From the Page to the Screen: Comments on Marketing for Jane Eyre and Atlas Shrugged

I can safely say at this point, I am so happy that people are talking about The Great Gatsby that I don't care the new adaptation is being filmed in Australia with a $125million budget to account for 3D and a well-known cast. I don't. I just love that people are talking about the novel, even if it turns into a "they made me read that in High School and I haven't voluntarily read a book that old again." I can't even get mad at that--I haven't read a Hemmingway since The Old Man and the Sea was forced upon me. But that film isn't coming around anytime soon. There are two rather high profile titles coming to the big screen in the next few months. In the dark corner, we have a classic Gothic Romance that people forget is a Gothic novel: Jane Eyre. In the political corner, we have a 20th Century novel about a specific political viewpoint that also doubles as a great doorstop during hurricane-force winds: Atlas Shrugged. I actually rather like both of these books for various reasons, but that is neither here nor there. Like it or not, the trailers are out and the approaches couldn't be more different.

Jane Eyre seems to be delivering an accurate portrayal of the film. There is much abuse lobbied at poor Jane, enough to make her run up to the strange castle in the woods to take refuge from the cruel world. She hears whispers and sees unexplained billowing fabric and fires, all the while learning about her mysterious and alluring host. Fancy that--a Gothic Romance book is adapted into a Gothic Romance film and is marketed as a Gothic Romance. I'm genuinely excited because this looks like a good adaptation of a good novel.

Everything in that trailer leaves me confident that--if not a perfectly faithful adaptation (they never are from this period; the books are simply too long to include every character and event)--the film will act as a nice little accessory to the novel. It feels like the kind of film that can safely be played in a High School English class to kill time while students work on their Jane Eyre papers at home.

On the other hand, Atlas Shrugged is sending horrible mixed signals. Did the creative team choose to take the title, a few character names, and the idea of the railway industry and create a brand new story? Or did the distributor hack the film apart to create an intentionally misleading trailer? The Atlas Shrugged I remember is not a corporate espionage thriller. Unless my recollection from ten years ago deceives me, something is not quite right with this trailer. There is mystery in the novel, yes, but it's far more intimate and personal than "the government is trying to destroy capitalism, save us."

Something is definitely off. This is not the vision author Ayn Rand painted in her novels. This is rote corporate thriller, complete with a young executive branching out on her own to save the mother company by way of competition. From the music to the editing, this trailer seems as far removed from the book as possible.

Here's the thing. If Jane Eyre winds up being nothing but lovey-dovey romance--candle-lit dinners, perhaps a singing tea service--the trailer will have betrayed the audience's expectations. Not only that, it will have removed itself so much from the intentions of the source book that the choice of title will seem random by comparison. That would mean this film is targeting fans of the book at the expense of a wider audience that might not want to eerie blend of macabre, mystery, shock, and forbidden romance the film will probably capitalize on. Since it's showing all these Gothic elements, I'll assume the film will at least try to deliver on the tone of the novel.

Compare that to Atlas Shrugged. That trailer doesn't feel like the novel at all. It is trying to bring in a much wider audience than fans of the novel or politics therein. That's good. But doing it by carving out a thriller plot that probably isn't in the film (it's only Part I and seems to coincide nicely with the midpoint of the novel) is bad. People will be mad when they leave the theater and word of mouth will kill any box office potential. Part II might not even get a theatrical release if Part I fails, but Part I will fail harder if the audience is lied to in order to sell tickets.

It's one thing to do a poor adaptation of a novel. It's quite another to possibly do a faithful adaptation and then lie to ticket buyers. I kind of hope that's the case with Atlas Shrugged as I just don't see how the plot suggested in the trailer could actually be inspired by that book without betraying everything that made that book what it is. If they tore apart the property to sell it to a wider audience and the trailer is right, at least they aren't lying. If it is the, shall we say, drier narrative of the novel, the theaters might get quite a few requests for refunds from the walk-outs.

Is it that hard to tell the truth in a film trailer? Neither of these films looks to be poorly made; I just doubt that the one is telling the truth about its content. If you have the nerve to say the film is "based on the [book] by [author]" as both trailers do, then by all means, make it clear that the film shares more than a title and character names from the book. If it really doesn't, perhaps you should approach marketing in a different way.