In just a little over a month, the film adaptation of Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You will hit theaters. For all intents and purposes, this should thrill me. I should have my calendar marked. I should be counting down the days. The film is filled with some my favorite actors — Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Tina Fey, Connie Britton, Ben Schwartz and Adam Driver, whom I would probably watch read the phonebook. I don’t have to worry about the screenplay deviating from the author’s original intentions as Tropper wrote the screenplay. And then there’s the biggest reason for why I should be excited to see the film adaptation: I really liked the book. I read it when it first came out in 2010 and urged my friends and family to do the same. But despite all of this, I’m not excited to see This is Where I Leave You. If I’m being honest, I won’t even carve the time out of my schedule to go and see it.
My reluctance to see This is Where I Leave You is actually not specific to This is Where I Leave You — which is to say, I’m hesitant to see the adaptation of any book I like. This began after I saw The Virgin Suicides. I had been a long-time fan of Jeffrey Eugenides's novel but didn’t see Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation until 2012, during my junior year of college. It’s one of the most successful film adaptations of a book. It’s a fantastic film, and it inspired me to immediately reread Eugenides's novel — but things were different this time around: I no longer saw my version of Lux Lisbon; I saw Kirsten Dunst. My image of Trip Fontaine — a collage of every cool, older boy I had ever known and dreamed of — was taken over by Josh Hartnett. Gasoline had been thrown on The Virgin Suicides that had existed inside my head and I lit the match when I pressed play on the DVD. I decided then that, for any book that is remotely important to me, I will not see the adaptation.
In the past, I would say some derivative of “If I liked the book, why would I need a movie?” It wasn’t until I read an excerpt from Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read that I was able to fully understand my aversion to adaptations. Mendelsund, speaking about a photograph of the actress Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina in the 2012 film adaptation of the eponymous novel says that “This — the picture to the left — is a form of robbery.” He’s speaking about mental robbery, something that, according to Mendelsund, occurs in all film adaptations of novels. He continues: “One should watch a film adaptation of a favorite book only after considering, very carefully, the fact that the casting of the film may very well become the permanent casting of the book in one’s mind. This is a very real hazard.”
Why exactly is this a hazard? After all, what difference does it make if we picture Jason Bateman or Keira Knightley or someone else as the protagonist of a novel? “Good books incite us to imagine — to fill in an author’s suggestions,” Mendelsund writes. “Without this personalized, co-creative act, you are simply told: This is your Anna.”
Normally when we discuss the merits of film adaptations we talk about how good the casting was or how true the film was to the novel. Mendelsund’s argument points to why such conversations completely miss an essential point of adaptations: No matter what, the film will strip the reader of the world they created in their head. I’m not sure any film is worth that.