Books Vs. Movies

9 minute read
Richard Corliss, Richard Schickel, Lev Grossman and Belinda Luscombe

Tis the season when Hollywood gets literate. Since the Oscar deadline coincides with New Year’s Eve and a bookish pedigree is a sure way to get Academy members’ attention, studios turn to acclaimed novels for their holiday fodder. But there’s a risk involved. Ask any reader who has seen the movie version of a favorite novel, and the answer will usually be, “The book was better.”

That’s because readers of a novel have already made their own perfect movie version. They have visualized it, fleshed out the locations and set the pace as they either zipped through the book or scrupulously savored every word. Often they have even cast it. In the late 1930s, by the thousands, readers of Gone With the Wind demanded that Southern rogue Rhett Butler be played by that damn yankee Clark Gable. Readers are a very possessive bunch. So in taking a novel from page to screen, movie adapters must tread carefully, like a new visitor at Lourdes.

Carefully but critically, for it’s simply not an option to be totally faithful to a fat novel. The movie version of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha takes 2 hr. 24 min.; reading his text could take weeks. Almost any novel’s plot must be compressed into a black hole of incident and image. Then there’s the challenge any movie faces of putting thoughts into words, emotions into gestures, descriptions into actions. And always the adapters must worry not just about satisfying those persnickety readers but also about pleasing the audience ignorant of the book.

The time has long passed when popular fiction was almost inevitably filmed by Hollywood and when, as in the 1940s, seven of the 10 Best Picture Oscar winners were based on novels. Today graphic novels inspire as many big-budget crowd pleasers as the old-fashioned unillustrated kind. Which means that somewhere someone is saying, of the Fantastic Four movie or even Sin City, “The comic book was better.”

Books don’t have to be serious to be adapted, as the many movie versions of Elmore Leonard novels attest. But since they’re often how people experience a story first, debates will always rage over the merits of each version. We’re here to add kindling to that fire. Six books, six movies, 12 constituencies. Which ones win? We’ll say, but you’ll decide.


CHALLENGES: The book detailed a seductive but alien world that the movie has to help the viewer navigate without having too much clunky exposition. The movie also has to be true to 1930s and ’40s Japanese culture while shooting mostly in California with Chinese actresses in the lead roles, and it had to find cumulative power in an episodic story stretched over two decades.

HOW THE BOOK WAS BETTER: Both a coming-of-age love story and a treatise on geisha manners and mores, the very long Arthur Golden book reveled in its very novelness. Fiction is the ideal medium for a life story. It can span generations and take lots of scenic detours, and the reader will usually stay along for the ride. A movie has to keep on truckin’ down the narrative highway.

HOW THE MOVIE IS BETTER: By skipping the hometown beginnings of the heroine Sayuri and getting briskly to her induction into geisha life, the film announces its theme quickly and smartly. It expresses in winsome or searing glances what the novel took chapters to explain. The movie offers a little sympathy and backstory to the villainess Hatsumomo by giving her a scene with the lover whom geisha rules forbade her to have. And it gives Sayuri a fabulous dance scene that shows off director Rob Marshall’s theater background.

DEFINITIVE VERSION: This one’s like choosing between fish and fowl, sushi and chicken teriyaki. But I had to work hard when I read Geisha, and I soared when I saw it, so I’ll say the movie.


CHALLENGES: Right off the bat, the screenwriters had to commit sacrilege by tinkering with a beloved children’s classic. They also had to wrestle with a strongly Christian plot that flirts with Sunday-school didacticism and had to keep kids interested despite a noticeable lack of exploding spaceships.

HOW THE BOOK WAS BETTER: Director Andrew Adamson Hollywoodizes Lion with a dreary, rote chase scene and “punches up” C.S. Lewis’ dialogue with a pair of tiresome beavers with Cockney accents who engage in sitcom-style banter.

HOW THE MOVIE IS BETTER: Whereas Lewis let World War II stay in the book’s background, the movie opens with a stark, scary shot of Luftwaffe bombers pummeling London. It’s a daring stroke that brings out the dark strata of loss and violence that lay beneath the story. Lewis also soft-pedaled the book’s climactic battle between the forces of good and evil; the movie makes it the kick-ass set piece readers have always wanted. “It’d be a crime not to show a fight between a centaur and a minotaur,” says screenwriter Christopher Markus.

DEFINITIVE VERSION: Nothing will ever touch the subtlety, mystery, power and charm of Lewis’ novel. But this Lion is still a noble beast.


CHALLENGES: Filmmakers had to consult on changes with author J.K. Rowling (who’s usually quite agreeable); appease every kid who has read, memorized and worshipped the book; put Goblet’s 734-page bulk on a severe diet that slimmed the plot without starving it; find a strong narrative line that, as director Mike Newell says, you can “hang stuff on like a necklace”; and make a movie that fit into the seven-novel structure but could stand alone as a ripping yarn. “Goblet of Fire was by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says screenwriter Steve Kloves. “It took two years to make that work–mostly trying to decide what to leave behind.”

HOW THE BOOK WAS BETTER: True Potter fans say Goblet luxuriated in fascinating detail (about Hogwarts and Voldemort lore) that the movie was obliged to ignore.

HOW THE MOVIE IS BETTER: It telescopes the book’s first 100 pages into a thrilling 20 min. The whole movie zips through the narrative like the Hogwarts Express, transporting viewers from the mundane to the magical in no time flat.

DEFINITIVE VERSION: The movie. It’s wizard!

THE ICE HARVEST — Winner: It’s a Tie

CHALLENGES: Scott Phillips’ novel was a twisty little small-town noir with a double whammy or triple-cross on every other page. Which is fine for a leisurely read, but at 24 frames a second–movie speed–that can cause whiplash. Not to mention total incomprehension. Plus the book had some gnarly violence, and it took place mostly in strip clubs. If the MPAA rated books, that one would have been NC-17.

HOW THE BOOK WAS BETTER: There’s something about a man getting stuffed into a metal footlocker or having his finger crushed in a vise or getting a shotgunful of snakeshot in the face that you can take when you read about it in a book. When you see it onscreen, in full color, 20 ft. high, it hurts more.

HOW THE MOVIE IS BETTER: For a flick about small-time crooks, Ice Harvest packs some pretty big guns. The script is by Pulitzer prizewinning novelist Richard Russo (Empire Falls) and two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart). They smoothed out and sped up the book’s curlicue plot, ratcheted down the raunch, added a couple of drama-class monologues and sweetened the book’s rather heartless surprise ending.

DEFINITIVE VERSION: It’s a dead heat. Ironically, there’s prettier writing in the movie than there was in the book. But on the other hand, the book doesn’t make you want to cover your eyes.


CHALLENGES: The film had the opposite problem of most adaptations. It had to expand an 11-page short story to feature length. The screenwriters filled out the relationships of the cowboy lovers with their wives and families. The rest author Annie Proulx made easy; much of her dialogue is included verbatim in the script.

HOW THE BOOK WAS BETTER: Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar were really rather dull fellows, and their family lives, when they were in the movie’s flatlands (which was most of the time), were drearily miserable in predictable ways. Proulx merely touched contrastingly on that quotidian aspect of their existence and kept the focus on their increasingly tormented romance.

HOW THE MOVIE IS BETTER: Proulx was a realist, not much interested in the glories of mountain landscapes. Director Ang Lee is a romantic, and his realizations of the high country where the cowboys herd sheep and fall in love have a transformative effect on the story. He makes you believe those rough, crude guys might just possibly achieve passion and tenderness in those breathtaking locales.

DEFINITIVE VERSION: Proulx’s economical epic. Her unforced, almost taciturn manner better communicated the notion that tragedy is not the sole province of the self-conscious. It can devastate the dim and inarticulate as well.


CHALLENGES: Hello? It’s only, like, one of the most acclaimed pieces of literature ever (although director Joe Wright had never read it). Those who love it love it a lot. To others, it smells a bit like homework. Not to mention that this is the third adaptation, including one of those BBC behemoths.

HOW THE BOOK WAS BETTER: It’s hard to match wits with the woman who wrote, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The movie doesn’t try. It opens on a sunrise. The book is much funnier, the dialogue much cleverer, the social satire more nuanced. Oh, and some Austenites are spitting mad because the movie ends with a kiss.

HOW THE MOVIE IS BETTER: There’s a lot more of the grit of everyday life in 18th century rural Britain that was commonplace to Austen but is new to us. Animals wander through the house. There’s mud everywhere. Also, it ends with a kiss.

DEFINITIVE VERSION: The movie. Calm down: I’m kidding. The book, of course. But is there such a thing as too much Mr. Darcy?

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