Talking with some friends on the weekend, we all agreed on how annoyed we get when a novel that has been adapted to film is reissued with a new cover to match the movie poster. Often great cover design simply vanishes and is replaced with an image that looks suspiciously like the last movie, and the one before that. Coincidentally, Chris Cagle on his blog Category D has a recent post where he notes this sameness with movie posters. He makes the point that genre needs to be communicated quickly and efficiently, and, like genre cinema itself, the posters need a balance between repetition and originality.
[book covers from LibraryThing]
These two examples above are of books whose movie adaptations are marketed as dramas with very similar tie-in covers. The Atonement movie cover (note McEwan’s original title) also has a variation with the characters reversed. It’s graphic design by the numbers which suggests a similarity between the films that’s not as close as it seems. And how evocative the original covers are! The French edition of Bauby’s book speaks of isolation and a small small hope, while the English one, with the size and shape of the typeface, suggests the dominance of Bauby’s isolation from locked-in syndrome (the diving-bell) alongside his persistence in imagining himself beyond it (the butterfly). Both have hand-drawn typefaces, a visual analogue to the painstaking process of constructing sentences blink-by-blink, letter-by-letter, that Bauby adopts.
Books are themselves sold by genre, but the shelves in any particular section of the bookstore show a much wider design range than the video store shelves, with their dark red action and horror sections, and happy blue comedy titles.
Look at the similarity of the movie covers from The Road and The Children of Men (this movie has ‘the’ dropped from the title; notice how it almost disappears here). The original The Road cover has its red letters bleeding starkly into the black, and the original PD James cover with its isolated and empty pram says quite a lot about the major detail missing from the otherwise nearly-recognisable near-future world she creates. For a movie poster I quite like the Children of Men image with Clive; it’s simple and evocative. But do all stories of that ilk need the dark browns and stoic man treatment?
The movie covers are mostly all photographic. I think it’s less to do with the medium of cinema, though, than with the need to sell the film with its stars. Books, as physical objects, can still count on thoughtful design to do this.
Book covers do use a lot of photography of course, and, like the wide design vocabulary with original covers in general, the photographs that are used are themselves extremely varied. I’m pretty sure I’ve got covers of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas here in the order, from left to right, in which they were issued. The first one is simple and suggestive but still mysterious. The second one, with what is clearly a Holocaust photograph, gives some of the plot away, and I have to admit, made me concerned when I first caught a glimpse of it on the shelf. How could a real picture of a real boy who was the victim of such a terrible crime be used to illustrate a fictional story, no matter how serious? As I looked closely, though, the fact that his anonymity is preserved I think keeps the book from making this too-presumptious connection, while still evoking the horror of the contextual events. And though the movie cover has no major stars calling out to us, it still falls back on the more literal design style of the movie poster.
Most movie tie-in book covers aren’t as frantically busy as a lot of full-size movie posters (The Category D blog points us to this example), but they do cluster template-like around similar themes. They make the book cover into something less interesting, so much so that I’ll rush to get a book before the movie cover is issued, fearing that the original great design will disappear forever. Luckily there are sites like The Book Cover Archive and Covers to remind us what great book design looks like.