From Book to Screen: Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy”
There is perhaps no one better at writing about the contemporary “average Joe” than the English born Nick Hornby. This could very well be one of the reasons that his novels adapt so well to the screen. We see characters that remind us of both people we know and ourselves, and we become enthralled by their stories. We want them to find happiness, we want them to achieve some measure of their dreams, and we want them to grow emotionally as people. If they can do it, then there’s no reason we can’t as well.
Director: Stephen Frears
Perhaps there is no better movie to begin my Flickchart blogging career with than High Fidelity. Not because of any particular merits it holds, but because its plot relies so heavily on making lists. Both the movie and book begin with the main character – Rob – listing his top 5 break-ups. From there we are treated to a plethora of lists covering subjects like favorite movies to dream jobs. If any group of people can appreciate the madness of trying to perfect the ultimate list, it has to be the members of Flickchart.
This movie is hands down my favorite adaptation from a novel. Not only is it very true to the source, but it has the best casting you will find. John Cusak is at his best in ‘normal guy struggling through life who eventually comes to dramatic self-realization while sitting in the rain’ roles, Tom Louiso is great as the understated Dick, Iben Hjejle is even great as the love interest that we spend more time hearing about from Cusak, than getting to know ourselves.
As good as all those people were, none of them were as perfect for their role as Jack Black was for Barry. In the scene where we meet him, he walks into the record store the three guys work at and plays “Walking on Sunshine,” turns it up really loud, gets in an argument with Rob, and then bullies Dick about an opinion he has. Every scene he’s in he both captures the essence of Barry and adds a few of his own flourishes, making the character translate perfectly.
What Jack Black did with Barry, is the same thing that the screenwriters did with the script. They developed the theme of the story just as well as Hornby did in the novel, but in their own way. They changed the setting from England to America, and along with that changed numerous references throughout the film. The lists often have subtle changes – to include bands the screenwriters probably liked – and there are a few jokes thrown in here or there that are definitely regional – “Cosby Sweater” being the most obvious one.
Make no mistake, I’m not saying that the movie is better than the book because it is set in America as compared to England. In fact, I prefer the book’s ending over the more Hollywood movie ending. I’m saying that by altering seemingly unimportant pieces of the overall work, they added little pieces of themselves to the screenplay. This may not seem like a big deal, but one of the most important aspects of book adaptations is making subtle changes so that it fits the style of the people working on the film. If this doesn’t happen it doesn’t mean the movie is bad, but it definitely feels sterile.
Director: Chris Weitz
Obviously, the less popular of the two adaptations, but it’s lower than it deserves to be and I think I know why. In High Fidelity, we have guys who are self-absorbed and stuck in their adolescent mentalities, but what they use to illustrate how immature they are is socially acceptable – music. One of About a Boy‘s main character’s adolescent mentality is illustrated more by sloth and bitterness towards his father’s past success. The other character – Marcus – is an actual adolescent who we are quick to find out is an oddball who doesn’t fit in. People are much less likely to empathize with a character who has enough money that he doesn’t need to work, and/or has attributes they don’t like to think they have. This lends to the major problem with the translation.
At the beginning of the book, Will spends the entire second chapter explaining to us why he is cool. As you read, you realize he’s trying to convince himself of his coolness and where he has ended up in life more than us. He even has a quote that says, “The twenty-year-old Will would have been surprised and perhaps disappointed to learn that he would reach the age of thirty-six without finding a life for himself, but the thirty-six year old Will wasn’t particularly unhappy about it” (pg. 8). The readers actively see the facade and want him to break out of it. The movie does not give the watchers the same vibe. Partly because of writing and partly because they got Hugh Grant to play the role of Will.
I understand why they picked him. They had to pick a good-looking, witty Englishman in his 30s and he’s as good a choice as any. However, where the book gives us the inner dialogue we need to see who Will actually is, the movies leaves us with the facial expressions of Hugh Grant to try to give the character any sort of depth beyond, “my life is awesome, and I’m a bad ass.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t pull it off. I can’t really blame him entirely, it doesn’t seem like the writers or director were trying to show that point at all either. We end up with a character who is attractive and says things we wish we were clever enough to say, but we really don’t care about him much as a person yet. Luckily, Marcus – played by Nicolas Hoult – gives us a character we can root for as we wait for the Will we can root for to show up.
This may seem overly critical to a movie I actually enjoy, but it’s a great example of how little things can make some adaptations on par with their source material while so many others lag behind. It’s certainly no easy task.