Books on Film

During my first semester of college, I was a theater major, enrolled in a theater history class that I probably wouldn’t have been taking if it weren’t required. The problem with it — other than the fact that it met at 9 a.m. and took place in a building all the way across campus from my dorm — was that there was just too much reading. And I, like many new college students, was much more interested in hanging out with my friends than I was into the idea of spending my evenings with a copy of Oedipus Rex and a highlighter.

When we were assigned Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I figured I was lucky, because I’d seen the movie and I vividly remembered Elizabeth Taylor yelling “MAGGIE THE CAT IS ALIVE!” at Paul Newman, so I figured I was all set. Of course, as this story would have to go, I figured wrong. Turns out that Tennessee Williams had included things in his play that hadn’t made it into the film, and I was, yet again, lost during class discussion.

This story from my youth serves as an example of the time-worn cliche that the book is always better than the movie. I’m sure we’ve all had this conversation at some point in our lives:

A: I just saw (insert title here).
B: Oh yeah? Well, the book is better.

And sometimes we’ve had this conversation with the popular variation, “there’s so much in the book that a film can’t capture.”

And so I’d like to ask what you think about film adaptations of literature. Do movies always fall short of the books they’re based on? Why? Can you think of examples of films that surpass the books that inspire them? And finally, have you read something that you’ve wanted to turn into a movie? How would you do it?

20 Responses

  1. fear and loathing shows…The
    fear and loathing shows…

    The movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I think, shows that books are not necessarily better than films, but that each art form can do things the other cannot.

    The Matrix trilogy, for example, is not something I’d want to write as a novel.

    For an artist, I think books are great because you do not have to compromise with other scriptwriters, argue with actors, directors, worry about costs etc.

    I must say, though, The Lord of the RIngs movie was missing Tom Bombadil! Books can go on tangents where movies cannot.

    I also feel it is more active to read and imagine than to watch passively and have everything shown to you.

  2. ClockworkAnthony Burgess’ ‘A

    Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is a great book. No doubt. It was probably the first serious encounter I had with that great question “is it better to be ‘good’ without choice, or to choose to be ‘evil'” I love that question and the myriad others that come along with it, most importantly (to my mind) is how ‘good’ and ‘evil’ can be defined.

    I’m not eager to say outright that Kubrick’s movie (one of his best) of the novel is better than the book, but I can see that it brings out a whole range elements that didn’t fit into the book.

    Particularly the question of what is goodness and evil. This may be a case of the book leaving out things from the film.

    Perhaps when the film and book are both fine works of art, it is better to see them separately. Kubrick’s visual poetics are a worthy match for Burgess’ great prose. The film, in my memory, didn’t leave out any of the great stuff. Kubrick captured the subdued science-fiction elements of the novel: the vaguely invasive state or the globalised language.

    I have known people, perhaps with a touch more moxie than I, who claim Kubrick’s film surpassed the novel by degrees of magnitude. They offer all the arguments I’ve included here. But in the end, film and literature are different media. They speak different languages. Kubrick was a master of film, Burgess (probably) a master of the written word. so then let’s view them as different works from the same source. Why is it that films which attempt to re-tell narratives with new dimensions are so questionable? Theatre is forever re-interpretating the same plays, and some great films have been made of older great films (insomnia).

    There are of course great films made of older bad films (Hitchcock’s second turn at the man who knew too much.) I think we need to be a little more liberal, and stop the sanctification of literature. If we are more open to innovative interpretations, maybe we can continue to explore ourselves and the world we live in with unlimited creativity because isn’t that exploration at the heart of literature?

  3. Good point, young milsy lad.
    Good point, young milsy lad. not to mention kubrick’s other films, the vast majority of which are based on books. best film made of a book ever would definitely go to dr. strangelove. did you know the original was a serious cold war hysteria book called ‘red alert’? i haven’t read it – but would you want to?

    i thought the shining was quite interesting when compared to the novel, same with lolita.
    generally, i think that bad books can make great films and great books tend to make bad ones. however, i would love to see a film made (directed by myself, preferably) of Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’. this would be quite cool, as movies based on new journalism have a bit more flair than the novels. is it just me, or can anyone else see a young gene hackman as kesey?

  4. A Clockwork Orange is an
    A Clockwork Orange is an excellent example of being both a great movie and great book. I can’t think of a better example and I agree with everything you said here. Thank you.

  5. Good point about the Matrix
    Good point about the Matrix films. Having just watched all three Matrix movies on DVD yesterday, plus all the “making of” documentary extras, I would not want to settle for a book.

  6. Coppola On The Road…I’ve
    Coppola On The Road…

    I’ve noticed that a lot of books now seem to be written with a movie deal in mind. The popular John Grisham-Stephen King-Dan Brown-type books all seem easily adaptable to screenplays. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    A lot of science fiction fans apparently thought the Dune movie didn’t do the book justice. I read and enjoyed the book long before the movie was made, and I have to say, I like the movie. I have to say, though, I think I understood the movie better, having read the book. I’m not sure how someone who never read the book would receive the film. I would say that David Lynch made Dune for fans of the book as a supplement, or accessory, to the book.

    One movie that couldn’t be more different from the book is the 1931 Frankenstein. Having read the book which Mary Shelley wrote in 1818, I hate to admit this, but I like the 1931 film better. Maybe I should read the book again.

    If I were going to make a movie of Kerouac’s On The Road, as may be done by Francis Ford Coppola, here are some things I would do:

    1. Pick unknown actors to play the parts. I realize that the general public might need big names to draw them to this kind of movie, but if you really audition enough actors and pick some who are strikingly singular in looks and behavior, maybe you will discover the next wave of greats.
    2. Use state of the art photography, like that employed for the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan, for driving scenes, close-up typing scenes, and other action.
    3. DON’T make it black & white.
    4. Obviously, feature good jazz music.
    5. Elevate some of Dean’s driving to equal the best “chase scenes” in movies. I can hear some of you saying, “Hell, no!” but hey, I don’t mean the Blues Brothers big multi-crash through the mall slapstick. Dean Moriarity kicked some hairy maneuvers on those roads!

  7. ideas brewing…as a theatre
    ideas brewing…

    as a theatre major myself, i feel compelled to respond to this. in fact, at first i felt so compelled that i typed out an enourmously long response about plays that i want to stage, but then i realized…most of them started out as plays.

    because i’m so deeply into theatre right now, there aren’t really any films i’m thinking about making. essentially just because film isn’t as much fun to make as theatre is. imagine that you and your friends got together and had so much fun that you decided to tape record yourselves… the recording wouldn’t be as enjoyable as the actualy experience of it was, tho it might have it’s moments.

    the one piece, my baby, the thing i really want to stage is a concoction i’ve dreamed up of two books… it’s a juxtaposition of The Secret Garden with the story of the Garden of Eden. staging it has it’s problems, because loading and striking an entire garden as a scene change can be difficult, but i’m working on that. how would i do it? well, Mary, Dickon, and Colin would meet about 10 years later than they do in the book. And they would do things in the garden that would cause them to have knowledge, revelations even.

    but the rest of the details i think i’ll leave off, because i actually do intend to stage it at some point.

    the other shows i’m brewing right now are Faust as a kind of rockstar kid, and an updated version of Salom

  8. Duelin’ Banjos and Duelin’
    Duelin’ Banjos and Duelin’ Psychos

    On principle, I’m generally not happy with film adaptations of great books. The Robin Williams version of “World According to Garp” was, to me, a perfect example of an adequate movie that went nowhere near the brilliance of the original book. How could it? The book had stories within stories, and deeply nested surprises and plot twists that were completely dependent on narrative tone for their subtle flavor. The movie also suffered from Robin Williams’ need to smile a lot and crack jokes, whereas the original character was a fairly serious and quiet person.

    I can only think of two examples of great movies made from great books. I don’t know how the director of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” squeezed such amazing acting performances out of his ensemble cast, but even Ken Kesey’s classic prose couldn’t flesh out these characters as well as Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Louise Fletcher, Scatman Crothers and Brad Dorff did. I think this is a case where an ensemble cast just clicked and created magic. It takes nothing away from Kesey’s amazing book that the movie was probably even more powerful.

    The other case I can think of is “Deliverance,” based on the novel by poet James Dickey. Again, a great book, nearly perfect, but there is no way words on a page can conjure up the sights and sounds of a boy in a tree plucking on a banjo while a city-dude with an acoustic guitar stands underneath trying to keep up.

    Two small success stories among many failures.

  9. Zorbas and PippiTwo examples
    Zorbas and Pippi

    Two examples for great movies from great books that come to my mind:

    – Alexis Zorbas (Zorba the Greek) – both Kazantzakis’ book and the movie with Anthony Quinn have their own impressive and unique quality… they are different, but both great in their own way.

    – Pippi Longstrump (Pippi Longstocking) – the swedish film adaptions from the sixties are the pefect twin sisters to the three Pippi books… funny, sensitive, anarchic and compassionate.

  10. The Stuff Movies are made
    The Stuff Movies are made of

    Books are just too long to make into equivalent movies. And there’s too much non-verbal stuff going on, and watching Ben Affleck try to act like he’s thinking is just way too painful.

    And if you’ve read the book, there’s a really good chance that the movie has left out something you thought was essential. I suppose the movie Movern Callar was good, but I had read and really like the book, and I was looking forward to seeing the movie, but I just kept waiting for stuff to happen (that happened in the book) that didn’t happen. (in the movie) And it was really distracting to my enjoyment of the movie.

    On the other hand, there are books where I have only seen the movie, (Cuckoo’s Nest, Deliverance, Harry Potter) and the movies are good enough that I feel like it would ruin it for me to read the book, because the movie created such a powerful atmosphere. Plus those Harry Potter books are really long.

    As far as a book I would turn into a movie, I think “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” is ripe for an adaptation and the red/blue and counting themes I think would really speak to the current election mess.

  11. Wow! I just was watching
    Wow! I just was watching FEAR AND LOATHING ten minutes ago! And I agree that both the book and the movie capture different aspects of the experience.

  12. YesI’ve been in those

    I’ve been in those discussion several times, in student days — sometimes they were highly intellectual and to the finest detail and comparison of moods, gestures … or low-level later on – with regard to puns, action, attractivity of actresses.

    In most cases I thought that books and movies had been works in their own right (see Panta’s examples) (or at least interesting experiments) — and there was something for everybody — and the discussion was some third genre with the intention of entertaining and segregation.

    Of course, there are bad boring movies – and books.

    I’m very much visual – but the actual quality of expression often depends on the actors, e.g .I love ‘Wall Street’ with Michael Douglas.

    I like reading Tom Wolfe’s books anyway for the entertainment, the journalistic rational eye of the critic — on the other hand, I like Michael Douglas for the haunted hunted look in his eyes: the ‘truth of effort’ in life. I wouldn’t care if there are aberrations in the adaptation.
    Also, I like ‘The Right Stuff’ very much, the movie, the feeling of hope, of human achievement, also technology, political critique, the pictures of a fitting documentary.

    There are movies using color and a certain camera viewpoint, the ‘eye of the discoverer’, as a stylistic element, sometimes being stronger than the actors — as an art of itself. And it can be wonderful how this resounds in or from the book and/or script. And there are nearly literary film tecniques, using collage documentation, the borders of the media blur.
    Examples: Terra Rossa; films and books by Pier Paolo Pasolini (e.g. Teorema) (Fellini, Bunuel); Godard, Tanner; Rohmer, Truffaut,et al.; Annaud.

    Sometimes it’s easier to look at the movie when the corresponding books are very long, well knowing that much is lost – but you can fill in by reading, or complement by seeing the movie in case or for parts where the book was too lengthy boring whatever. Get an incentive to read. Examples: Lord of the Rings (but the descriptions of atmospheres, moods, landscapes cannot be reached by a movie, they are associated too much individually by each reader, I think), Harry Potter, Garp, Bonfire of the Vanities, some Latino writers like Marquez, Eco.

    And I think there are ‘nearly holy’ books (specific for an individual, for me — or according to a certain theme) which have so many associations, or carry so much meaning, vision that they nearly can’t be ‘tolerated’ as a movie, they hurt when a stranger’s (method of) identification is demanded … from Kafka … to many books of the Beat Generation; but again, they can serve for discussions. Also, some classical movies have this quality or cult-status (Lugosi, Chaplin, German classics; Tarkowski, Solaris et al.).

    Sometimes, I like to read secondary, biographic, essayistic work by certain authors — it’s the same with certain film directors: some write books, some write essays on the different modes of expression: Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas), Jarmusch (and here genres mix even further), similar, for me: Selby, Ford.

    I’d like to read a book from some movies, not just the script.
    I’d like to see a movie for the books: Mark Helprin/Winter’s Tale; Matt Ruff/G.A.S.; Carol Hill/Amanda: the latter two should be made like the movie Brazil, a bit like a wild comic, with mixed ‘intellecto-graffiti’; or maybe like a collage, a blurring mosaic: Calvino/Invisible Cities – like in the movie Illiac Passion by Markopoulos (one of my favorites).

  13. Yes Bill, I agree OTR could
    Yes Bill, I agree OTR could be a really beautiful movie.

    I work a lot with the film industry/production companies (being a broadcast producer) and have talked to a lot of small/large producers off-the-cuff about the idea. I’ve been somewhat surprised as almost everyone I’ve spoken to has read the book and at least thought about it. And almost everyone agrees you’d really have to pick and choose scenes/storylines because of all the subplots and asides within the story.

    I’ve been working on outlining a script on the side and I think no matter what way you do it, you’re going to have to leave out some important parts, just in order to make something that doesn’t run longer than 2 1/2 hours. I mean, chapters 12-13 in section 1 are about the Mexican girl. Those two sections alone (which were published as a short story before the novel) could easily be made into a movie.

    You couldn’t get into a ton of depth on many of the characters either, I think, because there are so many of them, in so many different locations, e.g. Old Bull in New Orleans, Chad King in Denver, Carlo in New York, Carlo in Denver, Aunt in Jersey, Family in NC, Dean/Mary Lou/Camille in San Fran, New Years in New York, the Opera in Denver.

    I think if you really wanted to be true to the novel and tell the whole story, you’d have to make a trilogy of movies. You’d still have to do some compressing of time, but it could be done.

    I think you could make a really incredibly interesting 2-2 1/2 hour movie that a lot of people would love because there’s so much great dialogue in the book. It would have to stray from the original storyline though. You’d just have to pick and choose your scenes/characters, suck it up and accept that no matter what you create, no matter if it won critical and box office acclaim, there would still be a lot of people who would not be happy because it wasn’t “exactly” like the book.

    Also, it would take a MASSIVE, MASSIVE budget to create, if you look at it from purely a production angle. Incredible scouting/casting/logistics/location/lighting/scheduling/weather obstacles. The thought of managing the production of OTR to me is more scary than trying to adapt the book! You’d definitely want to keep the casting costs down by staying away from big names, unless they are on board as producers too, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Going “low budget” in terms of filming techniques is an alternative, especially considering how far 24pHD cameras have come. Film is very expensive to purchase and develop/color-correct. It would be a big risk though to go completely digital.

    I have a feeling it’s going to be one of those “great movie ideas that never got made.” Hell, Coppola’s been at it for 30 years and still hasn’t been able to get it done. You know it’s tough!

  14. Experiment
    Experiment 16

    Literature and film are different things.

    Two subjects (A and B), a sample of literature, and a sample of film.

    Stimulate none of Subject A’s physical senses. Instead, require Subject A to actively absorb text and translate abstract symbols into something meaningful, drawing exclusively on his or her own life experiences. Administer five hours worth of text on an installment basis, allotted over several days or weeks. (This will ensure that Subject A’s mind has ample time to analyze and embellish.)

    In contrast, allow Subject B to sit passively for two hours while the Subject’s senses are bombarded with stimuli. Ensure that the audio-visual information has been meticulously condensed and orchestrated for maximum effect. If desired, use a musical score to enhance reactions.

    Compare the experiences of Subject A and Subject B.

    A screwdriver does not pound nails as efficiently as a hammer; nor is a hammer particularly adept at driving screws.

    One must be better than the other.


  15. “The average college student reads between 250 and 350 words per minute…” (Source: Virginia Tech)
  16. “The average length of a novel is 60,000 – 100,000 words.” (Source: Write 101)
  17. “The average film is two hours long…” (Source: Script Writing Secrets)
  18. thank you kindly, god sir.
    thank you kindly, god sir. but, seriously, you’ve got to disagree with something. anything, i’ll take up the challenge.

  19. I like your moxie, my man. I
    I like your moxie, my man. I could differ on a couple of your On the Road suggestions, but I found myself strangely attracted to the Frankenstein movie too. I wonder why…? The other thing, when I heard the word Coppola I thought “Appocalypse Now” which is the best film he ever made (equal with the Gene Hackman one). There is a great movie which actually took quite a daring reading of Heart of Darkness. In many ways, the screenwriters (of which Francis was one, no?) gave me a whole new level of understanding about the novella. Not that I agree with it all, but original thought is always good to see. Have you seen it? What thinkest…?

  20. Fight ClubYes, I said it.Film
    Fight Club

    Yes, I said it.

    Film is the ultimate art form. It isn’t always done with art in mind. But when it’s done right, film is the definitive Yesss.

    It may be easier to relate a book to yourself because it’s just words on a page. You can imagine the world that’s being described. In a film you have to accept the director’s vision of said world.

    Now, if the director does a good job, the film can spellbind you like a mofo. David Fincher took a good book (Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club) and turned it into an exceptional film. The twist in the film being one of the greatest in modern film history. Coming second only to Usual Suspects.

    That said, I don’t think it’s just a case of saying the film is better than the book or vica versa.

    There are good books and there are bad books.

    Bad books can make great films.
    Shit films can come from great books.

    As Einstein said: it’s all relative, man! (i may be paraphrasing)

  21. Hunt for Red OctoberThe Hunt
    Hunt for Red October

    The Hunt For Red October (the movie) was much better than the book. Tom Clancy wrote this on the train on his way to work, and it shows — every chapter is as long as 20-minute commute. Clancy probably watched the movie and learned how to edit the book.

  22. Movies from BooksA talented
    Movies from Books

    A talented cast and crew can make a movie that is every bit as good as the book, but there are inherent differences between writing and film that one must accept before one can enjoy a film based on a novel. Some of my favorites are “The Dead” from Joyce’s “Dubliners”, “The Hours”, “Lord of the Rings”, “1984”, “Harry Potter” (all of them), and “Orlando”.

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