I just got through reading Fay Weldon’s 1983 feminist “classic”, The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, and it got me to thinking about revenge pictures. But then I started thinking about how the Meryl Streep/Roseanne Barr movie had little to do with it, and while basically forgettable, was almost certainly a better time than the nihilistic power-fantasy of the book. Like, I don’t remember the movie much, and if I were casting it from the descriptions in the book I’d be casting Jessica Lange or Jane Seymour across from Geena Davis (in 1988), or Kristin Bell and Gwendoline Christie today, but I do remember being pleasantly surprised by Streep’s comedy chops (normally I can’t stand her) and Barr’s sympathetic portrayal.
The book is not funny; it’s not fun. The number one word used to describe it is “wicked” and I tend to agree that that fits, if we emphasize more the medieval qualities of the word and less the modern campiness. In short, the book wasn’t better.
Which is a topic someone had brought up on Twitter recently: The book is always better, right? No, not even close. Insofar as you’re comparing apples and oranges, you can certainly measure the impact of a movie versus a book, and perhaps more importantly your own experience of the two. One need not look farther than Alfred Hitchcock to see an entire catalog of movies that were better than the books.
For example, just prior to She Devil I had read Psycho, which is fine, solid book that the movie hews surprisingly close to—and which is a footnote in horror history compared to the movie. I mean, I could read it again easily—it’s a brisk 150 pages—but I almost can’t believe I won’t see the movie several more times in my life. Alongside The Exorcist, it typically ranks as the greatest horror movie of all time. It isn’t something I necessarily agree with, personally, but if we’re measuring impact, Psycho is the grandfather of every slasher movie for the past 60 years. And speaking of The Exorcist, is the book better? Maybe. But it also has nowhere near the impact of the movie, which is the grandfather of every possession move of the past 45 years.
Sometimes a movie follows the book very closely and comes out better, for whatever reason. I enjoyed Silence of the Lambs as a book, but was surprised at how little it added to the movie. I had heard that it goes more into the motivations and psychology of the two serial killers, but when reading it, I didn’t really get the sense I knew them any better. (By contrast, the book Psycho plays a lot more with Norman Bates’ psychology as part of justifying its unforunately-forever-spoiled-shock-ending.) Lambs is one of the great movies, but is Thomas Harris’ book going to join the canon of great books? Some classic noir exmaples: Double Indemnity practically reads like a screenplay for the Billy Wilder movie but I’d rather watch the movie. Laura minus a few twitchy details is fine but nowhere near the classic the film is.
Sometimes a movie follows the book and improves on it by leaving out things that wouldn’t work in filming, but also are awful. The Godfather famously contains chapters devoted to one of the girl’s search for a penis that can fill her cavernous vagina. Jaws wisely leaves out the soap opera sexual dalliances and focuses on The Shark. Never Cry Wolf makes its main character likable—a tactic used by Jurassic Park, I’m told, and by many movie producers smart enough to realize hating someone for two hours doesn’t usually make for big box office.
Sometimes a book switches up quite a few things but manages to convey both the essence of the novel and qualities of the director to make something epic. Wizard of Oz has many of the qualities of the first book, in terms of tone and setting, though it diverges in a lot of major ways. (The Oz series is also wildly inconsistent from book to book.) Hayao Miyazaki manages to really capture the flavor of Howl’s Moving Castle while ultimately giving us something pure Miyazaki. I have to re-watch Hitchcock’s The Vanishing Lady—the movie that brought him to the attention of Hollywood—to decide if it falls into that category, because the novel is one of the greatest thrillers I have ever read. The many, many versions of the novel Dracula tend to fall into this category, which could be a topic unto itself. Ready Player One is probably best left unmentioned.
And then sometimes a movie is so superficially connected to the book, it’s just a different thing. A classic example of this would be Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining which borrows everything from the Stephen King book except plot, atmosphere and characterizations. It’s also up there alongside of Psycho and The Exorcist on greatest-of-all-time lists. It is said that Philip Dick wept when he saw Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner because it was so exactly what he envisioned, but the script wasn’t even originally based on the novel, it shares none of the plot points, and the central thesis of the book, if actually applied to the movie, renders the movie a muddle. Still, it’s one of the greatest and most influential sci-fi films of the ’80s—though possibly just due to set design.
The Howling is a fairly typical ’70s horror paperback turned into a fun and campy practical effects spectacle, and there are many, many cases of so-so books being turned into so-so movies where the only connection between the two is mediocrity. What is perhaps most interesting is that following the book faithfully or abandoning it completely has no apparent bearing on the final quality, except to disappointed fans of the book.
What films do you love that exceed the book in some ways?
4 thoughts on “The Book Wasn’t Better”
Contact. The novel shows some growing pains as Carl Sagan tackles writing science fiction for the first and last time. The movie cuts all that away to focus on the core of the story.
I think you can throw most of Philip K. Dick’s works into this category. I love his work, but the movies are usually better movies and his stories are definitely better as stories.
We Can Remember It For You Wholesale turned into Total Recall and I think the actual story would have been a terrible movie. Probably the best example is Next, which featured a mute & brainless person with precognition. It wasn’t a great movie, but could you imagine a movie where the protagonist is a cop trying to catch this amazing man with fantastic powers… who escapes and will eventually out-breed the human race?
Dick’s stories are fantastic stories, but they’re definitely better as inspiration for movie scripts at best.
The entire Game of Thrones series of books are much better on the screen than on your Kindle. The books are smothered in detail about flags, clothing, meals, house history, geography and jewelry. Every time three or more people walk through a door, you get two pages describing their outfits.
I think most of Philip K. Dick’s work falls into this category. His stories are good inspiration for movie scripts, but would not translate well to the big screen as they are written. They’re excellent science fiction with original concepts! But the story wrapped around the concepts aren’t good movie material.
Nick Cage’s vehicle Next was based on The Golden Man and while not a great movie, it was a lot better than the original story. Would you want to see a movie about a mute precog with no mind, merely reflexes? One who escapes at the end to go forth and impregnate all the women?