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The relationship between literature and cinema has always been a fraught one, usually consisting of great books being disembowelled for a mass audience. One of the many ways a mediocre or bad film can help to ruin a good or great book is by wrecking the cover. For example: she may be a widespread object of lust, but do we need Keira Knightley on the front of every book?
It’s a part of every book-to-film experience: the dreaded tie-in edition. This means that the book is hastily reprinted with the movie poster slapped on the front cover, and the main credits, in tiny type, jammed on the back between the blurb and the barcode. After all, when you’re reading Dickens, you want to know who the executive producers were.
The horrors of the tie-in edition were brought home to me recently by the new cover on Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France. Its main problem is that it’s a design mess, with different blocks of information all over the place, exhorting you to see films and read books, with five different proper names scattered over it, and four occurrences of ‘Julia’.
It also does something which always seems quite tacky, which is to oust the book’s real, dead author or subject in favour of whichever actor has been paid to impersonate them.
The Julia Child book goes even further, of course, in that it also includes an actor portraying the writer of an entirely different book, and who is not even in the book on which she appears.
Oh, look who just walked in.
Another rude publishing move is to change the title of a dead man’s book to fit the film and shift a few extra copies. You learn about Julian Fellowes from this Nigel Balchin book cover, for example, but you don’t learn that the book is really called A Way Through the Wood.
So having given vent to this litany of dislikes, it may seem surprising for me to admit that there are actually a number of books who explicitly use their movie offspring to good effect on their covers. The key to success seems to be that both book and film be excellent, that the film be decades old, and the designer talented.
This is the newest edition of Walter Tevis’s science-fiction classic, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
This uses a still of David Bowie from the film of the book, but doesn’t beat you over the head with the movie connection. If you don’t recognise that the image is from the film, or who it is, it doesn’t matter at all. You see the cat-eyed, nipple-free, hairless man, and it grabs your attention as an image on its own. It’s strangely beautiful, and that’s what you need on a cover for this book—not the names of Bowie and Nicolas Roeg and Simon Wakefield, set decorator.
It can even work if, despite everything I said above, the designer uses the actual movie poster. This edition of Alberto Moravia’s Contempt, for example, zooms in on and oddly crops the painted bust-of-Brigitte-Bardot one-sheet from Godard’s movie (Le Mepris), to great effect.
The point to remember here is that this only works because the original poster also works as a piece of attractive design, which was not unusual then. The contemporary movie poster that merits a second look is a rare thing indeed. Nowadays they simply fulfil the function of showing you which overpaid stars are in the film, and give a rough idea of what they’re likely to be doing (which is invariably either shooting someone, kissing someone, or gurning wackily at someone). The only really good movie poster from the last few years that I can think of is that for The Savages (2007), and it doesn’t hurt that it was drawn and designed by Chris Ware, who’s done a number of great book covers.
And sometimes an actor’s representation of a character becomes so closely bound to a book that it comes to seem almost shocking when you see them portrayed differently. Compare this old edition of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with the new Penguin Graphic Classics version, drawn and designed by Joe Sacco.
When books become films which in turn affect the books, then, it doesn’t have to be a disaster. Unfortunately, it almost always is. Take it away, Keira!