It can be said that the first rule of any literary adaptation is that it must work unto itself—that our appreciation of the film can’t be contingent upon our familiarity with the book. But I would offer an adjacent rule: that, as audiences, we must never judge a literary adaptation by how well it references its antecedent. Nothing makes my heart sink faster than the casual dismissal, “Eh, the novel was better than the movie.”
I’ve been thinking about this because of two recent releases: the terrific Hateship, Loveship, which diverges greatly in tone from the terrific Alice Munro short story upon which it’s based (I review them both here), and Under the Skin. A sci-fi indie starring Scarlett Johansson as a ruby-lipped alien predator, Skin hit theaters last week to much ado. It is adapted from Michael Faber’s 2000 eponymous book about a female extraterrestrial dispatched to trap human males for consumption on her own planet—but only glancingly. The book is all carefully worded and layered exposition whereas the film, as directed by Jonathan Glazer (Birth, Sexy Beast), is a reverie in which we scarcely understand what Johansson’s character is, let alone what she is doing or why. This is not to say the film is a disaster by any means. Many have kvelled over its noir abstraction, the voluptuous loneliness it evokes. One reviewer has gone so far as to wonder if it were “the best sci-film ever made.” A minority—including myself—acknowledge the film’s appeal but roll their eyes at how easily heads can be turned by a movie star in rough trade, at the mass hypnosis induced by a series of close-ups of ScarJo in, gasp, a dark wig. That said, the film’s scant reference to its excellent source material is not the problem at hand.