When I was 17, I made a horrifying discovery. I learned something that went against everything I believed as a lifelong reader and bookworm. I discovered that, sometimes, the book isn’t better than the movie.
I know, I know. I was shocked, too.
The first instance of this uncomfortable truth came when I read Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. My high school self thought it alternated between being tedious and frustratingly complex. Plus, the print versions of Drs. Grant and Sattler were dull and cold compared to Sam Neill and Laura Dern.
Well, that’s got to be an anomaly, I told myself. Maybe Crichton’s style of writing just isn’t for me.
Then I read The Princess Bride a few months later. I wanted to like it! Really, I did! I loved the movie with intense, dizzying adoration. But I hated the book. I thought William Goldman treated the story like a huge joke, and I despised all the sarcastic asides about his personal life. Yes, the book had some intricate and beautiful maps; but Goldman didn’t write about his characters as if he cared about them. And if he didn’t care about them, how was the reader supposed to?
But I got older. I got wiser. My tastes changed (for the better, of course). And today, I can’t think of anything I’ve read recently that was better onscreen than in print.
Well … okay. There was one thing.
Texas Book Festival was this past weekend; and–as it always does–it reminded me of WordFest, the fictional literature festival in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. I wondered if anyone had to be escorted out of an auditorium by an agent who courteously explains, “He’s fine. He’s narrating.” (I doubt it, but that would’ve been awesome.) And I realized with a cringe that Wonder Boys is yet another book I thought paled in comparison to the movie. I like Chabon, even though his books take too long to fully engage me. (I was 100 pages into The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and halfway through The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, respectively, before I couldn’t put them down.) But Wonder Boys (the book) is a story told with bemused, cold detachment. I spent half the book wanting to slap all the characters. Wonder Boys (the movie), however, has warmth. It has empathy for its characters. I still wanted to slap them, but I also wanted to hug them and tell them that everything was going to be okay.
But I still believe that, with the exception of these anomalies, the book versions of stories will trump their movie versions most of the time. There are just too many details and descriptive phrases in the average novel to bring them all to life onscreen without making the production a million hours long. For example, take the TV miniseries versions of two books I liked quite a bit: Stephen King’s The Shining and Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. Yes, the shows were incredibly true to their source material. But the resulting miniseries were almost painfully boring (and, in the case of The Shining, laughingly overdramatic).
So how do you prevent this boredom? If a book is getting adapted into a movie, what’s the most important thing for the screenwriters and director to focus on? The story? The characters? The tone? Which combination of them? And, alternately, what do you think is the fastest way to fail with a book-to-movie translation?
When she’s not revising her first trilogy of YA novels, hugging her rescued dogs, or playing “Rock Band” with her husband, Sarah Rodriguez Pratt writes for her blog ThatsAGirlsCar.com. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University and a Master’s in Information Studies from UT-Austin. A native Texan, she grew up in McAllen but has called Austin home for over a decade.