as two by Stanley Kubrick: Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. Some directors are apparently born to turn great books into great films. Most, however, should rather leave well alone.