Can the film be better than the book?

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – film and novel

Seeing the film before reading the book is one of the gravest of sins in the English teacher’s manual, and of that I am guilty when I come to this haunting and subtle novel.

The film is one of the best Merchant-Ivory films of the late eighties and early nineties, and with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in the lead roles, it’s superbly acted. I can still remember the painful scene when the introverted Stevens, loyal butler of Darlington Hall, is interrupted by Miss Kenton in his reading, and embarrassed to be discovered reading romantic novels. Or, when suffering from extreme stress, he descends to the cellar to collect a bottle of wine, only to drop it. Such scenes sound trivial – but in the hands of Thompson and Hopkins they become laden with significance. And the film is not without humour: particularly amusing is the scene in which Hugh Grant, playing the journalist nephew of Lord Darlington, walks in the garden with Stevens – who, confirmed bachelor that he is, must explain the birds and the bees to his charge!

But the film is supremely one of atmosphere, in the way that sets apart so many of the finest films – who can forget the grotty station cafe or the bleak, dark platforms of Brief EncounterRemains of the Day, set in the 1930s to a backdrop of Fascism sweeping across Europe, beautifully evokes the life of a great English country house in all its colour and splendour. So, too, in the parallel narrative set in the 1950s, the film takes us to a quietly depressing seaside town and, perhaps above all, sweeps us up into the sheer magnificence of motoring across England; indeed, this summer when I found myself one evening in the car crossing the Cotswolds, I was taken back to film and the breathtaking journeys on lonely high roads and moments when the whole of the English landscape is transfigured by the glory of the setting sun, almost like a moment from Howards End.

So can the book come close to these cinematic moments? For me, a problem when reading the novel much later was hearing Anthony Hopkins’ voice narrating – though I later came to embrace this. Hopkins’ performance is finely nuanced and captures perfectly Stevens’ reticent, priggish character. And the film is incredibly faithful to the novel. I suppose, ultimately, that the novel offers more possibilities, particularly in reading Stevens’ character, and there are numerous details which the film (inevitably, given time constraints) omits. The novel presents everything from Stevens’ perspective, in a way just not possible in a film, adding to the complexity of the novel and its moral ambiguity, particularly in the way that Stevens discusses notions of service and what it means to be a great butler in a great house. Do I prefer one to the other? No, but I’ll admit it: the film lingers in my imagination to this day.

But perhaps rather than seeing one as better than the other, we ought to rethink the function of film. Perhaps we should see film as a different way of accessing the text of a novel and as part of the wider interpretation of the novel rather than an ‘evil’ which is ‘never as good as the book’. (Actually, the film is often better than the book.) Few readers of Wuthering Heights, for example, approach the text with no notion whatsoever of what the novel entails: perhaps from the Laurence Olivier film originally, and now widely embedded within our culture, we already have pictures of wild moorlands and windswept farmhouses.

Indeed, the more we think about it, the more we see what wonderful things pictures are when it comes to interpreting fiction. Why was I obsessed with Kidnapped aged about ten? I didn’t really understand it – I recall asking my mum what ‘vitals’ were (Alan Breck, for the uninitiated, regularly threatens to ‘cut off the vitals’ of any evil Campbell). But what caught my attention more than anything was a dramatic picture opposite the title page. Such pictures were once known as ‘frontpieces’ and in this case it was the only illustration in the whole book, a 1950s edition of the novel. It depicted in colour  the moment of the Balquhiddher murder which becomes central to the plot. The picture and its caption still sit in my mind, as a finely dressed gentleman clutches his chest, with a quotation from the novel: ‘There was a shot and Glenure fell upon the road….’ Such stuff set me to reading.

So let’s end all this snobby ‘I was so disappointed by the film’ nonsense. For an increasingly visual society, film opens our imaginations, unlocks the text, reveals possibilities and enriches our experiences.