From this discussion with Iain Sinclair about J. G. Ballard:
I saw Empire of the Sun again the other day, and it’s Spielberg more than Ballard though it’s reasonably close to the book.
I recently saw the film again and came to the same conclusion. It was a polished, Disneyfied interpretation, with overtones of Merchant Ivory. I’d love to see a Peter Greenaway rendering. Greenaway’s obsession with sex and death is well matched with Ballard’s themes. Ballard’s book Crash, interpreted faithfully (but ultimately disappointingly) by David Cronenberg is frequently juxtaposed with Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, as controversial films.
It is a cliché to discuss how a particular film is a disappointing adaptation of a particular book. Is there a film that has aesthetically advanced the original text? Perhaps Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire or The Great Gatsby, almost certainly The Third Man.
In Julien Gracq’s discerning book Reading Writing he offers this insight:
But the reader of a novel is not a performer following notes and tempo step by step: he is a director. And this suggests that, from one brain to another, the sets, cast, lighting, and motion of the performance become unrecognisable. Whatever the explicit precision of the text-and even against it, if he so desires-the reader decides (for example) on the acting of the characters and their physical appearance. And the best proof of this is that the interpretation of a film adapted from a familiar novel almost always jars us, not because of its arbitrary nature, but most often because of its fidelity to the formal indications of the text, with which, while reading it, we have taken the greatest liberties.
This, of course, must be correct. The conclusion is that one should never, never watch film adaptations of books that you love and know intimately. But, of course, it is always impossible to resist.