It always baffles me how easily a story can be turned upside-down.
As an avid book-lover and movie-goer, I can’t help but run around in a daze of blind enthusiasm when I hear that a favourite story of mine will be available in two different media. Unfortunately, it’s only some of the time that such an announcement yields positive results.
Matilda: The Letdown
I must admit, I’ve loved every Roald Dahl book since childhood, and Matilda was one of the first of his masterpieces that I took a liking to. I derived a sense of comfort from the warm Ms Honey, a sense of terror from the barbaric Ms Trunchbull and a sense of wonder about the world from the steadfast Matilda herself. It was more than just these characters that drew me into the world of this story, though; it was Dahl’s unique style that brought life to his art, full of subtle humour and an air of unspoken camaraderie with his reader.
It was only a year ago that I was told to watch the film version of Matilda, and, being that I had just recently re-read the book and found it to be just as heartwarming and witty as when I first discovered it, I rented the supposed masterpiece. Because that’s what I was led to believe-that this film was not only so well-done it deserved an Oscar, but that it was actually better than the book.
Perhaps my sights were too high going into viewing it, but all I know is that I was sorely disappointed. It wasn’t that the characters weren’t cast well-the woman who played Ms Honey seemed like the personification of that wasp by-product, and the other actors and actresses certainly played their parts with enthusiasm-but it wasn’t the touching childhood tale that I had fallen in love with. There was something missing, something lacking in it; that humorous but welcoming undertone that made you feel so connected to the story was nowhere to be found. Matilda was merely another kid’s movie to see, and nothing more.
Atonement: The Triumph
For those of you who have read anything by Ian McEwan, you already understand how daunting the task of transforming his writing into film would be. For those of you who haven’t, let me put it this way: McEwan is a modern genius. Like Hugo and Dickens (and Austen, in a way), he is able to interweave social commentary and plot in such a way that you find yourself partly focused on the psychology of his characters and partly dying to know what will happen next. And with him, every word counts-his grasp of the English language is utterly precise and thus utterly pictorial.
And so I went into my viewing of Atonement with a skeptical eye-I was prepared to be entertained, but not impressed. Walking out of the theatre, however, I don’t think I spoke for a good hour, needing to process the experience. Not only were the characters exactly as I imagined them, from the calculating and self-evasive Briony to the passionate and stout-hearted Robbie, but the feel of the film was just as McEwan had written his story: a desperate, aching warmth that slowly fades throughout the tale. I felt Cecilia’s inner conflict in the library; I felt Briony’s childish and unjust pardon at the end of her life. I felt their lives.
So why was Matilda such a travesty, and Atonement such a success? In the end, it all comes down to tone. Whatever the feeling is from a book-be it warmth, or a hardening of your heart, or an utter despair-that same feeling must come from the film as well. Nail that, and your viewers won’t mind any minor plot changes. They’ll still be reeling from the pathos of it all.