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Literary humour can be lost in translation

There is a particular kind of humour to be found in the pages of a book. It is often subtle and unexpected, creeping up on the reader who didn’t expect to laugh. After all, isn’t reading considered quite a sober pastime, solitary and silent?

But try explaining that to Gerald Durrell, whose account of his family’s experience moving from the UK to Corfu became a much-loved and very funny novel, My Family and Other Animals. Much of the book’s humour of the lies in Durrell’s descriptions of the idiosynracies of his family, cast into the light of day in the brilliant Corfu sun.

On reading Durrell’s memoir, I found myself chuckling every few pages, sometimes having to put my book down to dry the tears of laughter running down my face. One particularly funny episode in the novel featured all of Corfu’s dogs chasing the family of new arrivals through the town, such was the strays’ excitement at catching sight at the Durrells’ dog. There was something about the way it was written – quite matter-of-fact and wry, that was deliciously funny.

And while I am thoroughly enjoying watching the book’s television adaptation, The Durrells, I have been surprised that I have not laughed in the same way as I did while reading the book. Somehow, on screen, some of the humour of the book has been lost, possibly due to the impossibility of recreating the same tone on the screen as in the written word, not to mention the difficulty of staging the scene in which the pack of dogs chases the Durrells through the streets of Corfu.

The series might be charming, with beautiful scenery and stellar performances by the cast, but it just doesn’t have the same humour as the novel.

A book which struck a similar tone to My Family and Other Animals was Three Men in a Boat, which documented the travels and travails of three friends who decided to take a trip down the River Thames. Again, it was the friends’ foibles and the farcical situations in which they found themselves that proved to be so funny. Various adaptations have been made since the book was published in 1889, including films, which received mixed reviews, television series and even a musical comedy filmed by Soviet television. Although some of these ventures achieved popular success, I wonder whether the wry, laconic, self-deprecating humour that made the book so enduring was as effective on the screen.

Bill Bryson struck a different tone in his famously funny travelogues, in which he often marveled at his own stupidity, or, affectionately, that of the inhabitants of the places he visited. Many have been the readers who found themselves stifling snorting laughter brought on by a classic Bryson observation. However, a film adaptation of one of his most popular books, A Walk in the Woods, drew mixed reviews, which makes me doubt that Bryson’s famous humour came across in the movie.

The Telegraph‘s film review noted that while Bryson’s book, “sets about its work in a hush, tickling, charming, prodding and cajoling so gently that in half an hour you can laugh out loud 10 times and learn 20 new things”, the movie was “lead-footed”. Although this might be as much a result of the quality of this particular adaptation, it also reveals the difficulties of putting written jokes or witticisms onto a different medium.

The film adaptation of the social satire, The Bonfire of the Vanities, was widely criticised as a project that should never have been tackled, given the satire exposing the wealth and greed of Wall Street was considered “unfilmable”. This was attributed to the inimitable tone of the book and its descriptions of the inhabitants of New York.

However, the attempt to adapt a funny book to the screen does not always fall so flat. Bridget Jones’s Diary is one example of a funny book, that has inspired a equally funny movies, while John Irving’s tragicomedy The World According to Garpis considered by some as one of the best book-to-film adaptations ever made.

But these examples are not common, and it is rare for the adaptation of a funny book to the screen to be featured in any “best of” lists.

So, why is it so hard for humour on the page to translate onto the screen? Is it the different time frame available for the build up to the punch line in a book, compared with a movie? In a novel, jokes or situations can be written in detail that can greatly enhance the eventual humour, while films or television series have to create comedic situations within stricter timelines. Similarly, there is far more time for character development and noting subtleties in the character of the protagonist in a book than on screen.

For me, much of the humour in books is in the tone the writer has taken. This might take the form of an astute protaganist dissecting the society in which they live, or a naïve and oblivious character whose experiences highlight the absurdity of life and society. This tone can be difficult to replicate on screen.

In Lucky Jim, many of the laughs come from the combination of arrogance and hopelessness of the title character. There is a tone of bewilderment when Jim finds himself in difficult situations, which is strangely hilarious. In Slaughterhouse 5, the humour is similarly in the tone of bewilderment at the absurdity of war.

This kind of humour only increases as the book progresses and the reader becomes more familiar with the protagonist. Like in Bryson’s books, it builds up quietly, until it surges into a chuckle, and sometimes a fully fledged belly laugh. A turn of phrase has set me off into a fit of giggles on trains, planes, and on the couch beside my husband. The joke is difficult to explain, but while a shared laugh can be a joy, so too can be a lone one.

Perhaps the answer to the question of why a funny book does not necessarily become a funny movie or tv series is that humour is a fragile beast, difficult to replicate, adapt or translate. Just as Americans and Englishmen are renowned for their inability to understand each other’s humour, so it is with the adaptation of books to the screen. Sometimes, the humour is simply lost in translation.

Books that make me laugh out loud:

  • Vernon God Little
  • My Family and Other Animals
  • Bill Bryson’s travel books, most notably, Notes From a Small Island
  • A Confederacy of Dunces

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