Scoring Literature

There are few things more relaxing than simply sitting down with a good book and some suitable music playing in the background. Given that film scores are created to enhance and evoke, I’ve often found that they make excellent accompaniments when reading certain books. It could be something soaring and romantic or shiveringly unsettling, but if you can match up the right score with the right book, it produces a memorable experience. A slight disclaimer here; some novels have already been adapted into a film with an appropriate score, but we’re getting a little more creative by searching out alternative combinations.

The Piano (Michael Nyman) - The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins)
A contemporary and friend of Dickens, Wilkie Collins is most famous for his novel The Woman in White, a macabre tale of identity theft and mysterious women wandering around in the dark. Throughout the story, several male characters attempt to silence the women speaking out against them and their money-fuelled machinations, but it is up to the courageous Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe to solve the mystery and save the day. The Piano may not be quite so action-packed, but it is just as concerned with women silenced by the world around them, following the awakening of the mute Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) and her romance with George Baines (Harvey Keitel).
Nyman’s score is an integral part of the film’s plot as Ada uses the piano to convey her mood. As such, it is at various points haunting, joyful or melancholic, mirroring the emotions of the various narrative progressions of The Woman in White. The track ‘A Wild and Distant Shore’ is a stormy companion to the haunting moment in which Walter first meets the eponymous woman through the fog. I first discovered this particular combination whilst on a train ride to Cambridge on a beautifully misty morning and I have yet to find a more perfect marriage of environment, music and reading material.
Beetlejuice (Danny Elfman) - Our Mutual Friend (Charles Dickens)
Tim Burton and Charles Dickens have a lot more in common than you initially might think, particularly in Burton’s more satirical early films and in Dickens’ scathing later novels. Our Mutual Friend is a damning, blackly comic depiction of the materialism of nineteenth century London and the constant presence of death that threatens it all. It’s a remarkably similar tone to the scathing Beetlejuice critiques of 80s materialism via the invading Deetz family, bulldozing their way into the afterlives of country couple Tom and Barbara. Delia Deetz, played beautifully by Catherine O’Hara, has a lot in common with Our Mutual Friend’s the Veneerings who, as their name suggests, are only obsessed with conveying the right sort of aesthetic, no matter the cost.
Elfman’s score is a macabre delight, interspersed with discordant calypso hits from Harry Belafonte, all at once both sinister and comical, two words often used to describe Dickens’ work. The ‘Main Title’ remains one of the finest tracks that Elfman has ever scored, flitting between the ominous brass sections to the romantically-inclined final few bars. The bombastic approach is the musical version of Dickens’ oft-imitated but never bettered writing style, multi-layered and elegantly lyrical.
Alien (Jerry Goldsmith) - The Stand (Stephen King)
They may fit into the sci-fi/horror dynamic, but the respective narratives of Alien and Stephen King’s The Stand are quite different. Alien, as I’m sure you know, follows the infiltration of a mining ship in space, devastating its crew before they realise just what they’ve let on board. The Stand follows two groups of disparate individuals, one evil and one good, as they attempt to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland caused by a mysterious virus, known as Captain Tripps, that wipes out most of society. However, at their most basic level, they are about humanity’s tenacity and desire to survive.
Jerry Goldsmith’s low-key yet highly unnerving score provides the necessary undercurrent of dread that already permeates King’s novel from the first cough. The unknown is the fuel of much of the unfolding horror in the two works and that is captured beautifully in ‘The Landing’, at once both lullaby-like and deeply sinister. There is also a constant sense of movement within Goldsmith’s score from the steadily plodding notes of the ‘Main Title’, climbing down from the central crescendo through to the high tempo terror of ‘Breakaway’. The survivors in The Stand follow their respective callings, travelling miles across America on no more than a few dreams as their guide.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (Hans Zimmer) - Peter Pan (JM Barrie)
The piratical link is the most obvious connection between these two selections and I think it’s fair to say that Jack Sparrow probably wouldn’t exist in his current form without the innate theatricality that has characterised Captain Hook in the various adaptations of Barrie’s tale. However, I pair these two for more than just a couple of fancy buccaneers because, for all the faults of the film, Zimmer’s score for At World’s End is one of his most playful and emotional, as idiosyncratic as they come, but never without the sense of fun that Barrie’s work promotes.
Jack Sparrow is the ultimate adult Lost Boy and his mischievous ways, ability to escape the most inevitable of situations and habit of annoying every adult he comes across is something he shares with the Pan. Zimmer’s track ‘ Up is Down’ is the perfect accompaniment to the flying scenes, led by a violin jig that does exactly what the title suggests. The Morricone-referencing ‘Parlay’ may as well be scoring a Pan-Hook standoff and the more emotional theme that scores much of Elizabeth’s piratical journey in the film reflects well with Wendy’s growing acceptance of her adulthood.
The Last of the Mohicans (Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman) - The Outlander Series (Diana Gabaldon)
Ever wanted to be whisked away a rugged outdoorsman or become the rugged whisker yourself? Both The Last of the Mohicans and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander feature such scenarios in the wilds of colonial America between Hawkeye and Cora Munro and Jacobite Scotland between Jamie Fraser and Claire Randall respectively, at roughly the same point in the 18th century. Gabaldon’s series even ends up in pre-Revolutionary America eventually. Despite both examining the political landscapes of their settings, the overriding story elements are those central romances, capable of overcoming the most dire of situations at any given moment. There is also the added advantage that the score’s main theme is based on ‘The Gael’ by the Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean so the Gaelic influence is ever present.
‘The Kiss’ is still one of the most romantic tracks in film score history; it’s tempestuous, almost violent, but with a pressing sense of urgency that lies well with the emotionally wrought relationship between Jamie and Claire. The Outlander series also has its fair share of skirmishes between the Scottish and the English, which would work well alongside the battling drums of Jones and Edelman’s score. The Outlander television adaptation also features some stunning music from the maestro that is Bear McCreary, with a particularly beautiful rewrite of ‘The Skye Boat Song’ as its theme song.
-Becky Grace Lea

Conan the Barbarian transcribed for organ