Arifa Akbar: Forget the gruelling films, just read the brilliant books


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The Independent Culture

There are times when the film-of-the-book leads us back to the original text, either to re-live the story or to compare the merits of one medium to the other. Then there are times when a film adaptation is so profoundly dissatisfying that it demands recourse to the book.

I recently felt the latter, twice, and acutely, while sitting in a darkened auditorium. Both films were based on (recently re-released) memoirs of extraordinary experiences which share the theme of systematised violence. The Railway Man, Eric Lomax's unflinching account of capture and torture by the Japanese army in the Second World War, stars Colin Firth in the film, and Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave (released in January) dramatises a 19th-century memoir by Solomon Northup, a free man from New York kidnapped and sold into Southern-state slavery, who escapes after 12 years of brutal enchainment.

Both films are serious-minded endeavours that pull no punches. So far, so laudable. Yet I felt the soul of these stories got lost in translation between mediums. I sought out the texts and sure enough felt the inverse of my film experience.

As a film, The Railway Man is full of meaningful pauses in between the anger and torture, which left me wondering what Lomax felt at these times, so much so that I yearned for the cliché of the dreaded voice-over. I could imagine, in Firth's distant stares, the unsaid words rising off the page, drifting just out of range, and wished them to be closer. When I turned to the book, the complexity of Lomax's emotions came alive and burned off the page. Neither did the torture make me wince as it had in the film, because I never felt entirely outside of his experience.

McQueen's adaptation, meanwhile, deals in gruelling sequences of brutality, detailed in their physical violence, yet strangely inarticulate when it comes to revealing the interiority that runs in tandem with such violence in Northup's memoir. There is a protracted scene in which a slave, Patsey, is whipped that will leave no viewer unscathed. It seems to go on forever, ever more savage, and yet remains a visual assault, of which we are squirming spectators, watching something truly appalling with our noses pressed up against an invisible barrier, the screen sequestering Patsey's experience as pained victim and ours as grubby voyeurs, slouching in cinema seats.

There is nothing punishing or alienating in Northup's and Lomax's written versions though. As hard as some scenes are to swallow – Lomax's beatings, cagings, water-boardings, and Northup's lived and witnessed hell – the books take us inside a world and mind so we become more than discomforted spectators. McQueen's film does not flinch from showing us the dehumanising effect of slavery, something that Northup addresses early too – the transformation of people into "slaves" (even utensils are taken away from them). Every slave except Northup is defined by his or her role as victim in the film. He learns to negotiate with his oppressors, to present them cleverly with qualities they find indispensable and to manipulate when he can, in order to survive. This in itself is a heroic quality – the complicity needed for survival – that has also appeared in Holocaust literature.

But to read the book is to see heroism presented differently, and not only Northup's. Where the film draws us time and again to physical assaults on these featureless slaves, the book draws our eye to the personalities of these slaves. Northup names them, describes their individual natures, their habits. They gain agency – and dignity – within the dehumanising machinery of slavery. There is another hard-to-watch moment in the film when Northup loses his patience with Eliza, an abject mother separated from her children, who can't stop crying. He is exasperated by her inconsolable sadness and resignation in the face of her tragedy, but the Northup of the original memoir has far more insight and humanity. He sees Eliza's resignation as a valid response to her loss and so gives her a nobility for feeling it.

Northup's book doesn't seem to be nearly as angry as McQueen's film. Both Northup and Lomax, in fact, deconstruct evil to humanise it. Northup sees some good people in a bad system. Repeatedly he says the system is to blame, not those within it (and he is talking about slave owners).

Film must, by its nature, explain interiority differently. It also has an audience reach of which a book can only dream. The late Lomax was said to be keen on a film adaptation ("to help people who had been through similar things"). But are there books that are best suited to the written word and not the screen? I would implore everyone to read the books. You won't just be shell-shocked. You'll be upset, astonished, and yes, uplifted too.

I want to dedicate this book to... my publicist

It's not often that an author decides to dedicate their latest work to the humble book publicist. So it was refreshing, if not completely surprising, to see that Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy dedicated her nativity story to Camilla Elworthy, one of the longest-serving (and clearly best-loved, by Duffy at least) publicists at Picador. If I were her, I'd be buying it as a Christmas gift for all and sundry.

Feeling philanthropic? Adopt a book for Christmas

The British Library has come up with an ingenious new scheme which enables everyman philanthropy. For £25, you can adopt Jane Eyre, Little Women, Bleak House, and others (14 titles in total). Your donation will go towards conservation work.