Beyond Books, Movies, Raising Readers, Reflections
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“The book is a lot better than the movie” – Usually

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.

oz movieThat 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.

Once in a great while, though, a movie is better than the book, at least in my opinion.  I can think of two examples.

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?

 

18 Comments

  1. Wow, I couldn’t agree more with you on Pinocchio! It was grueling to read that book. Oddly, my eight-year-old really liked it, though I think it had to do with the version I picked for him to read. It was beautifully illustrated, and that made a big difference, I think.

    I have never read Wizard of Oz, but since I don’t even care for the movie, I might just skip that one forever. 🙂

    I can’t tell you how much I enjoy this blog!!

  2. New England Girl says

    Although I love Jane Austen, I have to say I enjoyed the movie version of Sense and Sensibility more. I thought the pacing was better and the characters were more three-dimensional (especially Margaret, the youngest of the three sisters, who is basically superfluous to the plot in the book). This is not true at all of any of the other Austen movies, by the way.

    However, I’ve read both Pinocchio and The Wizard of Oz and I don’t think I agree with you on either! 🙂 I enjoyed the mischievous quality of the book Pinocchio, and how non-linear it was–I found it a refreshingly different take on what makes a good story. I remember as a child having the concept of real, actual, starving hunger come home to me for the first time in that book when Pinocchio refuses to eat the apple core, although Gepetto encourages him to, until he is so hungry that later he begs Gepetto for the core and skin of the apple. And also as a child, I loved all the crazy details of the world of Oz that the book revealed and that the movie ignored (like that all the plants and buildings and everything are one color in each region of Oz–so the Munchkins should have been blue from head to toe). 🙂 I also remember my outrage as a child when they turned Dorothy’s experience into a dream in the movie–part of the magic, to me, was dreaming that Oz really was out there, somewhere, in our world, in the middle of a desert.

  3. Katie in Ohio says

    I think Ella Enchanted was a better movie than the book. I agree with you that it is rare.

  4. Katie in Ohio says

    I think Ella Enchanted was a better movie than the book. I agree with you that it is rare.

  5. There are two book-to-movie adaptations at least that I think superbly fine, but the problem is that I saw the movie first and then read the books, so I am not certain whether I would feel as strongly positive about them if I’d done it the other way around.

    One is THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, which has a number of elements and ideas that struck me very strongly as a movie viewer and didn’t come out nearly as well to me in the book; the other is A ROOM WITH A VIEW, which I did think more engaging and accessible than the novel (though some parts had more of a modern sensibility than a truly Edwardian one, particularly the ending).

    Possibly the most faultless and even slightly superior book-to-movie adaptation, however, is THE PRINCESS BRIDE — but that’s because William Goldman, who wrote the book, also wrote the screenplay.

  6. There are two book-to-movie adaptations at least that I think superbly fine, but the problem is that I saw the movie first and then read the books, so I am not certain whether I would feel as strongly positive about them if I’d done it the other way around.

    One is THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, which has a number of elements and ideas that struck me very strongly as a movie viewer and didn’t come out nearly as well to me in the book; the other is A ROOM WITH A VIEW, which I did think more engaging and accessible than the novel (though some parts had more of a modern sensibility than a truly Edwardian one, particularly the ending).

    Possibly the most faultless and even slightly superior book-to-movie adaptation, however, is THE PRINCESS BRIDE — but that’s because William Goldman, who wrote the book, also wrote the screenplay.

  7. I have to disagree about the Oz books (and I’ve read all 14 aloud to my kids). The movie is a classic, but it’s quite different and Hollywood-ized. And with music and good acting and groundbreaking visual effects (for the time). But the books are inventive and have a way of firing kids’ imaginations even without the character development we expect in modern books. They’re like some of the classic fairy tales. The sense of place, archetypal characters, and childlike innocence and acceptance of the fantastic are what’s important.

    But there are some movies that are more enduring than the books (and The Wizard of Oz is probably one of them). I would say that Disney’s Mary Poppins also is in that category, as opposed to P.L. Travers’ book. Julie Andrews is just plain more likable than the Mary Poppins of the book. Whether that means the movie has more literary merit than the book is probably another discussion still!

  8. I have to disagree about the Oz books (and I’ve read all 14 aloud to my kids). The movie is a classic, but it’s quite different and Hollywood-ized. And with music and good acting and groundbreaking visual effects (for the time). But the books are inventive and have a way of firing kids’ imaginations even without the character development we expect in modern books. They’re like some of the classic fairy tales. The sense of place, archetypal characters, and childlike innocence and acceptance of the fantastic are what’s important.

    But there are some movies that are more enduring than the books (and The Wizard of Oz is probably one of them). I would say that Disney’s Mary Poppins also is in that category, as opposed to P.L. Travers’ book. Julie Andrews is just plain more likable than the Mary Poppins of the book. Whether that means the movie has more literary merit than the book is probably another discussion still!

  9. I agree about The Princess Bride. It’s an O.K. book, but the actors bring the wit and the jokes to life better than my imagination could.

    To Kill a Mockingbird, the movie, is as good as the book, even though some subplots had to be left out or simplified.

  10. Marlo says

    The Princess Bride is definitely better as a movie than book, and I agree about Pinocchio, as well.

    I was able to catch The Help a couple of weeks ago, and while the book was better, the movie was almost as good.

  11. emily says

    This is going to sound like heresy, but truth be told, I hated the idea of The Lord of The Rings when I was a teenager. I had seen part of an awful cartoon version of The Hobbit and was totally turned off. When I finally watched Peter Jackson’s first film, I was overwhelmed with how wonderful it was, and my husband and I promptly read the second book to get ready for the next film. So, after LOVING the second book, I went and saw the second film and I was so disappointed! It absolutely didn’t match what was in my head, and I had expected so much more.

    So, although I know this is more heresy, the lesson I learned was this: I’m much more likely to enjoy both movie and book if I see the movie first.

  12. Oooh… I’m going to have to disagree on Oz and Pinocchio both! Both of those are very episodic tales that are great early read alouds to children–they don’t have to follow a significant plot from chapter to chapter (this is particularly true for Oz). Also, I found the switch in the “bad boy” stuff in Pinocchio troubling; in the book he is looking at participating in typical bad boy behavior and in the movie, the bad boys do more grownup things like smoke and gamble. Interesting shift in my mind.

    I’m also going to agree that LOTR was an EXCELLENT film adaptation. Better than the books? Maybe, actually. (did I just say that?!). And, yes to Jane Austen films–the lengthy Pride and Prejudice version…. amazing and equally as good as the book.

    Others? Let’s see. I agree with Mary Poppins–the musical was outstanding and MP is much more likable. I’m not a huge Dickens fan, so I also like Oliver! better than the book.

    In general, after teaching middle and high school English for several years, I’ve found that just about any thoughtful book-to-movie translation helps reluctant readers make sense of a book/play and aids enjoyment for most young people. Case in point: the Leonardo di Caprio Romeo and Juliet has one of the only (maybe THE only?) and most outstanding depictions of the Prologue of that play–truly a great way to show kids what’s going on at that point. That whole movie is a terrific look at contemporizing Shakespeare for today’s generations, getting them to think about the story in modern terms.

  13. Shayne says

    When your writing a book you just go with the flow, the words and creativity in your head are forming a story. Also with books( the author) you can go off subject a little. When the book is made into a movie there’s a visual and you can see the character’s and their reactions and the creativity on screen. The movie can be better or the book it can go either way. I watched Pinocchio all the time as a kid. I haven’t really read the book but read the summary of it and the book is different and little disturbing. Pinocchio in the book was naughty, and got into a lot of trouble. Pinocchio died a gruesome death in the book. I looked at the summary and was surprised the book was something. but Disney did an amazing job with visual, sound affects and music. Forever a classic!

  14. One of the few books that I like less than the movie is Mary Poppins. I grew up loving the movie — especially the songs — and not even knowing it was based on a book. When my children and I read the book together a few years ago, we all felt the overall story was darker and that Mary Poppins herself lacked kindness and humility. She just was not as likeable as character created by Walt Disney and Julie Andrews. The movie “Saving Mr. Banks” sheds some light on why P.L. Travers’ work is less than rosy.

    As far as the Wizard of Oz goes, I dislike both the book and the movie. The creepy flying monkeys in the movie deeply disturbed me at age 4 and still bother me as an adult. The book version eventually reveals a nicer side to the monkeys, but the story really drags on too long and somewhat aimlessly.

  15. Sarah says

    I agree in regard to A Room With a View. Hollywood is better at depicting heterosexual romance than E.M. Forster was.

    I’ll add Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. The between-the-wars setting is more poignant when you know WWII is coming. I’d also add The Painted Veil (2006): the movie’s ending is more redemptive than Somerset Maugham’s super-feminist cynicism.

    And while Jim Caviezel’s Count of Monte Cristo has very little to do with the superb novel, I find both the film and the book enjoyable.

  16. A Treefrog says

    I saw the movie NORTH AND SOUTH (newer version with Richard Armitage, not Captain Picard, er, Patrick Stewart), before reading the book and loved it. I think one of the most romantic scenes OF ALL TIME is in that movie. Then I read the book and loved it too! So, I place these two works in the category of “Movie is as excellent as the book, just tells the story a different way,” since the movie leaves out/tweaks a bit of the book.

    PS: this is the book by Elizabeth Gaskell that takes place in northern England, NOT John Jakes that takes place in southeast US.

    PPS: the movie ending is pure modern and that’s not the scene I’m talking about. That’s my only quibble with the movie (I think).

    PPPS: Mrs. Thornton is one of my favorite characters. Her scene at the end in the abandoned mill makes me cry EVERY TIME.

  17. Love this topic of discussion! I don’t know who made the film of The Man in the Iron Mask which I saw years ago, but it had a very strong plot, and I was most disappointed when I read the book years later and found it quite loosely put together and amoral. That would be the only film I’ve ever liked better than the book.

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