Culture Shocks: Impossible to translate words into images? How a French director proved Hollywood wrong

The News

The film adaptation of Reif Larson’s 2009 novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, was released in cinemas and streaming services under the title The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. This is somewhat remarkable, considering that the book was deemed “unfilmable”. In an interview with the Guardian, Larson explains that, despite a flurry of initial interest from Hollywood agents, the book was too challenging to adapt for cinema. So when he unexpectedly received an e-mail from the filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (of Amélie fame), he was astonished. Jeunet wrote that he was “smitten” with the novel and wanted to make the film. Thus, began the intricate process of translating the novel; by rearranging sequences, adapting characters and re-ordering scenes, Jeunet deconstructed the book piece-by-piece to re-create the story.

Behind the news

Adapting a novel into a film is a bit like transcreating an advertisement into a foreign language: it needs to be re-crafted with a different mindset. For a film, it is not enough to simply lift dialogue from the novel and drop it into a script – such literal translation merely results in a dramatisation of the book. In a novel, narrative is used to convey characters’ thoughts and feelings; in a film, the challenge is to translate the interior of a novel into scenes using visual tools and cinematic techniques – acting, lighting, photography, soundtrack, etc. – this is the language of film. Books can tell, but films have to show.

Beyond translating the book into the language of film, there needs to be artistic synergy between the book author and film director. In the interview, Larson speaks of his admiration for Jeunet and “having the distinct sensation that somehow this director had crawled inside [his] head”. He later says that “Jeunet’s way of seeing was embedded into the DNA of Spivet”. Thus, it is no coincidence that Jeunet approached Larson: the two were able to relate to each other artistically, drawn together by a sense of familiarity “bound not by blood but by aesthetic sensibility”.

In order for a film to retain the original meaning of the book, it must capture the essence and spirit of the story. This is echoed in Larson’s sentiment that he wanted Jeunet to “look beyond the bounds of the text to get at the ‘essential spirit’ of [his] book”. Recognising that books and films are two distinct forms of storytelling, Larson wanted the director to be faithful to his work, but ultimately to create a new story, not just reproduce the original in a different medium.

Whether Jeunet achieved this is up to the readers and viewers to decide. From Larson’s part, he felt “a sense of familiarity” but also some detachment while watching the film, realising that the story was no longer his alone.


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