Sunday, January 08, 2006

Books into movies

Norm Geras and Clive Davis both discuss the fact that most movies based on books seem to be not nearly as good as the books from which they're taken.

They cite some rare exceptions, though; movies that equal the original books. For Norm, this consists of the movies "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "The Grapes of Wrath," "Great Expectations," "The Night of the Hunter," "Spartacus," "The 39 Steps," "The Young Lions;" and he cites the movie "Shane" as the sole film that was even better than the book from which it drew its inspiration. Clive lists "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "Goldfinger" in the latter category, movies that surpass the books on which they're based.

I agree that the books from which movies are taken tend to be superior to the films. But then, I'm much more of a librophile in general than a movie fan. I like to picture things in my mind, and to read about the interior thoughts of characters and even of authors (a specialty of one of my oft-quoted favorites, Kundera). It's not that I hate movies, but books are the medium I adore.

I also agree that there are indeed movies that are as good as the books on which they're based. But these tend to be movies made from mediocre or decent-but-not-great books; or to be action movies; or to be based on classics I only think I've read but actually haven't, such as Oliver Twist.

I know the story of Oliver Twist so well I figure I must have read it at some point. But no; when I really think about it, I realize my memory is fooling me, forming an amalgam of the David Lean film (a chiaroscuro masterpiece which gave me the shivers as a child when I watched it on a tiny TV) and the way-too-light and airy musical "Oliver." As for Great Expectations, although it was a classic, I've never been a particular fan of either the book or the movie.

So, I'm wondering: has there ever been a case of a really excellent book, one I've read and loved-- being made into an even better movie? I can't think of one, so far.

But I can think of one excellent book I've actually read that was made into an equally excellent movie, although both are so very different from each other that they cannot really be compared. Usually a stickler for slavish adherence to the original plot, I decided to let that criterion --and just about everything else of a pedantic nature--go when I first viewed the 1939 "Wuthering Heights" in a New York movie theater way back in my teenage years.

What a movie! The book was a frightening tale of revenge and cruelty on the moors of England. It had exerted a strange and mesmerizing power nonetheless, a dark and gloomy one. But the movie, although shot in black and white, was an over-the-top romance. It dealt with only a fraction of the book's convoluted plot, but it was the best fraction. Although hardly cheery, it had a more upbeat mood than the book, and the dominant note was passion.

Okay, I'll cut to the chase: I fell in love with the almost unbearably young Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff. I knew that, at the time I saw the movie, he was actually an old man in his late fifties (ah, ancient!), so it was rather strange to fall in love with his long-ago self. Just watch it, though, and I think you'll see what I mean.


At 1:14 PM, January 08, 2006, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Hmmm... I came up with one easy example of a movie that was far better than the book it was based on: The Postman (book by David Brin). But then you came to the real challenge: an excellent book that was made into an even better movie. Now that's a toughie!

Without too much confidence, I'll nominate Anthony Burgess's and Stanley Kubrick's versions of A Clockwork Orange. I'm not sure if the movie is better, exactly, than the book; but at the very least, it gives the book a run for its money.

In fact, I'm not sure that the challenge really makes sense - in that you can clearly state that an excellent movie is better than a mediocre book, or vice versa; but once you're comparing excellent with excellent, is there really any way to quantify excellence precisely enough that you can compare the relative merits of two excellent works of art in very different media?

At 2:47 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a book/movie combo for discussion: "2001: A Space Odyssey". Whaddoes everyone else think about that book vs. that movie? I'm kinda torn myself: On the one hand, the book does a wonderful job of explaining what was happening (As an example: Exactly what the (*expletive*) those apes were doing in the beginning. Kubrick's interpretation was visually interesting; in fact, in its own way it was rather poetic. But, it was hardly obvious; in fact, it was rather dense, sort of difficult to understand). At any rate, Clarke's descriptions of what was happening, especially at the end when Bowman was going through the monolith, was pretty fascinating. What was just a light show, and a series of mise-en-place tableaux in the movies (it's one weak point, IMO) was in the book a series of real shaping experiences for the character. It was just so engaging.

But on the other hand, Kubrick manages to pull out a sterile beauty in the movie, from the incredibly long silences in the outer space scenes, to the sparse yet compelling shots of Bowman dealing with HAL, to the interpretation of HAL itself. IMO, HAL's not creepy in the book at all, yet from that little nugget in the text, Kubrick pulls out this incredible portrayal of HAL as an incredibly sedating, soothing, emotionless antagonist that came off far creepier than any emotive enemy would've been. And he basically does that for the whole story: Pull out something that wasn't there w/o straying from the original narrative.

I can argue either way -- that the book was better than the movie, or that the movie was better than the book.

Heh... sitting on the fence just gets a fencepost up your... anyhoo, what does everyone else think? :)

As an aside, and slight thread diversion (not an outright highjacking): Another Kubrick movie -- "Full Metal Jacket" -- was based on a novella called "The Short Timers". link. Would'ya believe that the movie is a cleaned up and less shocking version of the book? Wow... Gustav Hasford could definitely get in touch with the dark side of things.

At 3:05 PM, January 08, 2006, Blogger Foobarista said...

One that comes close is the "Dune" mini-series produced by the Science Fiction Channel. One advantage it had over lots of movie attempts is the screenwriter clearly had plenty of freedom to adapt the - very large - story into a TV miniseries.

Lord of the Rings was a toughie; if you're a LotR fan, the first time through you were picking the movie apart, figuring out how it was different from your imagining of events in the books and comparing it with how you would have imagined the movie that _you_ would have made. Many people liked the movies much better on the second or third viewing.

At 3:50 PM, January 08, 2006, Blogger jlbussey said...

My first thought of a movie that was better than the book was "Gone With The Wind." However, the book was mediocre at best. I plowed through the whole (extremely long) book once upon a time; I've thankfully forgotten most of the torture that entailed. :)

At 4:29 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ditto on "Gone With the Wind" - I liked the book, but I love the movie.

At 4:42 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished watching the BBC six hour production of LeCarre's A Perfect Spy. I remember the book as pretty good, but this production is stunning, with excellent performances by all the main players, particularly Peter Egan as Magnus Pym.

At 6:35 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would say, "Gone With The Wind" simply because I found both book and film to be equally mediocre. The book I found boring and predictable, the movie an unending compilation of vignettes. Both are supposed classics. I loathe them.

Am I a pixie, or what? LOL

If you'd accept a short story in this: I liked "Stage To Lordsburg" though I can't recall the author. A solid little story of the West. Now film it and fill that film with John Wayne, Claire Trevor, John Carradine, George Bancroft, Thomas Mitchell, and more! John Ford Directed it. A great film Western! This in 1939, the greatest year for motion pictures ever!

Okay, neo, I'll be calm now. LOL

At 6:39 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ElMondoHummus, Clarke wrote the book based on the movie. He was extrapolating what Kubrick had filmed.

Foobarista, unfortunately, the movie made about Dune was a true stinkeroo. Slightly more palatable than "Starship Troopers", but not by much.

At 6:44 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was trying to think of some of my favorite films and came up with "The Haunting" by Shirley Jackson. This is a scary book about Hill House and the people who stay there, and what they experience. The film, with Julie Harris, was a true classic horror film. One of the scariest.

Read the book, then rent or buy the film. You decide.

Does anybody know what "The Ghost And Mrs. Muir" was based on? That's one damned fine movie!

Sorry, neo, I'm getting carried away again. :D

At 7:21 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One I haven't seen mentioned is "The Caine Mutiny." Haven't visited either the book or the movie for a while, but I remember them both as being very good.

As for 2001, the book was a novelization of the movie. The movie was based on a Clarke short story called "The Sentinel." So 2001 is out of the running.

At 7:23 PM, January 08, 2006, Blogger Asher Abrams said...

I enjoyed Ann Tyler's "The Accidental Tourist" but thought the movie (with Geena Davis) was even better. It's been a long time so I don't know whether my opinions of either would be the same today, but that's the title that springs to my mind as an exception to the "good book, bad movie" rule.

At 8:03 PM, January 08, 2006, Blogger Jamie Irons said...


We must be the same sort of romantic; I too have always loved Sir Lawrence's Wuthering Heights!

The only film in which I "hated" David Niven!

Jamie Irons

At 10:53 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My choice of an excellent book that translated into an even better movie is The Color Purple.

At 11:33 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've seen a lot of movies in my life and read even
more books. I love both. They are two different
mediums though and certain things that are readily
done with books are near impossible to achieve in a
movie and vice-versa. For that reason, in retrospect,
it shouldn't be surprising that a movie based on a
book is almost invariably disappointing to someone
that read and loved the book first.

But there are exceptions. The only one I can think
of at the moment, though I think there are more, would
be "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter." The book is by
Carson McCullers; the movie came out in 1968 with
Alan Arkin, Sandra Locke and Stacy Keach. Naturally
there are great stretches of the book that the movie
never touches but there are performances in the movie
that raise it to a higher and more immediate and more
extraordinary level than the book itself reached.

It is possible though that my good opinion of the
movie is due to a failure of my imagination when
I read was the book. Which raises a related question:
When two people read a book, do they read the same book?

At 11:58 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lord of the Rings would be my choice. I've read the book at least once a year since I was about 12, more than one year multiple times.

The movies were interesting to me because they were a little different, obviously Peter Jacksons idea of the book.

Probably the thing that really endears it to me the most is that it changed my view of Boromir in the first part of the trilogy, never liked him from just reading the book. But in the movie he came off as much more of a tragic and noble person and on later readings I've seen it that way in the books also. I think I like the new Boromir better and given the amount of times I've read the book, that's saying alot. Though, there were also changes I didn't a like - but that's going to be true even if I could see a "movie" of what someone else is seeing in their mind while reading the book (and thus is still a "purist" take on the story).

Plus I'm also a "revisionist" - for those that do not know on many, if not all, fansites the ranks were divided by "purist" and "revisionist". The purist tended to feel any change from *thier* vision was blasphemy (and I specifically use that word, for many it approached a religion). Even down to Balrogs with wings or not (another very long argument you can start on any LOTR fansite). The wing argument is funny of course, because many different people read that part VERY differently yet the purist would only have The One True Way. I suspect that this translates over to other stories as well.

Ahh well, the thing that usually ruins stories moving from one media to another (not just books to movies) is that the newer author always seems to want to leave thier mark on the story. The original is usually popular for a reason, changing it usually is going to always be for the worst. It's generally hard to make one or two major changes (to leave your mark) and keep the rest familiar. The best tend to either be very similar or a good deal of changes but fitting within the stories theme.

Personally I don't understand the desire to make a remake or translation but make it different - if you want creativity do your own thing. Once you decide to redo an established story you should have pretty much thrown away most of your ability to change.

Oh, I also thought the newer Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe did a good job, but then with the execption of a few scenes it might as well have been a play using the book as a script - hard to go wring if the source material is popular. I'm sure I can think of others not so recent, but those come to mind right now.

At 12:06 AM, January 09, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I was reading your post, my wife has channel-surfed to AMC showing "The Bridges at Toko-Ri" which, though one of Michener's smallest and earliest novels was excellent. The movie with William Holden gives an excellent flavor of Naval Aviation of the day and in those special-effect challenged days really gave the best feeling for the impersonal horror of the flak-nightmare that the protaganists faced (better than the novel could - especially for those with no practical knowledge of such things).

Another is the movie "Gettysburg" from Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels" both excellent portrayals of the critical moment in the critical battle of the crucial conflict of our national identity -not to be compared at all to the (I'm sorry but) second rate attempts of young
Shaara to fill his father's shoes.

I could think of more, but those two stand out in my mind. As for stark anti-examples I immediately think of "Hawaii" which was the first Michener I ever read and which, immediately upon finishing I started again from page one,... How anyone could have been stupind enough to think they could have made an adequate movie of even a portion of that/those story/ies was beyond me.

At 12:11 AM, January 09, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find this a fascinating question. The conventional wisdom that the book is better usually holds but there many exceptions to the rule. The excellence requirement for the book raises the bar pretty high so I'm not sure my nominations for "movies better than the book" pass, but I'll offer them anyway:

The Godfather was an effective bestseller but the movie and its sequel are genius.
Postcards from the Edge is a bit of a cheat since Carrie Fisher first wrote the novel then got a second chance to rewrite it as a screenplay.
To Have and Have Not The director Howard Hawks boasted that he could make a movie out of the worst thing Hemingway ever wrote. With Bogart and Bacall's stunning debut together he did.
The Big Sleep Perhaps the closest to neo's requirement. I love the book but based on the Bogart-Bacall chemistry I'd give the movie the edge. It must be noted that William Faulkner wrote the script. I haven't read The Maltese Falcon but I bet I'd prefer the movie version too.
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy, Smiley's People are all brilliant adaptions of Le Carre's spy novels, at least as good as the books, largely due to Richard Burton and Alec Guinness. Likewise Len Deighton's The Ipcress File with Michael Caine.
LA Confidential is another great film realization which I prefer to the book.


At 1:38 AM, January 09, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going to stretch a point here, and go into TV as well as movies. "I, Claudius" is one of my favorite books. I read it at least once a year. The mini-series with Derek Jacobi is fantastic. It is also incredibly British for something set during the Roman Empire. Good mystery novels also seem to make good tv shows. "Midsomer Murders", "Brother Cadfael", and "Inspector Morse" are good examples of these. They were quite good mystery novels that were later turned into excellent mystery series. Another would be "Rumpole of the Bailey", though I think that one was created along with the TV show.

At 2:11 AM, January 09, 2006, Blogger roman said...

I wonder if a book could have done justice to the movie "Alien", directed by Ridley Scott as an adaptation of a screenplay by Dan O'Bannon.
I recall the scene when the "facehugger" seperated from a crewmember's face and the others searched for it in the locked-down medical chamber. The sheer terror and extreme anxiety that pushed me to the edge of my seat is still vivid in my mind so many years later. Could this "experience" have been recreated by the printed word? I doubt it.

At 2:52 AM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

You know what, Wuthering Heights didn't sound all that familiar to me. Especially given the date. But... as it came about, I am familiar with that book. Because it was mentioned in another book I read, a science fiction parody Rats, Bats, and Vats.

Pretty hilarious, and the romance heroine in that book kept mentioning Heathcliff and Cathy. And then you'd hear how Cathy was limp wristed and vacuous, and about the stunning Heathcliff and etc.

I didn't connect the dots until you mentioned Heathcliff, then it was confirmed when you mentioned Cathy. In no other way would I be even familiar with such a dated novel. Other than if it had been a classic like Pride and Prejudice.

Romances are fun, and sometimes a stunning look into human nature, but I'm still a science fiction lover at heart. Which is why the original Dune movie was so stupendously well done. And for the reasons you mentioned Neo.

like to picture things in my mind, and to read about the interior thoughts of characters and even of authors (a specialty of one of my oft-quoted favorites, Kundera). It's not that I hate movies, but books are the medium I adore.

It actually narrated the thoughts of the characters in the one scene when the main character was almost assassinated. And in many other scenes. it really increased the mood and weight of the film and the connection to the characters as human beings. This was how movies should be made. And Fahrenheit the Indigo Prophecy does it quite well for a game.

At 5:21 AM, January 09, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ymarsakar: I'm amazed that you don't think Wuthering Heights is a classic like Pride and Prejudice: granted the second has been adapted into far more movies and TV plays, but still... (and what about Kate Bush's song?)
I come from Leeds, and still remember (after many, many years) the school trip to Haworth, a village on the moors, and the visit to the Bronte parsonage - indispensable for a sense of the gloom the sisters lived in.

At 5:27 AM, January 09, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recntly saw the 1995 movie verson od "Richard III" starring Sir Ian Mckellen and it was excellent. It was set in a Fascist 1930s England. It was very good, but I cannot say that it was better than the original play.

At 5:33 AM, January 09, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josey Wales" was better than the novel it was based on (_Gone to Texas_ by Forrest Carter).

At 8:23 AM, January 09, 2006, Blogger goesh said...

-glad to see a Tolkien fan in the crowd

At 10:28 AM, January 09, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a slightly different view of the subject.
The faithfulness of a movie to a book doesn't interest me, since I see the two as separate.

I am interested, though, in whether the scenes and scenery and background and so forth are as I imagined them.
In that view, Harry Potter is the closest.
LOTR is next.

It is possible to have a really rotten movie, and if it happens to be made from a particularly good book, there is a hint of idiocy in the thing.
For my money, the worst, by a million miles, movie made from a good book was Starship Troopers.
The troopers were less well-equipped than our guys today, their tactical formations reminded me of coaching eight-year-olds in soccer, and the female lead's acting consisted of a blank cheerleader smile.
The book, on the other hand, is widely considered to be one of the one best SFs ever written.

At 12:24 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

There is a theory, which I think is true, that books that are light on characterization make the best subjects for movies, because movies can expand character so well with visuals, music, dialogue, etc. Kramer v. Kramer is a good example. Movie much better than the book.

Cold Mountain made a terrible movie, in part because the book itself is so interior and soulful on characterization that the movie seemed trivial in comparison.

At 12:52 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

PatCA: I think a corollary to your point is that books that concentrate on action tend to make better movies than those that concentrate on internal thoughts, feelings, etc. Children's classics can be some of the best subjects for movies ("The Wizard of Oz" being an excellent example).

But worst "books into movies" of all are those with a lot of interior thoughts of the characters, combined with the ruminations of the author. That's why, when I heard they were going to make a movie of Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being, I cringed. That book is an interesting example, because it does have some action in it (mostly sexual action), and so the movie could concentrate on that and leave out all the other things that made it meaningful--and that latter part constituted the bulk of the book. And yet, the movie that was made was rather popular (although not with me!). Those who hadn't read the book probably hadn't a clue what was missing--which was nearly everything that made the book extraordinary.

At 12:57 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Bookworm said...

I think the Pride & Prejudice of a decade ago is actually slightly better than the book -- a book I love so much I've probably read it 20 times. The book is marvelous as a comedy of manners, its writing is exquisite, and Elizabeth Bennett is one of the most pleasing literary heroines ever written. The problem is that Mr. Darcy is a cipher. For all that he has a fair amount of lines, there's no there there in terms of personality. Taking a few liberties with the text, the production fleshed out his character, helped by the fact that Colin Firth is an appealing actor. In addition, the movie has movement and music that make it lively, without being frenetic. It's a marvelous production no matter how you look at it, and it never seriously deviates from Jane Austen's own sensibilities.

At 2:28 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I always wished we had a quantum generator and tell Jane Austen what became of her works. And Von Clauswitz, and John Milton, and all the others. The look on their faces would be worth quite a lot of trouble.

As for Wuthering Heights not being a classic, I should rephrase that as not being a popular and well known classic. Of which is the reason I had not previously heard of it or the author, while Jane Austen is a far more (in the vernacular sense) popular author.

At 9:15 PM, January 09, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sonuvabitch, Benning, you're right. I didn't know that before. Color me embarrased:

-2001 began life as the short story The Sentinel, written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1950.

-Clarke and Kubrick, who had been introduced by a mutual friend, began collaborating on a screenplay about man and extraterrestrials. Clarke suggested they base it on that story, which detailed a surveying expedition finding an alien artifact buried on the moon.

-Clarke later wrote a novel based on the screenplay for 2001, which was released in July 1968, three months after the film’s debut.


I mean, I can split hairs and say that the book was based on the screenplay and wasn't exactly "extrapolating what Kubrick had filmed", but that's just picking a fight to be ornery. I don't wanna fight; I just wanted to add a shade of detail. I think the spirit of your comment was that the book didn't preceed the movie, and I readily conceed that.

Re: LOTR's comments... I dunno... I really loved the movies, but better than the book? Respectfully, can't quite agree. There was a lyricism to the written dialogue that just didn't exist in the movie (although that may be because it was probably too stilted to actually speak it on film (*grin*)). It's not necessarily condemming the movies to say I liked the books far better.

SonnyJim, re: Gettysburg. It's odd, but I came to the exact opposite conclusion for that movie. As I posted in Annika's Journal ( last fall regarding that film:
"How a movie can get the details 100% correct and still miss the spirit of both the topic and the specific book is way beyond me. It's not that it was bad, it was just... well... not good. Felt like it was merely going through the motions of the story."

(Jeez, just pickin' fights left and right here, aren't I...? ;) ).

With the exception of Jeff Daniel's portrayal of Chamberlain, I felt that the actor's interpretations of their characters was... well... off. For example, I didn't feel the towering respect that Longstreet and Lee had for each other from just watching the acting, but I got it loud and clear from the book. Weird, because the dialogue in the movie tracked very, very closely to the dialogue in the book. I dunno... maybe I need another viewing. But that film just didn't cut it for me. BTW, is Jeff Sharaa really that bad? I was thinking about picking up one of his books to see how he stacked up.

Back on topic: Movies better than books. I think I finally came up with one: Get Shorty. Some may find this heresy -- here's your chance to rip me for my choice :) -- but I simply couldn't get into the Elmore Leonard book. The movie was sly and snarky in a good way, but to me, the book just came off as annoying.

At 10:56 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Unknown said...

I agree about Unbearable Lightness. It piqued my interest, especially when the director mentioned that "unsustainable" was a better translation of the book title, and led me to the book, the depth of which the movie only hinted at. I think Kundera's mocking of the young wishing to join the Grand March of History cracked my inner lefty indentity a bit (which 9/11 later busted open). Fight Club is another movie that was successful for the wrong reasons. The book, which I admire, clearly lays out the formation of a terrorist psyche.

Bookworm, you've convinced me I have to read Austen again. It's been a looong time.

At 2:48 PM, January 10, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Jane Austen is probably the most popular author men might read that cannot be classified as "historical romance" or "regency romance". Which is ironic to say the least.

At 9:20 AM, January 15, 2006, Blogger knox said...

"A Room with a View" is a great movie, better than the book, I think.

Same with "Sense and Sensibility..." Emma Thompson's screenplay really brought out the best of the book.

I agree that the adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" starring Colin Firth is close to perfection, but the book *is* perfection, so it wins out!


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