Tuesday, February 07, 2006


The age-old argument: Which is better — the book or the movie?

By Edward Copeland
Of course, the answer is that there is no set answer every situation is different. Sometimes movies completely blow the book, other times the movies are much better than the book. In rare instances, there seems to be a draw, where they seem to be perfect companions. I also wonder if the order one reads/sees them matter. If you read the book, then see the movie or vice versa, does that color your reactions? Of course, I've seen a lot more movies than I've read books, so I'm just choosing some where I've read the book and seen the movie and indicate which function came first. There is no set order. I'm also tossing in plays and/or musicals that became movies.

I read Larry McMurtry's Terms of Endearment after I had seen the movie and fallen in love with it. In this case, I think I would have preferred the movie to the book in either order. By creating Garrett Breedlove, James L. Brooks gives the character of Aurora Greenway a focus she lacks in the novel with her many suitors, even though they are still a minor presence in the movie.

I read the play Amadeus after the movie and once again, the movie to me seems much better. There is something wooden in some of the scenes in the play, at least for me, but perhaps that would have been different if I'd actually seen a performance of it.

In the case of On Golden Pond, I read the play second and, except for the scenes out on the lake when they are fishing, really both scripts are nearly identical. Again, I guess my preference leaned to the movie because I saw it fleshed out.

I have an interesting experience with Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. First, I saw the movie, then in junior high I read the play and performed a duet from it, shamelessly ripping off Walter Matthau. Finally, a few years ago, I saw a revival on Broadway with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. My final conclusion: It's all about the performers. No matter whether it's read or watched, it is rather thin.

One other case which I'm sure I'll get a lot of arguments about is Cabaret. I've never been a fan of Bob Fosse's movie, but when I got a chance to see the Broadway revival with Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson, it became all the clearer to me that the musical was stronger on stage than on screen. I had a similar reaction to Chicago, though I saw the revival first and still enjoyed the movie.

Short Cuts is an unusual case as well. I had read nearly all of Raymond Carver's short stories that inspired the film before seeing the movie, but Robert Altman's mixing and matching of them make it seem like an experience completely separate from its written source. Only "A Small, Good Thing," played out in the movie by Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison and Lyle Lovett, sticks fairly close to the story that inspired it.

I read Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence knowing that Martin Scorsese was working on a film version. Once the movie opened, I was amazed — this may well be the most faithful adaptation of a novel I've ever seen. There are very few changes, the trimming seems minimal and he even keeps much of the wonderful prose through Joanne Woodward's narration. In contrast, I saw the movie Casino before I read the book. I was disappointed in the movie and the book was much stronger — and it showed that the movie was made before the book was finished.

In 1999, I fell in love with Fight Club, but it was years later before I actually read the novel it was based on. It is good, but even though the twist was spoiled for me before I saw the movie and didn't affect my enjoyment of it, it did seem to affect my opinion of the book.

Curtis Hanson's adaptation of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys is another example of a fairly faithful movie version. I had read the book first and loved it and the movie didn't disappoint, even allowing me to like a Michael Douglas performance — a rarity for me.

Ghost World was probably the first case of a movie I saw that had been based on a graphic novel I'd read. While Daniel Clowes' graphic novel is great and the movie follows pretty much the same story arc, the introduction of the Steve Buscemi character in the film functions much like Jack Nicholson's character in Terms of Endearment — it makes the movie a superior work.

Now for examples where I think it really made a notable difference.

I read Peter Benchley's Jaws after seeing Steven Spielberg's great film — and I don't think there can be any argument that Spielberg improved the material, taking a fairly trashy read and turning into so much more.

Much the same can be said of Mario Puzo's The Godfather. While in some respects, the novel isn't as bad as Jaws, in others, its tawdry nature borders on the juvenile. Francis Ford Coppola truly raised the film to a higher level.

When I saw The Prince of Tides, aside from Streisand's obvious massive ego, I thought the movie worked fairly well — then I read Pat Conroy's novel and realized what a mess had been made of his work.

Of course, the most notorious example of the destruction of a great novel by its movie version is Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. Anyone who read the novel before seeing the film would have to be appalled by the ludicrous changes made for Brian De Palma's movie version. From changing a Jewish judge to an African-American one (named Judge White of all things), to dropping the British heritage of the tabloid reporter to nearly every casting decision — nothing was changed for the better. I can't imagine anyone would want to read the novel if they saw this monstrosity first.

To wrap up, since I could go on and on and I want others to get involved here, I thought it would be worth going through the Stephen King adaptations that I'd read before seeing the movie versions. The only exception is Carrie, which I read after seeing the movie. I'm also leaving out TV versions.

BOOK: Carrie
VERDICT: Novel wins

BOOK: The Shining
MOVIE:The Shining
VERDICT: Novel wins

BOOK: The Dead Zone
MOVIE: The Dead Zone
VERDICT: Novel wins

BOOK: Firestarter
MOVIE: Firestarter
VERDICT: Novel — by far — and it's not that good

BOOK: Cujo
VERDICT: Both suck

BOOK: Pet Sematary
MOVIE: Pet Sematary

BOOK: Christine
MOVIE: Christine

BOOK: Misery
MOVIE: Misery

STORY: Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption
MOVIE: The Shawshank Redemption

STORY: The Body
MOVIE:Stand By Me

STORY: Apt Pupil
MOVIE: Apt Pupil
VERDICT: Draw — not a big fan of either

NOVELLA: The Running Man
MOVIE: The Running Man

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My well feels a little dry on this topic,the mediums are so diffrent, but I'll try to run on a bit during my lunch.
I think James Agee argued somewhere that the film of Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath" was better than the book. Don't remember his reasons, but when I think of the movie, and those compositions (the crispest on film) I want to agree. And what is it with directors and eyepatches anyway? Is it some kind of advantage when framing things in two dimensions? More advantageous than a beard and ballcap, I'd say.

Elsewhere, I recall John Updike talking about his reaction to the Rabbit movie (which I haven't seen) and how he was struck by the way the set-makers really expanded and filled in the details of Rabbit and Janice's apartment, from what he'd written on the page. I'm struck by the way Updike vividly realized said apartment, without adjectives, simple by knocking two nouns together: a closet door and a tv set. But that could be another topic, Theories for Effective Mimesis, maybe.

I still like to see attempts at great classics, though I'm usually disappointed. Still waiting for a good try at that master Homer, because he reads so intensively cinematic. It cries out for it.

A few years back I liked that "Count of Monte Cristo" movie, the one with Guy Pearce. The screenwriters made some big changes, but they were all improvements. The kind that made me slap my forehead and say "Of course, that's so obvious, why didn't Dumas think of that?"

Thrillers seem particularly well suited for adaptation. Here I want to recommend a pet. Though different from the book, THE IPCRESS FILE is great. Anybody who has affection for the early Bond films will love this one. We get all the same producers, editors, art directors, John Barry score as Bond, but here they try a spy film with a different tone. I'm still searching in vain for the dvd (with Sydney J. Furie commentary). I know it existed at one time, but I can't find it now. It's a real gem, I tell ya.

Finally, I was amused some time ago while reading Don Quixote with some passages of slapstick. Imagine Cervantes describing over two or three pages and in laborious and minute detail a 3 Stooges eye-poking, nose-tweaking, slap-fest. It was as if the need and desire for this kind of comedy has always existed, but the most appropriate medium for it had yet to be invented. Or how in Warner Bros. cartoons, the gags one might think were invented because only animated cartoons could do them, really had already been tried live-action by the silent comedians. Was it Norman O. Brown who said "nothing ever happens a first time"?
I've only seen bits of "Rabbit, Run" but it was before I read the book. I forgot to mention "The Witches of Eastwick" -- where the book and the movie are almost two entirely different creatures. I also forgot to mention "To Kill a Mockingbird," which I read first for English class and then saw the movie. I thought that was fairly solid adaptation.
Like you, I watch more than I read; but I usually prefer the book. Maybe it's because the film goes by too quick. With books, I can pace myself.

Most of the adaptations I like are based on "not-so-classic" books and are changed by the filmmaker (like lots of Hitchcock's stuff).

I also don't really like "faithful" adaptations. Like dave said, the media are so different that taking something from a book and putting it on film as is weakens it, in my mind. Films like Sin City ("it looks just like the comic book, so it's great!") do nothing for me. If a good adaptation is a faithful adaptation is a transposing to film, then I can adapt Picasso's Guernica pretty easily. Somehow, I don't think the result would make a good film.

Then again, the most "faithful" adaptation I've seen is probably Huston's The Maltese Falcon; and I liked it. However, when I read the book a few years later, all I could see is Bogart.

I'll also never read The Lord of the Rings in my own way again. Thanks a lot Peter Jackson!

Not picturing someone in a role is difficult if you read something after you see the film. I had an interesting experince with John Updike. Once, I listened to one of his novels on tape, which he recorded himself. Ever since, I literally hear his voice when I read his books.
I can't say one is better than the other but I adore the book and movie of "To Kill a Mockingbird" equally... if I reread the book I immediately want to rewatch the movie, and if I see the movie I'll revsit the book. Neither ever disappoints.

It used to be that when a movie was being made out of a famous book that I hadn't read I'd rush to read the book before seeing the movie. Now I purposely don't do that unless I can give about a six month window between the two mediums. Otherwise the movie doesn't have a chance. Last time I made this mistake was with "The Talented Mr. Ripley..." reviews of the movie all referenced Highsmith's novel until I decided the book was what I really wanted to read... so I did, and then couldn't resist running out to see Damon, Paltrow, Law, etc. in those roles. I had trouble enjoying it all, although it was perfectly well-made and acted... Mingella's tone was just so different than the chilly Highsmith book. Which is fine... I think a director has to tell the story his own way... but with the novel fresh in my mind the movie didn't stand a chance.

I will say, at the risk of being flamed... I just cannot get through those damn Lord of the Rings books. I really have tried. But I love the movies.
Yes the LOTR books are long and difficult to get through at times, but I adore both versions of the story. This may perhaps be because I watched (though I wasn't really paying attention) the movie first. However, I read the entire series (from Hobbit to Silmarrillion) before I watched it again, and have read the trilogy 14 times since, as well as memorized the movies.

Personally, I think Jackson did us a great service by making the movies, as now the themes, lessons and charcters can reach a wider audience.

The same is true of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. I would much rather see the play again before picking up the book though.
I just wanted to say that Cujo is one of King's most beautifully written books. I'll admit that the plot gets a little weak toward the last third, but I've always heard that's because he ran into trouble with cocaine. Either way, some of the prose in the first and middle third nearly brought me to tears while eating lunch at a Jack-in-the-Box. It was one of the moments in my life where I thought I should never attempt writing fiction, I just can't do it that well.

But as for your movie-vs.-book theme: I think two excellent examples are V for Vendetta and Watchmen. V for Vendetta shows exactly how it should be done (it sticks to the themes and the ideas of the book), and Watchmen shows how it should not be done (it sticks to the details).
I read "The Manchurian Candidate" years after seeing the movie-which I have watched often-and was amazed at how closely the wonderful movie follows the very good book. There is a bit of back story left out of the movie, particularly about mother and step-father, but the essentials are all there.
Bob Rittner
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