• The Book Wasn’t Better

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in Rants & Raves     Comments 21 comments
    Oct
    25

    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.

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    David Duhr

    I second and third Wonder Boys the film. Love it. And the book did very little for me. I’ve also been told before not to read Princess Bride, so I think I’ll continue to heed the advice.

    But The Shining? Yeah, the miniseries was ridiculous, but the original film and the book are both intense and really, really good. So what’s your preference there?

    King is writing a sequel to the Shining. That makes me nervous.

    Sarah

    As I mentioned in the post, I did like “The Shining” (the book) quite a bit. I dug that King got into the psychological torment going on in Jack’s head, and that Jack had a history of non-supernatural evil (from alcoholism) before he got to the Overlook. It gave the story more depth, and made his demise sad as well as disturbing. Especially since he and Wendy seemed to really love each other. The Kubrick version of “The Shining” tells a completely different story from the book, though, so it’s hard for me to compare them. Both are great in… Read more »

    Sarah

    PS: I had to add this, in case you hadn’t seen it yet. It’s a trailer for “The Shining” edited to make it look like a completely different movie. Behold the power of editing and happy music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfout_rgPSA

    David Duhr

    Recently HTMGIANT (I think) posted a clip from a documentary showing that Kubrick’s Overlook defied spatial reality. It was really interesting; and if I had a functional computer I’d go find that link and post it here. But since I don’t, you’re on your own. I recommend it, though.

    David Duhr

    Sorry. HTML.

    Dakao

    I concur! For the detail-oriented readers and fanboys, the book will likely always trump the movies — at one well-spaced page per minute of movie, no movie script will come close to a 300-900 page novel cranked out by a prolific author on a word processor. But sometimes more isn’t always better. Frank Herbert’s Dune may have had great, extensive political background, but David Lynch’s movie really helped cut through the interminable internal monologues that would have bored Hamlet to tears. Plus… Sting! On a tangentially related note, most mainstream movies fall far short of their medium’s potential. Yes, we… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I haven’t seen The Omega Man, but I very much agree about I Am Legend. Disappointing. And does the book a disservice. Well, a disservice outside of the the fact that it probably led people to the book who wouldn’t have read it otherwise.

    That last line is about as spot-on as any comment ever left here.

    David Duhr

    Some Twitter opinions on better film than book:

    Forrest Gump
    High Fidelity
    Silence of the Lambs
    The Graduate
    M*A*S*H
    The Shining

    David

    I’m going go put a moderately controversial opinion forward. I’ve always thought that the Lord of the Rings movies were significantly better than the books. Tolkien was an amazing storyteller – I’ve always loved his attention to detail, his ability to impart a feeling of truly enormous scope and the way that he humanizes a gigantic conflict are amazing – but I just don’t think he was a terribly good *writer*. Reading his books is an exercise in tedium in places. I’ve read his whole catalog a few times, and I consider them classics in the genre, but I just… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Either way you go on this one, you’re going to offend a rabid group of fans. I haven’t read the books since I was much younger, so I can’t really comment. I watched all of the films one day when I was sick in bed; good as they are, it’s not an easy task to do that in one sitting.

    I will say that THE HOBBIT book was better than the cartoon version. Anyone remember that?

    Sarah

    Does anyone remember it?!? We make “The greatest adventure…” jokes regularly in this house, and not just because it was parodied so well in “South Park.” (Okay, that’s most of the reason.)

    David Duhr

    I seem to recall really enjoying the song the ogres sing around the campfire. (Am I remembering that right?)

    Jenna

    I love the animated Hobbit! And when South Park parodies it (which did they again in their latest episode…and of course it starred Lemmiwinks).

    David Duhr

    “What funny little birds
    They had no wings
    Oh what should we do
    With the funny little things?”

    Yes!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLVgGADHg60

    David Duhr

    A few from Facebook (for those of you keeping score):

    The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
    Where the Heart Is
    The Notebook
    The Secret Life of Bees
    Stand By Me
    Breakfast at Tiffany’s
    Pretty Little Liars (TV)
    The Shawshank Redemption

    Carry on.

    Sarah

    Okay, now this is making me a little sad. I wrote this post under the assumption that most books are better than the movie versions of their stories.

    But, considering that I see another 2 Stephen King stories, a Nicholas Sparks book, and an Oprah’s Book Club book on that list, I guess sometimes the movie versions are better because there’s nowhere to go but up. (Zing!)

    trackback

    […] also doing occasional guest blogging for WriteByNight, a local writing center. Make sure you read my first post, which is about those few times the movie version of a book is better than the book itself. If […]

    Laura Roberts

    Two words: Fight Club.

    Dras

    I know I’m way late on this, but I’m going to submit that the movie “The Reader” was better than the book. Perhaps because I read the book post movie watching and all I could picture was Kate Winslet, but alas, I stick to my guns.

    […] watch the rest of the movie, which we’ve discussed before as being better than the […]




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