It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a literary work becomes a film, the book is always better. The limits set by movie runtime, production budget, and audience expectations often mean that vital parts of a written work are sacrificed during its translation to screen. Book fans have learned to expect a few difficulties.
But a film version of Stephenie Meyer’s novel The Host, slated to hit theaters March 29, arguably poses even more problems than usual for a book-to-screen turnaround. Will fans of The Host, which was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for 26 weeks, love it as much in its onscreen incarnation?
The Host has an intimidating set of challenges for moviemakers. First, there’s the book’s length of 619 pages, which had to be condensed into an approximate two-hour runtime. This abbreviation is especially significant when you compare the book’s length to other fantasy works that have been split into two movies. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn are each only about 150 pages longer than The Host, but both were split into two films. The word is that Mockingjay, the final volume of the Hunger Games trilogy, will also become two movies even though the book is a mere 400 pages, or about half the size of the final Harry Potter.
Another difficulty with The Host’s transition to film is actually one of the best points to be made about the book: The Host uses quiet wisely. Yes, there’s plenty of action and suspense and some blood and shooting, but much of the book is about allowing the reader to get to know the characters as the plot deliberately builds.
There’s the quiet of Wanderer’s intense but all-internal struggle with Melanie — the slow build where Wanderer, called Wanda, slowly wins over the hostile people around her — the romance that grows between Wanda and Ian. All of these things take time, which is why the book tops 600 pages, but Meyer is a master storyteller, and her characters are vivid enough to keep readers sucked in even when the plot unfolds slowly.
All well and good, but what about when a book whose greatest strength is quiet becomes a movie? Quiet is great. Quiet wins Oscars. But quiet doesn’t necessarily make for the kind of box office numbers expected for fantasy films based on New York Times bestsellers. For comparison, three of the Twilight Saga films rank in the top 10 highest box office weekends ever; The Hunger Games has the 13th highest box office of all time and the final Harry Potter film grossed more than $300 million. The demographic drawn in by these films is probably similar to the audience The Host will be geared toward, so it’s unsurprising that the trailers released for The Host showcase plenty of action.
The most challenging aspect of The Host’s journey from book to film is the intricacy of the characters’ relationships, which are far-fetched if taken on face value but absolutely believable within Meyer’s world. The question is whether or not that world will come across onscreen.
The Wanda and Melanie relationship is probably the most complicated. In the beginning, Melanie sees Wanda, an alien soul, as worse than a parasite, someone who has stolen her body and life and should be destroyed. Wanda is terrified of Melanie’s spirit, this insistent voice in her head, even while she has control of her body.
Somehow, the reader sympathizes with both. The inner dialogue between Wanda and Melanie as they become friends is vital to the book and its themes of body versus spirit, relationships between people and the wondrous complexity of the human experience with all its physical, spiritual and emotional facets. But can a relationship between two people inside the same body possibly work onscreen?
Meyer, who is a producer on the film, and director Andrew Niccol are banking heavily on their cast, most of all Saoirse Ronan, who plays Melanie/Wanda. In a recent interview, Meyer told The Hollywood Reporter that she didn’t worry about The Host becoming a film or about the Melanie character in particular.
“No. It’s obvious, totally obvious,” Meyer said. “You just need to have the most brilliant actress in the world, and you don’t have a problem.”
Referring to Ronan, Meyer added, “And we got her, so we were really lucky.”
Ronan may not have earned that title yet, but she does have a strong resume that includes films like Atonement and The Lovely Bones, making her a solid candidate for Melanie. She recorded Melanie’s side of the dialogue before shooting started and listened back to her own voice on an ear-piece while filming the scenes between Melanie and Wanda.
Jake Abel, who plays Ian, also took on a challenging character, the man who falls in love with Wanda while she is in Melanie’s body. Will the audience believe that he is truly drawn to Wanda’s spirit and personality, not Melanie’s attractive physical appearance?
We’ll see. Despite my concerns, I’m looking forward to watching The Host in theaters. With the author as a producer, the story is in good hands, so I’m hopeful that not too many plot points have been sacrificed. Besides, I’ve learned by now not to be too hard on movies — they can’t be expected to live up to the book.
I recently experienced the book to film phenomenon backward, viewing the film and then reading the book, which clinched it for me. I saw The Help in theaters in late summer 2011 and loved it. I laughed, I cried, I empathized with Skeeter. I was completely won over.
I finally picked up the novel and read it about a month ago. And you know what?
The book was better.