Girl With A Pearl Earring

A bit of a break from routine with this one, as I discuss both Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl with a Pearl Earring as well as the film adaptation. With subheadings and everything! Fancy.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy ChevalierVermeer’s World

Unsurprisingly, the film Girl with a Pearl Earring reproduces the rich, vibrant colour and light of Vermeer’s paintings in a way that Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel simply could not.

That’s not to say that she doesn’t come awfully close. In her novel of the same name, upon which the 2003 film was based, Chevalier does a brilliant job crafting lush visual language, evoking the deep colours and dancing light so intrinsic to Vermeer’s style.

I actually find it quite remarkable that this quiet, simple story was ever made into a motion picture. The plot is very light on action and, indeed, even dialogue. And yet, the vivid descriptions of Vermeer’s works and the interior and exterior scenes of 17th century Delft do beg to be translated into a visual experience.

What impressed me most about both the book and film version of this story is that it defies what I would call the general Rule of Adaptations.

The Rule of Adaptations

When a book is adapted into a film, there tends to be a passionate debate among fans of the story. Which is ‘better’: the original text version, or the motion picture adaptation? Did the film do justice to the book? Did the elements changed or left out for the (very necessary) sake of brevity and clarity detract from the story? Did the tone change? Were details changed in such a way as to change the very core of the story? Did the live-action depiction of a story add some level of entertainment lacking in text form? And on a less black and white level: which editorial/directorial decisions to fans of the book agree with, and which do they think could (and perhaps should) have been done differently?

I think this culture has a love-hate relationship with such adaptations. On one side of the issue, we have become so accustomed to the live-action mode of storytelling that perhaps on some level, the simple mechanism of the imagination has suffered. Reading a story allows the scenery and characters to unfold inside the reader’s mind, a process that is far more engaged and intimate than passively receiving a story being presented via flickering light on a screen (or pixels under glass). But at the same time, there does seem to be a societal longing to see ones favourite stories brought to life through the so-called “magic of Hollywood.”

The problem is, once we have engaged with a story, through the very process of consuming it we create our own, internal ‘interpretation’ that is informed by our particular experiences and imaginations. And so, it would seem, what people look for in an adaptation is a creative team that has taken a beloved story and interpreted it into a film – in a way that corresponds with, or at least does not contradict, their individual, personal interpretations.

The idiom “you can’t please all of the people all of the time” would seem to be particularly applicable here.

That said, the overwhelming consensus seems to be this: when a book is adapted into a motion picture, the film will almost always be the inferior version. This might simply be a product of the book coming first, thus forming the original and more lasting impression. Or, it may be because the format of a book allows for much deeper and lengthier exploration of both the tangible and intangible elements of the story, whereas films are very much limited by both time and the audio/visual nature of the medium.

Even an adaptation considered to be generally successful is still the recipient of a somewhat backhanded compliment – it is appreciated because it is at least not actively inaccurate or disappointing, but still acknowledged to be a lighter, abridged and generally less-satisfying version of the original text.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

So how does Girl with a Pearl Earring defy this rule of adaptations? At this point, I may have given you the impression that I’m about to tell you that I felt the film was superior to the book.

However, that is not the case.

As much as I loved this quiet, thoughtful film, full of significant looks and contemplative reveries, set against a vibrant and beautifully-rendered, historical backdrop… I can’t honestly say it was superior to the book upon which it was based.


I also can’t say that the book was inherently superior.

I enjoyed the story as told in both media immensely. And, possibly for the first time ever, I can say without reservation that I enjoyed both equally. But even more than this, what stood out to me in particular about Girl with a Pearl Earring is that I felt that the book and the film complimented each other so perfectly that the only way to fully appreciate the story is to experience both.

The book includes additional characters and details that add to the richness and depth of the story: Griet’s father’s art and his accident, her brother’s apprenticeship, her little sister and the plague/quarantine, and the expanded interaction between Griet and Maria Thins. While the core of the story remains intact with the omission of these details – and including them would likely have detracted from the elegant simplicity of the film – seeing the film without the knowledge of these details would have been a less satisfying experience.

Perhaps more importantly, because the book is written from Griet’s point of view, reading her narrative gives us access to the thoughts and feelings that, although they are brilliantly intimated by Scarlet Johannsen’s nuanced performance, would be impossible to fully transmit through the cinematic medium. 

But the medium of film offers a unique edge in the telling of this story, too. Certainly, a story about a visual artist begs to be told in a visual medium. And in the film Girl with a Pearl Earring, it is done brilliantly. The deep chiaroscuro effect of warm light filterning into the lush, dark interiors, the richness of colours and fabrics, the clear, crisp light of the exteriors – the view is truly seeing Vermeer’s world as the artist himself depicted it. This, combined with the excellent, subtle and honest performances by Johanssen, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson and Judy Parfitt, make the film a beautiful and essentially complete experience in its own right.

As someone who read the book and then saw the film immediately afterwards, my most profound reaction was that the two pieces amplified each other in such a way as to take the story to a level neither alone could possibly have achieved. That’s rare, and well worth the investment of a little extra time.

From the archives, written August 4th, 2004 – Happy Robot Pride Day!

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