It’s a concept that directors and audiences alike have been battling with since the birth of cinema; how to convert novels to screen? From the 1930’s classic interpretation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, to the release of Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy just last week, novels provide endless material for cinematic ventures. But are texts beloved the world over, enhanced or destroyed by their conversion to the big screen?

The growth of cinema has seen the rise of the franchise; a series such as the enormously popular Harry Potter books, or the Twilight saga, cannot be left on paper, but are transformed into colossal, all-consuming cinematic adventures which last for years. Many of the directors of these particular enterprises are assuming that their audience has already read the book, leaving out dozens of details and pieces of information that can make newcomers to the story feel out of the loop; an example of this being in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 where Lupin suddenly gains a son, seemingly from thin air.

For some people the foreknowledge of the original text is crucial. However, this is not the case for all adaptations, with some, such as The Shawshank Redemption (based on a short story by Stephen King) not needing to even acknowledge the existence of a previous text. In some ways this is a benefit to the director; if you sway from the storyline or plot then most people won’t notice, and the minor details don’t face such minute scrutiny from exuberant fans of the novel. Conversely there’s a great honour in being responsible for a well-done and respected adaptation of a beloved text – Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings was adored by critics, Tolkien fans and newcomers alike, and is surely one of the highlights of this cinematic generation.

This month has seen the release of another cinematic adaptation of a classic novel: Jane Eyre. It’s a spectacular achievement, perfectly balancing the traditional content with modern cinematic techniques. Director Cary Fukunaga ensured the film remained true to the novel and time period, sticking faithfully to Brontë’s plot, including almost every key literary moment so fans of the novel felt that the symbolism and power of the original were kept intact. For a modern cinematic audience, however, this is not enough, and Fukunaga uses subtle camera techniques that keep Jane Eyre up to date and fresh for today’s audience. In particular the scene in which Jane discovers the secret door leading to Bertha’s chamber, with its extreme close ups and dramatic contrast between dark and light the shot was reminiscent of modern horror films. Using conventions such as these, Fukunaga manages to give an audience unfamiliar with Bront’s work a sense of familiarity, making this Victorian plot accessible to all.

Cinema is a brilliant way of introducing a new generation of readers to texts that would previously seem intimidating; Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet brought the romance and drama of Shakespeare up to date in a glamorous and visually stunning film that opened young people’s eyes to the world of the Bard. Similarly a bad adaptation can irreparably damage the reputation of a novel, Douglas Adams’ hilarious and forward-thinking Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reduced to a bland production in 2005 which, despite an all star cast, was a weak and watery affair.

Not every novel can be adapted to screen; some are too complex, some too internal and subtle, and others are so vivid that no director can match the reader’s imagination.

The trend of adapting novels seems set to continue, with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series being made for a second time, and Luhrmann’s highly anticipated The Great Gatsby filming underway. As long as the texts are treated with the respect they deserve and bring something new to the experience of the plot, cinematic adaptations are here to stay, and with good reason.

Written by Alex Wynick

Twitter: @AlexWynick