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From text to the cineplex

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer details the life of a serial killer with the most powerful sense of smell in the history of mankind. Author Patrick Süskind wrote the story in German in the early 1980s, but it’s set in 18th-century France. Since its publication, the novel’s been translated into almost a dozen languages and has become a bestseller everywhere it’s been released.

The story is bizarre. The protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, experiences the world entirely through his nose. He doesn’t need light to walk down streets and alleys – he can smell the walls and the stones in his path. The nerves that carry sensations of smell from the nose to the brain are directly connected to the body’s limbic system, the center of memories and emotions. This makes Perfume’s lengthy descriptive passages very intense.

When Süskind narrates Jean-Baptiste’s birth underneath a fishmonger’s stall in a Paris market, he does so with respect to the smell. Thus, the fish guts aren’t a picture in your head – they’re a visceral sensation. The effect is so good you’ll wish that you’d thought of it first. The movie captures the unsanitary brutality of life in a pre-industrial revolution city. Jean-Baptiste grows up in squalor, learns the art of making perfume and begins killing beautiful young girls in order to capture their scent.

The story was transformed into a 147-minute film in 2006. Thankfully, the movie version was done with panache and talent and it did justice to the book. This is not always the case when great books are made into movies. However, Perfume the film successfully captures the novel’s gritty, raw qualities. You can almost smell the screenshots, and the cast was stellar. Read the book after watching the movie and Dustin Hoffman (Rainman) and Alan Rickman (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) will be playing characters in your head. It’s better casting than your imagination could hope to accomplish.

Despite the success of the film, there are certain drawbacks that come with converting a book into a motion picture. There’s a level of intricacy in the realm of the novel that film simply cannot duplicate. In the case of Perfume, one part of the book that is crucial to understanding Jean-Baptiste’s twisted mind is completely left out. His macabre decision in the last chapter (no spoilers here) is well explained in the book, but in the movie it’s inexplicable. There’s also the inevitably clumsy voice-over narration.

Since Hollywood is a vain, shallow monster, a handsome young actor was cast in the role of the scarred, unkempt and notably ugly Jean-Baptiste. Avid readers would be wise to watch the movie first – otherwise they’ll spend two and a half hours picking out flaws in an essentially spectacular film.

Another successful book-turned-movie is High Fidelity. For fans of rock and pop-culture it’s an absolute must-see. John Cusack plays Rob Gordon, a record-store owner with an acid wit and a penchant for unhealthy relationships. Cusack has played a cynical, hopeless romantic so many times that he couldn’t have failed in this role if he tried. In the opening scene he screams out the window at the woman who just left him: “If you really wanted to mess me up, you should’ve gotten to me earlier!” Jack Black’s antics are also hilarious, bolstering the theory that casting is especially crucial for a book to be brought to life on screen. Instead of voice-over narration, Cusack looks and talks directly into the camera throughout the movie.

Directors seem to be at a loss for a subtle way to express a novel’s narration. See Blade Runner and A Clockwork Orange for more examples of this befuddlement. Interesting side note: Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick were considered as directors for Perfume. Kubrick said the book was “unfilmable.” If only he’d reserved that judgment for A.I.

High Fidelity the book is fun and light-hearted, which makes it a better candidate for the silver screen than a story filled with metaphors and deeper meanings. Light reads, action novels and transgressive fiction seem to have the most success in film form, a judgment reflected in Trainspotting, The Beach, No Country for Old Men, The James Bond dynasty, Interview with a Vampire, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Another genre that usually benefits from being turned into a movie is the long-winded epic. The plots are straightforward, but it can be tedious to slog through 800 pages just to see what happens next. A film version can expedite the process nicely. See The Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Children of Dune for examples.