Friday, March 20, 2015

The Book was Better by Jim Hart


How many times have you come away from seeing a movie that was based on a novel and said “I thought the book was better”? And really meant it?

Are you excited when one of your favorite novels has been made into a movie? Or do you, as many of us will, make up your mind that it can’t possibly be any better than the book?

When I asked my son which he liked better, World War Z, the book or the movie, he just said “they were different" and explained why.

My wife and I saw The 100 Foot Journey without reading the novel first, and we found the movie to be excellent. But does is it ruin a book for you if you've seen the movie first? I think it can be a bit of a risk - once those movie visuals have gotten into your mind.

What about Left Behind? I’ve yet to read the books, or watch the movies. (Should I be admitting this?) But I hear people much preferred the books.

The Outsiders has been credited with creating the modern YA genre. Even though I read the book years earlier, I really enjoyed the movie version. As for the Lord of the Flies – I thought the book was better.

The first book-movie combo I remember encountering was 2001, A Space Odyssey. And honestly, I have equally enjoyed both the book and the film. Maybe the film a bit more. However, in this case, it's important to note that the novel for 2001 was developed at the same time as the movie, and was actually published after the film version was released. So it may be difficult to say whether the screen visuals or the book narrative was the major contributor to the overall story, and which one carried the other. In this case, we might not have had one without the other – the movie or the film!

We all know there are authors who do an outstanding job of showing a scene without the aid of a film. Through their writing alone, our imagination yields vivid pictures – how we see the hero, what the setting looks like, and maybe even the sounds and smells. Isn’t that the goal of a great novel – to create such a strong sense of place, character and history that images from the written page settle in our mind and become memories? And sometimes they seem as real as reality itself (but not quite to the extent of the Matrix....yet).

The images and emotions conjured up by a great book stay with us for a lifetime. The adrenaline of a good movie quickly fades. Books, we treasure. Movies, we appreciate. There’s a difference.

When I saw the movie Prince Caspian, decades had passed since I last read that C.S. Lewis series. When Reepicheep first came onto the screen I let out an involuntary vocal response: “Reepicheep!”  The visual had instantly resurrected a memory and accompanying emotion, long since filed away, of that valiant little mouse. Isn’t that the power of a well written character?

While watching The Two Towers I had an even stronger reaction when, at the battle of Helms Deep, Aragorn “looked to the East, at dawn’s first light” and saw Gandalf come riding over the hill on Shadowfax. The sense of hope that was portrayed, without a word being said, nearly brought me to tears right there in the theater. In that brief nano-second, when synaptic nerves fired and chemicals were released in my brain to do their job, I simultaneously imagined what Christ will look like, and what our response will be, when He returns to finish the battle, riding on a white horse. That’s what can happen when a director does a proper job of interpreting a great scene from a great book.

Aragorn is the character that I most enjoy in the Lord of the Rings movies. He looks, speaks and fights as I had imagined when reading the book. Or maybe the visual on the screen has replaced the visual in my mind? Or maybe just enhanced it. I’m sure there’s some psychological principle that could explain it, but that would take away from the mystery and wonder of the process. I’ll just conclude that I’m satisfied with the image of Aragorn that I’ve retained, because its origin is still found on the printed page.

In the introduction to Fantasy Fiction into Film: Essays, Leslie Stratyner and James Keller write “changes to the written text in a screen adaptation are not undesirable. The film text is not another edition of the original, but a distinctive art from that involves a unique set of priorities and requirements.”

So there you have it. Not better, just different.

Although I still think the book was better.


Jenny McLeod Carlisle said...

Very thought provoking, Jim. I read Gone With the Wind first, but was impressed with the amount of detail that came through in the movie. Though the book was still better, I have noticed something new each time I have watched that old classic again

Jim Hart said...

Thanks! I think I got carried away with this blog! But the more I thought about how a good book translates into film, it sort of took over.It comes down to story, doesn't it?

Linda Glaz said...

Absolutely, without the good story, what do they have to work with? Sometimes I like the movie better and sometimes the book. I'm not sure it's fair to compare Christian books with Christian movies yet. The movies are still trying very hard to come into their own. They don't have the money behind them that secular movies do, but their time is coming!

Jim Hart said...

Very true. And as a further example - it's taken decades for the technology needed to pull off The Lord of the Rings movies to be developed. I thought the movie "God's Not Dead" was a decent attempt. But it was probably embraced much more by the Christian audience. The story was ok but pretty predictable. It will be interesting to see how the new movie "Do You Believe" fares. Hopefully they've been able to marry strong story, strong dialogue and strong acting. And yes, a strong budget also helps!

Terry Burns said...

Also movies have 20-30k to tell a story that a writer had 90-100k to do. Then there are movies that contain specific lessons for writers such as "Sixth Sense," "Death Trap," Murder 101," "Delirious" and quite a few others. I collect movies that I think have specific applications to writers.

Diana Flegal said...

Ha, I remember watching a movie once and saying- "Hey, that is not how it happened in real life!" My friend asked me if I had heard myself. The movie was based on a fiction book I had read.

So I guess sometimes I am disappointed. There have been movies that have made me want to read the book as well.

Reepicheep is a favorite character of mine as well Jim. I bought the box set of the books for my nephew this Christmas and it made me want to go back and reread them all.

Patricia Zell said...

Because I absolutely hate writing descriptions, I decided to write my stories as screenplays. As I'm in the process of rewrites of five screenplays, I understand why people often say the book is better. Novelists spend a lot of time developing both descriptions and the emotional environment within and outside their characters. That's the beauty of novels.

Screenplays are totally different in that what is written has to be visual and not boring. Most screenplays are under two hours (120 pages), so novels that are adapted are, by definition, going to lose a lot of detail as the transition is made. And, sometimes events from the novel have to be combined or changed to make the film workable.

Since I started writing my screenplays, I often find myself thinking how a novel could be adapted into a film as I'm reading. I'm aware that many novels basically are stories of emotion and thoughts--there has to be enough visual actions to fill two hours of film. For novelists who want to have their novels adapted, here's something to think about: if you take out all of the scenes where people are feeling or talking about their feelings, do you have 120 pages of actions?

Perhaps we need to change our criteria and instead of comparing the two formats, we should enjoy the depth that both bring to a story.

Jim Hart said...

Great thoughts by all! I loved Terry's insight: "movies have 20-30k to tell a story that a writer had 90-100k to do." I guess we read (and write) books because there is absolutely no other experience that can match the wonder of how words are put together in a way that touches us as no other experience can.

And the same can be said for great movies - a stunning visual and a well delivered dialogue also touch us in ways that sometimes words alone can't. Have you ever been to a movie where the audience barely stirred because they were so engaged in the story and how it was being played out before them?

Terry Burns said...

Yes, I'm well aware of the difference as I have been asked to take two screenplays and write a companion book. That meant adding a lot of word count, description, fleshing out characters, etc. One movie, Footprints, has been made and is an excellent Christian movie.

Debra said...

An interesting post, Jim, and lots of great discussion afterwards. I especially like Patricia's comment about taking out all the description to see what's left. Seeing a movie first doesn't not ruin my enjoyment of reading the book later, and most of the time I can equally enjoy both.

I'd say comparing a movie to the book is like comparing a VW Beetle to a Cadillac.

Terry Burns said...

How about this? Does it make a difference if you see the movie before or after you read the book? It does for me. If I read the book and form visualizations of the characters and settings and the movie is not at all what I pictured it kinda bothers me. On the other hand if I see the movie first I tend to use the actors and setting from the movie as I visualize it - then the book tends to enhance and expand on the movie version. Unless, of course, the casting for the movie greatly differs from the book.