Thursday, 10 December 2009

Books vs Keira Knightley

Note: This was originally going to be my first column for the relaunched Hyde Park Review of Books, which was going to appear several months ago. However, nothing seems to be happening there, and I haven't been able to get in touch with anyone to find out what's going on. I've decided to post the article here, and I hope to be able to do something else for HPRoB if they come online.

* * *

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!



Bob Fingerman said...

Great post. By the time I got the the 20th Knightley cover I was laughing.

Deb said...

That Nigel Balchin cover is so confusing my head hurts. I can't figure out if Julian Fellowes wrote the book, or if Nigel Balchin write "Gosford Park" or if, perhaps, Nigel Balchin directed "Gosford Park."

Unknown said...

I've always loved this cover from a 1963 edition of A Man Who Fell To Earth:

Laura Ottina said...

I completely agree with you!

Teresa said...

Hilarious! But it raises another question for me. Why must Keira Knightley star in every film adaptation or every book?

Matthew Adams said...

I actually wonder why keira knightly can't appear in every movie and on the cover of every book, and on the pages of every picture book. It can even be the same photo for every book and cover, and the same same two hours of footage for the movies. It would be clip art to it's most beautiful extreme. We would no longer have to waste money on artists or directors (those scoundrels and criminals who try to present to the world covers with images that aren't keira knightly).

JRSM said...

I think Matthew has the perfect solution!

PS: Lantzvillager, I love that cover--thanks for the link.

Unknown said...

What annoys me about the poster for Atonement, and the book edition, is that Atonement isn't really about either of those characters, its about the girl, who is shoved in very tinily in the middle.

Here's another actor replacing the person:

JRSM said...

That's a good point about Atonement. And thank you for the Marie Antoinette cover link--an excellent example. I somehow doubt Antonia Fraser's book had lots of references to '80s pop, too.

Anonymous said...

this was truly hilarious. thank you

Craig D. said...

I have a bizarre fascination with tie-in books, bizarre because I fucking hate them and yet I'm still interested in them. Kind of like a Hitler biographer, I guess.

I'm not sure which I love (hate) better: the tie-in using the title of the movie, or the tie-in advertising in garish lettering its association with the movie. I think there's an interesting difference between the Die Hard books. Roderick Thorp's Nothing Last Forever was reprinted as an official Die Hard paperback tie-in with the Die Hard title and a still from the movie, with "Formerly titled Nothing Last Forever" printed in tiny lettering at the bottom.

On the other hand, there's an unofficial paperback tie-in of Walter Wager's 58 Minutes, with "Basis for the movie Die Hard 2: Die Harder" printed in large red lettering right in the middle of the cover within a bright yellow banner, with "This book is not authorized, endorsed, or sponsored by the producers of Die Hard 2: Die Harder" printed on the copyright page. I guess getting official approval doesn't really matter as long as you get the title of the movie on the cover.

Which of these two is worse? The movie poster, or the original cover with "NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE FROM LOWEST COMMON DEMONINATOR ENTERTAINMENT" printed either on the cover or on a sticker that you can't remove without leaving sticky adhesive behind? Granted, we're talking about the freaking Die Hard novels here and not Melville or Nabokov, but the point remains the same.

(Sidenote: is the "NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE" thing necessary on covers that use the poster? And why do they use the term "major motion picture" even when it's a low-budget indie movie that played in two theatres for one week before going to DVD? Also: "A Major Television Series"? Shows like Lost and 24 can be called a major television series, maybe, but a Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Doctor Zhivago?)

Another tie-in favorite of mine: short story collections. Nevermind that Minority Report and Paycheck have almost nothing to do with the Philip K. Dick stories they're based on; even if they were extremely faithful, only a tiny fraction of those collections actually feature the stories advertised on the covers. See also Stephen King's Different Seasons, republished as Apt Pupil: A Novella in Different Seasons to tie into the Apt Pupil movie.

Then there are tie-ins that remove the other stories from a collection, publishing only the story the movie is based on. You can buy a paperback of King's The Mist for $6.99, or a paperback of Skeleton Crew, the collection in which The Mist was originally included, for $7.99. They even put "Previously Published as a Novella in Skeleton Crew" on the cover of The Mist, daring you to buy it instead of the collection.

I'm in total agreement about new movie posters vs. old. Take for example the two movies based on Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1960's Plein Soleil and 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley. One of them I wouldn't mind at all having on the cover of the book, and the other I would hide in shame. No cookies for guessing which. Then again, some new movies have both good posters and bad: to continue using Highsmith as an example, do a Google Image search for "Ripley's Game poster" and try to guess which one I wouldn't mind seeing on the cover of the book.

Sorry for the long and indulgent post, but man, I can't get enough of this stupid crap.

Steven Harris said...

Not only for the cheesy movie tie-in but also for sheer bad design, this is one of the worst I've seen:

JRSM said...

Steven: That cover is a truly awful mess--the way the actors take precedence over the author is appalling.

Craig: I apologise for not responding earlier to your thoughtful, lucid comments. Somehow it didn't show up in my email. But I think you're right on all counts.

Learning Center said...

Great post! I was particularly annoyed by that French cover for Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road". The French book title is "La fenêtre panoramique" but the Sam Mendes movie title is "Les Noces rebelles"... so in the end they just put both titles on the cover!

JRSM said...

That sort of renaming is incredibly irritating, especially when the film-makers claim to be true to the source.

Mae said...

Completely agree. I was starting to think I'd walked into a cinema rather than bookstore. You can now add two more book covers to Keira's dominance - Tender is the Night, Beautiful and the Damned and Never Let Me Go to the list. It must be those cheekbones.

Breakfast at Tiffany's cover with Audrey Hepburn is the only one that I don't mind.

JRSM said...

And also 'London Boulevard'. I'm waiting to get good scans of all the movie covers of these books, and then I'll do a follow-up.

Craig D. said...

Re: Steven,

That Fight Club cover is wonderful.




...are not in this book, because it's a book, not a movie.

Anonymous said...

That was one of the funniest things I've ever read!!!

Oh dear...Kiera.... *chortle!*

JRSM said...

Thanks! It was fun to do.