Saturday, May 7, 2011

Movie or book?

I love books, and I love movies, but when the two collide something terrible happens. If I read the book first, the movie is always a major letdown. If I see the movie first, the book is tainted by the Hollywood version of characters, settings and plot which seldom stay true to the source material. What is a lover of stories to do?

The solution is simple: enjoy movies of books you don't intend to read, and avoid movies of books you have read. The Bourne movies and I Robot fall into the former category for me; I have no intention of reading the books so I enjoy the movies on their own terms and have a great time doing so without the inevitable comparisons and disappointment.

If I've read the book, though, and especially if I've loved said book, I know enough now to steer clear of the movie. Because the medium of film is so different from that of the page, it's virtually impossible for movies to be perfectly faithful to the novels on which they're based, and we should not expect them to be. There's the huge problem of compression, not to mention the challenge of putting thoughts into words, emotions into gestures, descriptions into actions. We who have read the novels, however, expect complete fidelity.

Readers create perfect movie versions of novels right there in our heads. We have mental images of the characters and settings, our own interpretations of the actions and expressions of the characters; we know the plot, the sub-plots, all the minor characters by name and dysfunction. We expect to find the whole shebang in the movie. We won't.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and stories that shine in both movie and book version exist. My own favourites are The English Patient and Oliver, and I've been told on good authority that The Godfather, Ordinary People, Lonesome Dove, LA Confidential, In the Name of My Father and Silence of the Lambs do too.

Do you know of any stories that excel in both the novel and movie forms? If you do, please share them with us!


21 comments:

Jonathan Lovelace said...

I can't think of any that excel in both forms; the first Lord of the Rings movie and the first two Narnia films didn't measure up to the greatness of the books, but were quite respectable as both films and adaptations.

(In my experience, fans of the books don't demand that every detail---or even their favorite details---of the books be in the film. Rather, they---we---want the films to faithfully portray what's important about the books---what makes them great. If a time-consuming subplot is cut, dialogue is tightened, or scenes are combined, so be it---but if the filmmakers then add scenes or details that pointlessly lengthen the movie or weaken---or, worse, contradict---the book's most important themes, or simply get the details wrong, purists object.)

But there are a few examples that I think explain why great-novels-faithfully-adapted-into-great-movies are so rare: First, the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice adaptation---a TV mini-series, about twice to three times as long as a film---is in my opinion the gold standard of adaptations. Second, while I haven't read the original works I've read critics who noted several short stories---the one I remember and have seen is Minority Report---that made the transition well. And third, I think the transition to film improved the first couple of Harry Potter books. These examples illustrate that a good, tightly-written novel is roughly equivalent in complexity to a TV mini-series or a movie series; a single movie is equivalent to a short story or novelette.

Tom Doolan said...

Personally, I have no problem keeping the two separate. For instance, Shooter, with Mark Whalberg, is based on the Book Point of Impact, by Stephen Hunter. Both are great works, and stand on their own rights. Same with First Blood. In fact, David Morrell Wrote the novelizations of II and III after the films were underway. They are vastly different, but both enjoyable on their own terms.

In my eyes, a book is a book and a movie is a movie. You just have to understand that a lot of what goes onto a novel page CAN'T be directly translated to the screen, so some things have to be changed. Once you come to terms with that, the two mediums can happily co-exist.

The Dangster said...

It's surprising when books are better than their movies.

Case in point. Authors of The Prestige, The Princess Bride, Jaws, and Fight Club all believe their film adaptations are better than their own books.

In the case of Jaws and Fight Club, they changed the endings to be more satisfying for the audience.

Their endings were bleak.

In the novel Jaws, Hooper dies and the shark dies from it's multiple harpoon wounds. It also drags Quint down, so his death mirrors Captain Ahab.

In the novel, Fight Club, the Narrator doesn't succeed in blowing the credit buildings and gets sent to a mental hospital.

Both authors, Peter Benchley and Chuck Palahniuk agree that in a film, time moves fast and it needs to encompass and represent than copy the book. The audience in those films are in for a ride. It would be too much to ask an audience to suffer these thrilling movies to have bleak anti-climactic endings. The shark needs to blow up. The audience needs that cathartic moment after all the suspense and emotional investment. The narrator has to blow up the credit buildings. It's unrealistic and anarchistic but the audience needs the hope and joy and inspiration of having all their debts wiped. The audience suffers too much in that film. The mundane routine of office life, the paranoia of fight club, and the twist are all too much for the audience. So they must be rewarded with something spectacular.

Personally, I love Jaws better than the book. It was a film about Brody's guilt and sense of responsibility. An epic St. George and the Dragon take off. However, the novel was soap opera that didn't really focus on how the shark effected the characters. Killing the shark seemed incidental.

Sometimes when you make a film. You cast actors that just bring new life.

Hooper in the book has an affair with Brody's wife because he reminds her of his brother. It's unnecessary and takes away from the heart of the film.

In Jurassic Park the novel, Ian Malcolm and John Hammond die. However, like Hooper in Jaws the film, they were spared that fate because sometimes you cast an actor, who brings more depth, charisma and joy to the audience that you just can't kill them off.

G said...

I usually don't read the book version of any movie that I see or vice versa.

I think that the one time I tried (1984), I got hopelessly lost while trying to follow it.

Just remembered, the only time I did watch the movie and the t.v. show and read the book was The Dead Zone.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie because I'm such a big Christopher Walken fan and after watching the first season of the t.v. show, I wanted to read the book.

After reading the book, I found it very interesting that the movie tweaked the ending of the book.

The movie had Martin Sheen eating a revolver after the photograph of him holding a baby as a shield popped up on a national magazine cover, while in the book, he was the subject of Senate hearings on corruption, etc.

Overall, I thought that both the movie and the book was very good, and in fact, it remains the only book I've ever read by Stephen King.

Chris Stovell said...

I think the answer is to treat them differently, although it's difficult to maintain that separation, especially if one colours the other. I'm just bracing myself to watch the film of 'The Road'. I'm going to have to pick the right day for it as the book made my knees shake with fear even on a bright, sunny day when I was sitting out in the garden!

KeVin K. said...

First off, I'd like to say I'm really looking forward to finding out how I feel about a movie made from one of my stories, so if there are any producers out there looking for a property....

Second, since I went pro writing fiction based on TV shows the differences between the two media have always been central to my work. Fiction allows for all the little things that movies and TV can't deliver. What the person is thinking or feeling, how they got to be who they are and in this place, things like that. It's a riff on the comment posted above -- film and TV fans turn to fiction to find the texture and detail that underlie the experience they enjoyed onscreen.

Also, as noted above, a movie is really a short story. You need a series of movies, or a TV series, to fit everything that's in a novel onto the screen. And then, because the media are so different, you'll find yourself out in the lobby or in the kitchen during long, trudging sections that were enthralling on the page but the visual equivalent of a test pattern.

I read the books (or short stories) and watch the TV series (or movies) and enjoy each on it's own terms.

And Liane, except for the title and Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, there is absolutely no connection between the movie and Isaac Asimov's robot stories. (And Del Spooner is not a patch on Susan Calvin.)

Rebecca Bradley said...

I generally follow these rules though I've started reading the Harry Potter series after seeing the films. So far the films have brought the reading to life as I really can see the characters I am reading about. I'm sure it doesn't always work that way though.

Liane Spicer said...

Jonathan Lovelace, thank you for your thoughtful response. I think SFF fans must be more forgiving than other kinds, though, especially the more literary types. We know the films can't be faithful to the books in every little detail, yet we perversely want them to be, and we always say the book was better. If someone held a gun to my head, though, I'd admit that I enjoyed the English Patient movie MORE than I did the book. Heresy in some circles.

So yes, sometimes the movie does a better job of entertaining than the book does, and staying true to what's important in the book is what matters moreso than replicating it as far as possible.

Fascinating observation about mini series, and about movies adapted from short stories and novellas. Now that I think about it, a well fleshed out book needs a series to do it justice. One short story to movie adaptation I've seen is Secret Window (Stephen King) and I think the movie did a creditable job.

I've neither read the HP novels nor seen the films so can't venture an opinion there. I will get around to it, but reading the books will have to come first.

Liane Spicer said...

Tom Doolan, you're absolutely right. The two are so different that it's unfair to judge them - the old apples vs. oranges comparison again.

Movies that use the books as jump off points for stories that stand on their own are in a special class altogether.

Liane Spicer said...

Dangster, intriguing that some authors think the film versions of their books are better. Love that! Of the examples you cite I concur that the Jaws movie was more enjoyable than the book, which I read years after. Or maybe the movie spoiled the book for me? Hm.

Good point about the major importance of satisfying endings to movie audiences. Movies are driven by box office tallies, I know, but those 'satisfying' endings make so many movies a bit too predictable. Who am I to complain about predictable endings anyway? I write romance novels. :-/

I guess the bottom line for me is that like most people, I want entertainment from movies, even from profound, thought-provoking movies, whereas I expect books to be entertaining, yes, but also to do a whole lot more.

Liane Spicer said...

G, that's my rule of thumb: keep 'em separate. The problem is, I break my rule at least as often as I follow it.

The tweaking of ends in movies is a sore point for me. I always leave the theatre stuttering: "But - but - that's not how it ended!" Case in point: The Constant Gardener.

I've read Dead Zone. Now I'm even more determined not to watch the movie. Interestingly, it's the only one of Stephen King's novels I've read too. (Of course I've read his memoir On Writing and a couple of his novellas.)

Liane Spicer said...

Blogger never restored the comments (and a post) that disappeared last week when the network was down, so I'm reposting my responses (which I've been able to salvage from my gmail trash folder).

Apologies for any duplicate notifications as a result of this.

Liane Spicer said...

Jonathan Lovelace, thank you for your thoughtful response. I think SFF fans must be more forgiving than other kinds, though, especially the more literary types. We know the films can't be faithful to the books in every little detail, yet we perversely want them to be, and we always say the book was better. If someone held a gun to my head, though, I'd admit that I enjoyed the English Patient movie MORE than I did the book. Heresy in some circles.

So yes, sometimes the movie does a better job of entertaining than the book does, and staying true to what's important in the book is what matters moreso than replicating it as far as possible.

Fascinating observation about mini series, and about movies adapted from short stories and novellas. Now that I think about it, a well fleshed out book needs a series to do it justice. One short story to movie adaptation I've seen is Secret Window (Stephen King) and I think the movie did a creditable job.

I've neither read the HP novels nor seen the films so can't venture an opinion there. I will get around to it, but reading the books will have to come first.

Liane Spicer said...

Tom Doolan, you're absolutely right. The two are so different that it's unfair to compare them - the old apples vs. oranges dilemma again.

Movies that use the books as jump off points for stories that stand on their own are in a special class altogether.

Liane Spicer said...

Dangster, intriguing that some authors think the film versions of their books are better. Love that! Of the examples you cite I concur that the Jaws movie was more enjoyable than the book, which I read years after. Or maybe the movie spoiled the book for me? Hm.

Good point about the importance of satisfying endings to movie audiences. Movies are driven by box office tallies, I know, but those 'satisfying' endings make so many movies a bit too predictable. Who am I to complain about predictable endings anyway? I write romance novels. :-/

I guess the bottom line for me is that like most people, I want entertainment from movies, even from profound, thought-provoking movies, whereas I expect books to be entertaining, yes, but also to do a whole lot more.

Liane Spicer said...

G, that's my rule of thumb: keep 'em separate. The problem is, I break my rule at least as often as I follow it.

The tweaking of ends in movies is a sore point for me. I always leave the theatre stuttering: "But - but - that's not how it ended!" Case in point: The Constant Gardener.

I've read Dead Zone. Now I'm even more determined not to watch the movie. Interestingly, it's the only one of Stephen King's novels I've read too. (Of course I've read his memoir On Writing, as well as a couple of his novellas.)

Liane Spicer said...

Chris Stovell, it is indeed difficult to keep them separate. I will not be watching The Road because I haven't yet read the novel. Can't afford to have Hollywood potentially mess that one up for me.

Liane Spicer said...

KeVin, when you find that producer for your stories and your movies are blockbusters, you might want to mention that there's this romance novel... Oh, never mind.

It never struck me before that you and other media tie-in writers must have a very special perspective on the whole movie vs. book issue. Fascinating.

Now that I've watched the clips of Little Lost Robot I see your point. I wouldn't say there's no connection between the source and the I Robot movie though. Come on. You need to squint harder.

And while I agree that Susan Calvin is one fabulous cookie, I'm a girl, remember. I vote for Will Smith. Sorry, I mean Del Spooner.

Liane Spicer said...

Rebecca Bradley said:

I generally follow these rules though I've started reading the Harry Potter series after seeing the films. So far the films have brought the reading to life as I really can see the characters I am reading about. I'm sure it doesn't always work that way though.

Rebecca, it certainly doesn't work that way much of the time. From what I've read, though, it seems the HP movies were brilliantly executed and stayed true to the novels.

Jonathan Lovelace said...

Like I said, I consider the Harry Potter series sort of a special case:

They're basically a perfect storm: they are admittedly long, but a great deal of that---especially at first---is either description or the sort of point-of-view writing that compresses equally well.

They're fantasy, and of a sort that requires a lot of description in text that can just be turned into CGI and not take up much screen time, but unlike Lord of the Rings the producers would never feel they needed to add extraneous action scenes because the books have more than plenty of such scenes.

And while Rowling's writing is terrific at inspiring the imagination of readers of all ages, her writing and world-building are anything but tight, consistent, and self-sufficient, instead relying on what Bujold calls "the unsung collaborator" (the reader, and in particular his or her imagination) far more than any conventionally-published author I've read. (Mind, this is rather what we might expect from an author whose first novel was a blockbuster hit that demanded six sequels.)

All this explains both the success of the movies---the sorts of cuts that fans of Lord of the Rings or Narnia, for instance, deplore in those movies actually improve Rowling's work---and the enormous, continuing demand for fan-fiction, especially certain kinds (the do-it-right "alternate universe" rather than the "missing moments" stories that are so common in other fandoms), set in her "sandbox."

Liane Spicer said...

More intriguing insights/analyses, Jonathan. I'm beginning to look forward to reading JKR despite my initial lack of enthusiasm. Good writing does indeed trump all.