Books and films: an ongoing rivalry?

By Helena Chung

I am sure that every reader shares similar feelings when their favourite book gets turned into a movie. It’s something which is happening more and more frequently nowadays as studios become more concerned with investment returns; books with a large fan base guarantee profit. No matter how determined readers are to boycott the films made, who can resist the temptation of seeing their beloved characters and stories visualised on the big screen?

Results vary enormously: there are rare cases, such as Gone Girl, which meet with critical success; those which meet with moderate success, having the right casting but a flawed script; and those disastrous attempts which suffer from both bad acting and directing. Silence, a Japanese novel by the Catholic writer Shusaku Endo, was adapted into a film lasting almost three hours by Martin Scorsese. It is no longer showing in the cinema due to a lukewarm performance in both the award season and box office; however, after watching it in a Film Society’s screening, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where this courageous attempt lies on the spectrum of success and failure.

Scorsese faced many difficulties when he chose to adapt Silence for the big screen. Bluntly speaking, it is nigh on mission impossible. The narrative structure of the novel can be roughly divided into three parts. It begins with Rodrigues’ letters sent from Japan (written in the first person), before moving on to a third person narrative which describes Rodrigues’ capture and journey to Nagasaki. Finally, it ends with a Dutch clerk’s observation of Rodrigues’ life after his apostasy. This book thus comprises of an extensive psychological description of Rodrigues’ increasingly complex attitude towards God’s silence, the cultural shock he encountered during his interaction with Japanese Christians, and ultimately his renewed understanding of what Christ’s suffering means for man. All of this is easily presented to readers through the written word, but how can it be translated into the language of film? The director solves this problem with the use of off-screen narration which acted as a necessary Chorus, vital for an audience’s understanding. However, it also gave the impression of listening to an audio book.

Moreover, before turning the first page of Silence, readers must ask themselves whether faith can be translated? The problem of communication is exactly what the missionaries in the novel are dealing with when they undergo forbidden preaching in Tokugawa. Although the changing languages are presented fluently on paper, in the film the audience is forced to endure heavily accented English from actors of various races.  Another distinct difference between a book and a film is therefore the reader or audience’s reaction towards reading and hearing.

As someone who had read the original novel before watching the film, I believe that the adaptation of Silence failed to do justice to the book. However, it certainly serves as an interesting exploration of the differences between literature and film. Those who haven’t read the book will surely be impressed by Scorsese’s directorial skills as well as the excellent cinematography.

Photograph by Ozzy Delaney via Flickr and Creative Commons

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