I’ve been thinking a lot about movies lately–perhaps because my latest novel, published this month, is set in the early days of the silent film industry. Next week we’ll publish my interview with Betsy about that novel in particular. But on the general theme of movies, and looking forward to the big holiday film season coming up, I’m re-posting a piece from four years ago. When is the movie version better than the book? Does that ever happen? Be sure to read the comments (where some readers disagree with me), and feel free to add your own.
A story that begins as a book is usually best as a book. It may be true that a picture is worth a thousand words, but the variable is what we mean by “worth.” For emotional impact, nothing grabs like cute puppies wrestling or a sailor kissing a girl on V-J day or a Vietnamese prisoner at the moment a bullet slams into his skull. Music and visual images hit us in the heart, where love, repugnance, fear, joy–and the memory of all those things–lightly sleep. But words, especially written words, can’t take such a direct route: they have to be processed. It’s in the processing that words can communicate depths and subtleties that pictures can’t.
That said, pictures do “talk,” and in the right sequence, with supporting dialogue and musical interludes to contribute to the mood, they make an art form that we call “the movies.” The relationship between books and film has been so close, from the beginning, that movies have fundamentally changed the way novels are written. It’s a rare author who doesn’t occasionally think of the narrative scene in cinematic terms or wonder who would play a particular character in the movie version. And it’s a rare reader who doesn’t try to picture how a spectacular scene would look on the big screen.
But the experience of seeing is obviously different from the experience of imagining, and when we say, “I liked the book better,” we mean that we couldn’t quite make the leap from our vision to the movie-makers’ vision. They made the world we imagine look cartoonish on screen—and they left out our favorite character, or that line that always makes us laugh when we read it. Or worse, they twisted the theme askew to make it line up with some Hollywood idea of what sells. Aiming for the broadest possible appeal, they spread the story too thin and eliminate the depths that haunted us for days after reading.
The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, was published in 1883. It’s very loosely structured; more a collection of stories lumbering to a conclusion than a unified novel. The fact that it was written in Italian and I may not have read the best translation could be part of the problem, but even a better translation would not improve the main character. Pinocchio does learn something from his misadventures and eventually becomes a real boy, but he’s not that likable. His first animate act is to kick his surrogate dad, Gepetto, and when the unnamed talking cricket starts giving him advice he kills it with a hammer. Sweet kid.
Of course in any Disney version, the main character must be cute and lovable, but in this case that’s an improvement—it gets the audience on Pinocchio’s side even when he’s making stupid choices. To “Disneyfy” is a derogatory term: it means to pretty up, or sanitize. Though classic Disney animation is has its moments of cloying cuteness, nobody could say the evil puppet master Stromboli or the slimy “Honest John” are sanitized. If anything, they’re more menacing in the movie than in the book. And one of the most frightening scenes I know of in a family film is when that smart-alecky Lampwick turns into a donkey. He deserves it, but his terror and subsequent sorrow are pretty effective. Disney took the main elements of a disjointed tale and made it a unified story—a redemption story, which is the best kind. Good songs, too.
Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900 and spawned many sequels. The theory that it was written as an allegory about hard-money policy, the hot political issue of the 1890s, is probably bogus. Obviously, it’s worked as a children’s book for over a hundred years. When I finally got around to reading it, about ten years ago, I wasn’t impressed. There’s little in the way of character development or dramatic tension, and the action doesn’t build—it goes from here to there like playing pieces on a board game, with interchangeable dangers on every square.
What the movie version does is make the story about Dorothy. The hoary convention of having the fantasy elements turn out to be a dream actually works here. Much has been written about the Freudian or Jungian implications of Dorothy’s dream, but I’m not going there–the point is, like Pinocchio, she leaves home and faces many dangers and comes back a different person. Adventure is the main point of the book, but the movie, for good cinematic reasons, shapes the adventure into the theme of growing into the person you really are.
More could be said about these two movies, but that’s not my point. What seems most interesting to me is that, out of all the novels-made-into-movies I’ve seen, I can only think of two that improved on the book. Down-the-line comparisons aren’t quite fair, because print and film are very different media and have to be judged on their own terms. But can anyone else think of a movie they liked better than the book?