The dangers of false adaptations

Naomi Watts's character is punished for her infidelities in a faithful adaptation of Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil, while the director and writer of Fast Food Nation push their agenda down our throats. By Declan Burke


As an example of how to adapt a novel for the big screen, The Painted Veil (12A) is an object lesson. First filmed in 1934, with Greta Garbo in the role of Kitty, Somerset Maugham's tale is a study of grimly realistic redemption in which a feckless wife who betrays her husband is subsequently condemned to what amounts to a death sentence when he orders her to accompany him to a remote Chinese village ravaged by a cholera epidemic.

John Curran's adaptation, starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton (pictured), doesn't simply take the novel as its ‘inspiration', which can too often provide a filmmaker with a licence to steal characters' names and play havoc with the original material. Ron Nyswaner's screenplay maintains a strong fidelity to Maugham's tale, it's true, but even more impressive is the way in which Curran invests proceedings with a stately pace akin to reading a novel, pausing here and there to focus on details and nuances that give the characters a full and vibrant back-story, in the process fleshing out their current dilemma to create a gripping drama. As a romance it is at times almost too true to life, as the petty bickering and emotional concerns threaten to blot out the tragedy of the Chinese natives dying off still clinging to their superstitious beliefs. However, Curran never loses sight of the big picture, one that has an epic feel as the Chinese gradually stir themselves to rebel against their British oppressors. After a number of misfiring roles, Edward Norton again showcases his talent as one of America's leading actors, his emotionally repressed doctor so prissily dedicated to his vocation that it's impossible not to feel some sympathy for the admittedly wayward but passionate Kitty. The film, however, belongs to Watts, who manages to transform her character from a detestably selfish ingénue into a woman of noble intent and bearing without ever breaking faith with the audience. Even Garbo would have been proud.

Fast Food Nation (15A), on the other hand, is an example of how not to adapt a book for the screen. Based very loosely on Eric Schlosser's bestseller on America's obsession with junk food, Richard Linklater adopts a character-based format for exploring the faults in the commercial food-chain. Greg Kinnear plays a marketing executive at Mickey's, a stereotypical burger chain, who is sent to investigate the hygiene standards of Uniglobe, the chain's meat-packing suppliers, while various minor characters flesh out the less appetising aspects of fast-food production. In theory it should work, but Linklater and Schlosser, who co-wrote the script, are far more interested in delivering a lecture than fashioning believable characters, and the film quickly degenerates into a rather boring diatribe against corporate America and rapacious greed. Perhaps the target is so big that it was almost impossible not to hit it, but there's an unforgivably lazy feel to this film that reflects badly on all concerned. There may well be ‘shit in the meat', as one character announces, but the makers themselves could have shed a lot of fat off the bone before offering this one for consumption. The Painted Veil **** Fast Food Nation **