Glasgow Snuff Films: Where Great Books Go To Die

Edd McCracken

Staff Writer

Edd McCracken lives in Scotland, dislikes book spine breakers and loves when small words harmonise to make big ideas. Follow him on Twitter:  @EddMcCracken

The sight of Halle Berry and Brad Pitt chills my blood. Trust me, I’ve seen them. The pair stalk the streets near my home with sinister intent. It’s true. They flash their Hollywood grins and flick their five-figure hair cuts, but I’m not fooled. They have come to Scotland to ransack and rampage all that I hold dear, like well-heeled barbarians armed with cudgels disguised as movie cameras. Readers, be very afraid. Berry and Pitt have come not in friendship, but to destroy two of the greatest books of the last decade.

For the citizens of Glasgow the past two months have been rather surreal. Pitt and Angelina Jolie rolled into town in August to film World War Z, an adaptation of Max Brooks’ gripping account of the zombie wars. For a week the city centre was transformed into a Philadelphia infected with the undead.

No sooner had Brangelina left town than Berry started filming a version of David Mitchell’s brain-tickling epic Cloud Atlas. This time Glasgow’s steep, rain-soaked streets stood in for sunny San Francisco.

Don’t get me wrong, both films are great for the city and for Scotland. But for a moment let’s overlook the quirkiness of the great, grey city of Glasgow standing in for shiny US cities. Or the presence of Hollywood’s A-list sampling the local delicacies such as Irn-Bru and deep fried mars bars.

The press were too dazzled by such things to report the bigger story: two books utterly unsuitable for the cinema were being ruined in front of our eyes. Had I not also been bewitched, I would have thrown myself into the machinery of the cameras.

If World War Z deserves anything it is a TV series, like The Walking Dead is currently enjoying. Brooks’ novel posits itself as the oral history of mankind’s battle against the zombie hordes, taking accounts from scores of characters at various stages of the conflict around the world – from the first recorded outbreak in China to the climactic battles in the US. It’s the brilliant episodic stuff that box sets are designed for. Not 120 minutes of Brad Pitt avoiding getting his shin-bone chewed off by a twitching Celtic corpse.

Cloud Atlas is even less suited to the cinema. It is one of the few books worthy of that dubious label: ‘unfilmable’. Mitchell takes six seemingly unrelated stories of different settings, eras, styles and protagonists and makes them sing to one another with subtle, haunting and mind-blowing harmonies and cross-references. Its power is a literary one.

Like, say, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the big reveal at the end is based on the power of the written word. Hence the film of Atonement was handsome, polished but ultimately lacking in the vital chromosome which made it great.

To hear news of a beloved and angular literary novel being mangled to fit celluloid is painful enough. But to have the crude dismemberment take place in your back yard is just plain rude. Thanks Berry and Pitt. I hope the Irn-Bru fizzed up your admittedly beautiful noses.