Posts Tagged ‘ Book vs. Movie ’

Was the Book Better?

I have compared books to their movie versions a few times on this blog, and of course that topic comes up pretty often in conversation. The universal conclusion that I hear from everyone is “the book is [almost] always better than the movie”. Although I agree with their sentiment, I don’t actually think that it’s true. Here’s my explanation.

It is true that when a movie adapts a book, it’s almost always a disappointment compared to the original. But it’s also pretty common for people to write novelizations of movies. No one ever says “Yeah, Back to the Future was a good movie. But the book was so much better!” I remember, as a kid, finding a book version of Ghostbusters years before seeing the movie, but even though I read it first there was never any doubt that the movie was better. These days, movies often have comic adaptations instead of prose novels, but no one is talking about how the graphic novel of Django Unchained is the real masterpiece.

Your first reaction is probably to dismiss those examples by saying that those books don’t count. We don’t take novelizations of movies seriously. But that’s my point. We don’t take them seriously because the movie came first. Instead of saying “the book is always better”, we should be saying “the original is always better”.

Every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, and almost no good works are going to translate easily into another medium. When someone tries, they’re likely to be hobbled by the need to “feel like” the original or please its fans, and they’re also more likely to be motivated by money than the original creator. In those rare cases where a movie does surpass a book, it’s almost always because the creators of the movie were confident and free enough to turn it into their own thing.

This rule is true for just about any creative medium you can imagine, and it does always work both ways. Video games based on movies are usually unimpressive cash-ins, for example, but it’s also the case that movies based on video games are consistently awful. The important thing to remember is that one medium is not inherently better than another. Instead, a fundamental truth of the creative process is that you get the best results when you’re not trying to duplicate something else.

Cormac McCarthy – No Country For Old Men (Book Review)

No Country For Old Men cover

Cormac McCarthy – No Country For Old Men

Cormac McCarthy is a strange author: Justly lauded by the most sophisticated people in the literary community, he writes taut, engrossing books that are also perfect for the sporadic reader to take along once a year on an airplane flight. If you like seeing the lines blurred between “high” and “low” art, he may be the best example you can find. His unique quirks (a lack of quotes in contractions and dialog, with long scenes driven by evocative dialog without other descriptions) work as both a formalist experiment and a way to keep the story focused on visceral events without slowing down for introspection.

This is especially evident in No Country For Old Men, which is structured so perfectly as a thriller that the Coen Brothers later made it into a movie with almost no changes. It is a testament to the book that nearly every scene calls to mind vivid memories of a film I saw once over five years ago. (Also, a testament to the Coen Brothers and their actors that such vivid memories were there to be summoned in the first place.) It’s the story of Llewelyn Moss, a good ol’ Texan boy who stumbles upon the aftermath of a multi-million dollar drug deal gone bad. He takes the money and goes on the run. The story is split mainly between the viewpoints of Moss, the psychopathic Anton Chigurh, and sheriff Ed Tom Bell. No Country is unapologetically realistic, with Moss’ hopes for survival resting on his no-nonsense aptitude for guns and DIY repairs, and Sheriff Bell sadly putting everything he sees in the terms of escalating gang wars.

The difference between the book and the movie is in their focus. The Coen Brothers, with their love of violence and exaggerated characters, lavished attention on Chigurh. A man who dispassionately murders everyone around him but holds to an unexplained code, he executes victims with a tool designed for cattle and treats his own wounds with veterinary equipment. In McCarthy’s book, though, Chigurh is less his own man and more of a symbol for the devastation strewn by the drug war. This starts out as a thrilling crime novel, but as the plot moves forward, it becomes more about Sheriff Bell and his conviction that this is a preordained tragedy.

The Coens didn’t know what to do with Bell, and left him a cipher similar to the cowboy in The Big Lebowski. This left me very confused when watching the movie, since the title comes from Bell’s worries about the world changing for the worse. I remember thinking that there were important hidden messages behind his speech near the end, but I couldn’t figure them out. It turns out that they were meant to be taken at face value, but just seemed confusing since the movie had abridged them so much and essentially removed his detailed thesis.

This attitude is what makes the book so great. Bell is an amazing character, trying to keep his community safe while sadly admitting that he’s only alive because he’s too ineffective to be worth killing. On the surface, he sounds like every crusty old man who thinks the world is going to hell, but the words McCarthy puts in his mouth are very convincing, especially in the context of Moss and Chigurh’s story. I could quibble (violent crime is actually declining, and the terrifying Chigurh isn’t a realistic character), but mostly I just found myself wishing Bell were a real person I could talk to.

This is a depressing novel. By way of comparison, the only other McCarthy work I’ve read is The Road; Many people find that depressing, but I think it’s about the perseverance of human goodness even in the worst of times. In contrast, No Country for Old Men is about the unstoppable rise of evil in our world. Even if McCarthy stacks the deck to demonstrate his point, it weaves an inescapably somber spell over the reader.

It’s a great book, though. A complete thriller, a powerful message, and interesting character portraits are all crammed into one novel that reads faster than most books that try to do half of all that. Not a single word feels wasted: Though McCarthy’s dialog sets scenes of languorous Texans taking their time with life, every word also feels like it’s propelling the story and its themes forward. This book is a classic. A surprising, depressing classic that draws you in on false promises of a fun heist story, but it’s nonetheless classic for all that.

Grade: A


Let the Right One In (Movie Review)

Let the Right One In DVD cover

Let the Right One In

After reading Let Me In (a.k.a. Let the Right One In), I watched the movie. To begin, I should confess that I had the version with the “bad” subtitles. You may remember this: A few years ago, every horror fan and every cinephile were up in arms over the fact that this Swedish movie was screened with one set of subtitles and then released with different ones that missed the subtleties. This has since been fixed, but you need to be careful about which one you pick up. I’ve seen enough examples online to agree that the version I saw is definitely weaker. However, I don’t think that would have sufficiently changed my opinion of this. Ironically, the complaints about the new subtitles missing losing the depth are similar to what people point out when they say the book was better. Having just read the novel, and admittedly dealing with the subtle erosion of meaning that I’ll have with any foreign movie, I think that my own internal narrative would have had to fill in most of the same gaps with either set of subtitles.

This movie definitely does have gaps that need filled. It’s a very faithful adaptation, cutting out many parts for time but keeping what it can almost identical to the source material. While I miss a lot of the parts they removed, it was an admirable job of paring the story down to its core. However, maybe it needed to be simplified further. There still didn’t seem to be time to establish characters and relationships, with the early stages of Oskar and Eli’s relationship feeling especially arbitrary. Worst of all, Håkan (Eli’s handler) has his story abridged so much that he ends up feeling unexplained and unnecessary. While I really think that the triangle between him, Eli, and Oskar should have remained part of the fundamental story, this movie would have been better off eliminating him completely than in keeping the fragments that it did.

Other than cutting things out, about the only changes this makes to the story are to fit the remaining fragments together as smoothly as possible. The actual modifications are so rare as to be notable, and are generally good character moments in existing scenes. (A little event in the final scene, for example, as well as Eli’s reaction when being offered candy.) As much as I loved the book, I wish the movie had tried to change more. Different mediums require different stories, and following the original so closely guarantees that the new version can be judged only by whether it’s a good copy or not.

Beyond the story, the movie is decent but not spectacular. The sets and direction create a sparse, bland world. It was probably intended, as it conveys a very mundane life interrupted by horror, but it adds to the feeling that this movie doesn’t flesh out everything that the viewer should know. The acting is generally good, but a lot of key scenes, especially with children, involve unnatural delays. These are awkward silences, not pregnant pauses, such as everyone standing around for a couple seconds after someone is hit and THEN suddenly acting startled. Also, Eli feels frustratingly human all the time, without the cues she should be providing, or even the isolated air that defines her character. However, as Oskar and Eli’s relationship progresses, their scenes together are poignant and effective. Coming from child actors, this is especially notable. Fortunately for the movie, this means that the scenes near the end are the strongest, and therefore the ones that everyone will remember afterwards.

I can only judge Let the Right One In from my perspective, which leaves me surprised that it felt like a fully-realized story to people who weren’t familiar with the book’s details. It’s still unique, though, and has many powerful moments. I’m still glad I read it first.

Grade: C+


The Postman Always Rings Twice (Movie Review)

Movie poster for The Postman Always Rings TwiceAfter enjoying James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, I watched the 1946 movie version of it. There have been other adaptations, but this is generally regarded as the best. After watching it, I’m not sure why. If anything, it gave me a twisted sort of relief to know that Hollywood was ruining books even back then.

The contrast between the book and the movie is evident right away. The novel begins with Frank Chambers getting thrown out of a truck, trying to steal food, and ending up with a job after ascertaining that his new boss is a sucker with a hot wife. Portrayed in the movie by John Garfield, Chambers is a neatly-dressed man who just walks up to a restaurant to take a job. His only nod to character building is an awkward speech about how his “wandering feet” might not let him stay.

Lana Turner plays Cora Smith, not Cora Papadakis. The movie took out the racial elements probably not out of concern for Greek sensibilities, but to avoid a mixed-race relationship. Her husband Nick was defined almost entirely by this in the book, and actor Cecil Kellaway was left with no material to build a character with. He’s a foolish pushover with no clear motivations, and the heavily character-based drama suffers for it.

Ironically, the attempts to clean the characters up actually make them seem like worse people. With the mistakes of Cora’s past removed, her marriage made bland, and her new affair equally passionless, her only apparent motivation for murder is to move up in the world.

It’s understandable that the studio would want to make this movie palatable for a mass audience, but the book was a success because of its sleazy characters and raw passion. Without that, there wouldn’t be much reason for it to exist. The resulting movie is solidly within our expectations for a film of the 1940’s. I understand why it was popular then, but it hasn’t aged well at all. It’s stilted, self-censored, and features a few baffling mistakes. (For example, the D.A. tries to break Frank by referencing an event that had happened in the book but had been omitted from the movie.) The novel, despite being over a decade older, has aged wonderfully due to its focus on believable characters.

There’s nothing wrong with a work being of its time. Most of the things I review positively, for example, will be less interesting ten years from now. I would expect a reviewer then to judge them fairly based on the standards of that time. By the same reasoning, there’s really no reason left to watch The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Grade: D


Fight Club (Book Review)

Fight Club cover

Fight Club

After reading Noise, I really wanted to try Fight Club. Both stories are nominally wish fulfillment tales about violent young men, but neither actually intends for you to root for them all the way through. Strangely, even though Fight Club is one of the best movies of the last generation, I’d never read the book. It was interesting to read something that was so familiar in some ways (almost all of the voice-overs and speeches are lifted verbatim from the novel), but new in others. I haven’t had an experience like this since I read the novel version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest more than a decade ago. But where the Cuckoo’s Nest book immediately supplanted the movie for me, the movie version of Fight Club is still definitely my favorite. There is little if anything of import in the book that the movie didn’t also cover, and the prose never put me there in the same visceral way that the movie did. (In contrast, the text in Cuckoo’s Nest offered much that the movie was missing, and its incredible prose was even better than the movie’s acting.)

That’s not to say that the book wasn’t still good. With most of the movie’s text and plot coming from it, how could it not be?

From this point on, there are spoilers for the story.

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