From Words to Films: Cloud Atlas, The Life of Pi, The Hobbit, Anna Karenina

Yesterday I saw Cloud Atlas at the theater, and it had previews for The Life of Pi and The Hobbit.  I’ve also seen recent previews for Anna Karenina.  All books I’ve read.  While watching the preview for The Life of Pi I wondered what Yann Martel and David Mitchell are feeling now that their words have become movies.  Do they feel like gods creating new worlds?

Lucky writers type words on their computer and a few years later those words become images on the big screen.  How marvelous must that feel for a writer?  Of course, a writer creates all their characters and scenes in their head by themselves, and a movie requires hundreds, if not thousands of people to create images on the screen for us to see.  And often, they aren’t the same visions the writer first imagined.  I can’t imagine David Mitchell picturing so many of his characters looking like Tom Hanks, but Tom Hanks with the help of make-up artists have fleshed out Mitchell’s characters in a world of pixels that is so much more vivid than printed words on a page.

I have to admit while watching the previews that I wished I could write something worthy of filming.  Few books are given birth on the big screen, so it’s a very rare honor that few writers get to enjoy. 

Look at the opening page of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – I saw it acted out yesterday.  It’s not the same at all, these words inspired a movie scene on the beach.



Next, watch this clip:



Now read from the The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.




And then look at the trailer for The Life of Pi:


These are just two examples.  I wish I had the time and technology to show several examples, with the exact book pages and filmed scenes.  Both Cloud Atlas and The Life of Pi are books of astounding feats of imagination.  I’m sure bookworms hope all their favorite books will become films, but few do.  I’d love to see The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi made into a movie.   That book also exhibited tremendous feats of imagination, although it’s a bleak view of the future.  I’m thinking movie makers prefer upbeat stories based on fantastic events.

I wonder how many writers sit down to write a story they hope will be filmed?  If you’ve read Cloud Atlas or The Life of Pi, you probably thought like me at the time that it would be impossible to film these stories.  Watching the preview of The Life of Pi made me realize that anything a writer can think up movie makers can film.  Watching the preview of Anna Karenina made me realize that movie makers are going far beyond what writers can do with words.  I don’t think any one mind can imagine so much beauty, color and vivid detail.


Look at this photo and then read Tolstoy’s words:

Anna was not in lilac, the colour Kitty was so sure she ought to have worn, but in a low-necked black velvet dress which exposed her full shoulder and bosom that seemed carved out of old ivory, and her rounded arms with the very small hands. Her dress was richly trimmed with Venetian lace. In her black hair, all her own, she wore a little garland of pansies, and in her girdle, among the lace, a bunch of the same flowers. Her coiffure was very unobtrusive. The only noticeable things about it were the wilful ringlets that always escaped at her temples and on the nape of her neck and added to her beauty. Round her finely chiselled neck she wore a string of pearls.

Well, they got the ringlets.  Can any words ever describe what we actually see?  What is the power of Tolstoy’s words that have made Anna Karenina one of the greatest novels of all time?   It is a novel that has inspired the production of many movies.  Will there be additional productions of The Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas?  Will Martel and Mitchell be as inspiring as Tolstoy?

Like I said, I wish I could write a story other people felt compelled to film.  The old saying is, a picture is worth a thousand words, well that means most novels have about 100 pictures in them.  But novels are really about characters fighting adversity, and that’s where movies and books really overlap.  I believe if I wanted to write a novel worth filming, I’d need to create unique characters facing unique conflicts.  Words are great for that.

I think it’s fascinating to read the words that become movies.  I think it’s even more fascinating see characters on pages become characters on screen.  I think it’s also fascinating  for stories to come alive before our eyes in the dark that we once read as black marks on white pages.

[By the way, is film even a valid word to use regarding movies anymore?  Are movies still filmed?  Or do they use high resolution video cameras?  In our modern times both novels and movies appear on screens.  I guess I could have talked about stories that appear in black and white on small screens and in color on large screens.  Is that the transformation good stories should expect – more pixels with great color depth?]

JWH – 11/5/12

6 thoughts on “From Words to Films: Cloud Atlas, The Life of Pi, The Hobbit, Anna Karenina”

  1. Wow, these films all look so amazing. I love previews, most of the time they are better than the movie.

    Okay here are my gripes though. Why does Pi look to be about 30? And why isn’t Anna Karenina Russian?

    I wonder if “Life of Pi” will get all the religious subtext that we discussed in the group at length?


    1. I forgot how old Pi was when the book started, but I think around 12, and it was only a few years later that they left India. Do you mean, why isn’t the actress playing Anna Russian?

  2. I would be surprised if many authors sit down to right with anything more than a passing dream that what they are putting to paper will be filmed. I would think if they have any thoughts along those lines beyond concentrating on penning a good tale it would be the hope that the story gets published in the first place.

    Film adaptations are an interesting animal. If the money is right perhaps authors don’t mind what the end result is. Our December Modern Read author, Steven Gould, was pretty clear in his “Don’t judge a book by its movie” thoughts when it came to Jumper. I saw the film and it was fine, if forgettable. Certainly didn’t make me want to read the book so I can see why he would be less than thrilled. Still, I think a movie probably proves the maxim that all press is good press because it does get the word out about the book.

    I won’t be seeing Anna Karenina as the story’s subject matter just doesn’t appeal to me and I imagine I’ll wait to see Cloud Atlas until it comes out for rental. I’ve heard high praise and much complaint about it. Life of Pi will be tempting to see in the theater, it looks very good. And of course I’ll end up seeing The Hobbit more than once in the theater, I expect. It isn’t my favorite J.R.R. Tolkien story but it is still a Tolkien adaptation done by a film maker I respect so I’ll be there opening weekend if I can swing it.

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