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The Book Vs Film Debate: Perfume (Patrick Suskind)

When I was doing my undergraduate degree (in English and English language) I was introduced to the amazing Perfume by Patrick Suskind. I sort of fell in love with that book a little bit. It was like nothing I had ever read before, and nothing I’ve read since, as Suskind plummets readers into a world of vivid sensations and an outright peculiar existence in the form of his misguided protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. It’s stunning, descriptive, disgusting, and eerie, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Yesterday evening I found myself at a loose end and with 142 minutes to kill, so I decided it was time to watch the 2006 adaptation of this novel, fully loaded with preconceptions about how bloody awful it would be in comparison to the book.

I was wrong.

Last term as part of my current degree I took a module that explored the concept, interpretations, and uses of intertextuality (the old text within a text sort of principle, for anyone who hasn’t come across it). My understanding of intertextuality as a whole broadened massively during that module, and while there is still a lot that I don’t understand - and while I still disapprovingly roll my eyes every time I hear that a book is being made into a film - I’m a lot more open-minded about these dreaded adaptations than I used to be.

I would love to tell you what clever theorist wrote about this (although I’m sure there’s more than one) but this was over six months ago, and I’ve taken another three modules since then, so you’ll have to excuse my sloppy referencing and just trust me when I tell you that this isn’t exactly an original idea:

Perhaps films, even one’s that are based on our favourite books, even ones that miss out half the storyline, and even ones that have blissfully ignored the fact that so-and-so character is a natural blonde in the novel, should be viewed as artistic productions in their own right, that happen to share a storyline with some of our favourite novels and characters.

If someone re-wrote the Harry Potter books, or any other famous book that has been morphed into a film, if someone were to read them, interpret them, and re-write them, they would be completely different to the originals. So why do we expect so much loyalty to the original text from films? Films which are, I will suggest again, artist mediums in their own right. Okay, it’s annoying that they don’t stick to the storyline, but it only annoys the people who have read the original story; the people who couldn’t be bothered to read Harry Potter before they went to the cinema to see the film think that they’re brilliant productions, and they don’t care that there’s a fight scene missing.

My original plan, before I’d even watched Perfume, was to write a blog post today where I ranted about how pointless and annoying film adaptations are, and how Hollywood should stop ruining books with their intense desire to make them more accessible to the world by putting them on the big screen. I mean, how dare they?! But the film I watched last night was actually pretty good. The casting was wonderful, the production was stunning, and the loyalty to the original story arc wasn’t that bad either. So, why should I complain? Because it wasn’t the same as the Perfume that I’d read a year ago? Well no, of course it wasn’t. If I wanted that then I’d have to read the book again, wouldn’t I?

And before people start throwing examples of terrible adaptations at me left, right, and centre, I’ll go on record and say that some book-to-film productions are just terrible. But then, some films are just terrible without a book-plot to fall back on, so maybe that’s more the luck of the draw when it comes to watching a film, rather than having anything to do with the fact that it just so happens to be based on a piece of literature.

I think, when approaching a film based on a book, the important word hone in on is probably BASED. When you watch a film that’s based on true life events, do you go to your local historical society and find every possible shred of information about the incident that inspired the film and start picking out the bits that they’ve missed? I seriously doubt it. So why should we do the same for literature? Okay, some productions are a hit and miss; some productions don’t stick as closely to the book as they could but, like I said of Perfume, if you want the original story, you can just go and read it. When it comes to movie adaptations, I think it might be best to take a ‘it is what it is’ sort of approach and realise that they aren’t claiming to recreate every poignant, emotional, and important scene from your favourite book. All they’re claiming to do is create something based on your favourite book for people who were too lazy to read the actual novel (disclaimer: that’s sort of a joke, so please don’t be unnecessarily offended if you’re a non-bookworm, okay? Cool.).

After sitting through 142 minutes of Perfume last night, I feel this stuff more than ever. A hell of a lot of work goes into producing the average movie, particularly when people are trying to stick to stories that have already been written for them and they’re just there to try and throw their own stamp on the thing. So maybe, the next time you’re watching something that’s based on a book, you can start appreciating it for the movie that it is, rather than not-appreciating it for the book that it isn’t.


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