Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Whoever makes the teary speeches at the Oscars on Sunday, this year – as every year – fiction will win. With the Best Picture category staging a tussle between Ian McEwan (Atonement), Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) and Upton Sinclair (There Will Be Blood, but in 1927 simply Oil!), Alice Munro joins their company in competition for script and acting awards. Her New Yorker story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" became Away from Her. Under other headings, the novels whose celluloid offspring will vie for glory range from Marjane Satrapi's graphic tale of growing up in revolutionary Iran, Persepolis (animated feature), to Ron Leshem's soldier's tale from Israel's front lines, Beaufort (foreign-language film).

Cynical insiders have a simple explanation of why movie moguls so love the plot of a good book. The studio lawyers will know who made it, and who owns it. Far better to pay the odd fat cheque to writers or estates for rights to unmade movies than risk stepping in the snakepit of lawsuits that can surround an "original" storyline. More idealistic souls still cherish a belief that the business of film has never lost respect or friendship for its literary older sibling – even if it has funny ways of showing that it cares. The gulf between book and film can, after the final cut, look yawningly vast. In There Will Be Blood, Sinclair's leading theme of union activism and Communist revolution is utterly buried by the fundamentalist sub-plot.

Hollywood's taste in fiction might have broadened, but it does have limits. One upscale producer asks to be sent every novel in contention for the Booker when the shortlist appears. Sometimes they act on what they read – and sometimes not. It appears that the intimacy between man and sheep in prewar Co. Kerry explored in Brian O'Doherty's The Deposition of Father McGreevy (shortlisted in 2000) never struck the green-lighters as a hot prospect – even for the bi-coastal art-house crowd.

Sticking with Booker Prize winners and shortlisted titles, Atonement joins a surprisingly mixed, and strong, stable of adaptations. Booker movies stretch all the way from Steven Spielberg's heroic sweep in Empire of the Sun (Ballard) and Schindler's List (Keneally), Anthony Minghella's high romantic gloss in The English Patient (Ondaatje) or James Ivory's filigree craftsmanship in The Remains of the Day (Ishiguro) and Heat and Dust (Prawer Jhabvala) to the crackling ensemble work of Stephen Frears's The Van (Doyle) and Fred Schepisi's Last Orders (Swift). In spite of the odd misfire (Neil La Bute rather bungled Byatt's Possession), the record of Booker contenders on screen is more illustrious than many think. That troubling "Better than the book?" question may even arise – as it did, for me, during Richard Eyre's flawless rendering of Zoë Heller's shortlistee from 2003, Notes on a Scandal.

Some film-friendly Booker winners and finalists (from Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger to Magnus Mills's The Restraint of Beasts) started out on the popcorn road but – for various reasons – fell by the wayside. Political funk scuppered the television dramatisation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Others – including films of Vernon God Little and The Life of Pi – queue in production pipelines.

More movie treasure lies in the literary ground (even from the Booker field alone), waiting to gush for some Daniel Day-Lewis of the studios. What a shame, then, that – beyond piecemeal deals with authors or heirs – an industry which drills global profits from good books should give so little back. How about a $100,000 donation to the Booker Foundation's outreach and education schemes for every Oscar that a victor or shortlistee procures? It would, in every sense, be a small price to pay.

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