Ian McMillan: Why film adaptations can never beat a great book

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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I wonder if anybody else of the same vintage as me (I’m 60) remembers a TV programme from the 1960s called The Film of the Book? I can recall rushing in from my Auntie’s garden at 34 North Street in the summer holidays with my mate Geoff, and persuading Uncle Charlie to turn the racing off so that we could watch an earnest presenter sitting at a desk and discussing a film that had been adapted from a book. Hence the title of the programme. I’ve trawled the world wide web to try and find any evidence of it but my net has come up empty. The presenter had a beard. Does that help?

I was thinking about The Film of The Book (somebody must remember it, somewhere in The Yorkshire Post’s distribution area) the other day, when I watched the original Frankenstein film from 1931 on my iPad, Boris Karloff stumbling about with a bolt through his neck and great big pit boots on. I remember somehow catching the film on television as a lad; I watched most of it from behind the settee, apart from the bit I watched from behind my hands. I loved the film so much, even though it almost turned my hair white and gave me a temporary nervousness around pit boots and bolts, that I felt I had to read the book.

I got the book stamped, ignoring Mrs Dove’s raised eyebrow and her murmured “are you sure you don’t want Biggles? We’ve got some new ones”.

I almost ran down to Darfield Library and scoured the shelves of Everyman Classics with their wonderful motto “Everyman I will go with thee and be thy guide” until I found Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I glanced inside and was amazed to find it had first been published in 1818: but the story seemed so modern! I got the book stamped, ignoring Mrs Dove’s raised eyebrow and her murmured “are you sure you don’t want Biggles? We’ve got some new ones”.

I got home and lay on the settee, my favourite reading position. If this was a fairy tale and not a newspaper column I would say that the writing transfixed and transformed me but I was only ten years old and the prose baffled and irritated me. Only years and years later did I realise what a great book Frankenstein is, but that afternoon I took the book back and got a Biggles Omnibus out.

The point is, the book of the film (anybody remember the programme? The presenter’s beard?) is always going to be different, always to lose some layers, some subtleties, some nuances. I think of another of my favourite books, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, and the tedious film that came from that, or the way that for me the James Bond films, are never as glamorous or exciting as Ian Fleming’s books. As the philosopher said: “Films are films and books are books”.

That TV show, though. My wife suggests I’ve made it up, but I can almost remember the theme tune, almost remember the presenter’s name. It’s on the tip of my tongue. Anybody remember it? Anybody at all?