"The Book Was Better” Part 2
Regarding the prevailing attitude toward movie adaptations of books, I will contend that books are not gospel. (In the non-religious definition of the word.)
Many choose to, or unwittingly, take the stance that a story in novel form is the absolute embodiment of an author’s ideas, and therefore anything else imparting that story, which differs in the slightest, is inherently wrong. I believe this is at the root of criticism for novel adaptations. I also believe this is mistaken and I assert the book is not gospel.
As a screenwriter, one quickly learns your writing is anything but absolute. Directors will ignore and change details, actors will change lines, intentionally and accidentally, and that’s just the start of the compromises between your vision and the resulting movie. A screenwriter’s material is not gospel; it’s one interpretation of many. However, if it has a compelling story and a deep emotional draw, all those people’s changes will be made in the interest of telling the story well, even if they aren’t telling it the way you did. This is the best for which a screenwriter can hope – that all the compromises and changes made to your original work are done so in order to tell the story well. This is a notion everyone needs to bring to books.
Having also written a novel, I can see the book is not the 100% embodiment of my story either. In my mind, the settings are so vivid I could spend pages and pages describing each one, but that wouldn’t make for a good read, so I cut it down to only what you need to know to get the feel, or what elements of the setting will interact with characters, then I move on. In my mind, I have elaborate back-stories for every character, even those with only brief appearances. Again, interesting to me, I could write pages and pages on them, but again not interesting if it doesn’t affect the core story, so alas they’re largely omitted from the novel.
In my mind, I have lengths of story before the point in time at which my plot begins as well as after the novel’s plot concludes. Again, the book must have limitation in order to be a tight, moving, and engaging story, so those elements get trimmed, though many writers may save them for sequels and prequels. I suspect we’ve all begun books, which insufficiently trimmed such excess and tangents, though fewer of us have finished said books.
To me, all this is what makes it exciting to talk with, and ask questions to writers we love. If everything they possibly imagined was in their book, there would be no need or interest in asking them about their work, it would all be in the book. But the author cuts their internal story down to only the richest element. When you love a detail or character, you ask the author about it and they have much more information from the story in their mind to share, and it’s wonderful.
Thus, I maintain that the book, in itself is a derivative of a story. The only 100% accurate version of the story exits is the author’s mind, and will only ever exist there. The book is a derivative of that story, a trimmed, edited, and compromised output meant to streamline the story, to make a derived version which is the most enjoyable for reading.
Many movies adapted from books are accused of doing the same - trimming, adjusting, streamlining, and leaving out plot and details in order to tailor the story into one, compact, and well-flowing movie. I pose this is just another version of what has already taken place between the author’s mind and the book, and is no more or less valid. The format of a book being enjoyable to read requires this shaping, and the format of a movie being enjoyable to watch also requires it.
I’ll go a step further. If the author’s story only exits in its entirety within the authors mind, and that which reaches the pages of a book is a derivative of that story, what reaches the readers mind is not even that derivative. For much of what an author omits, be it back story or descriptive details, we the readers fill back in from our own imaginations and experiences. If an author chooses not to elaborately describe a mundane waiting room, because it doesn’t serve the story, we readers impose a vision comprised of all the mundane waiting rooms we’ve sat in.
Even the author cannot account for all the details we readers create for the story. The author can only hope to generally guide them. Thus, the story that reaches the readers mind is in turn a derivative of the story in the book, or (for those also versed in mathematics as I am) a second derivative of the author’s story. This is why it is also enjoyable to discuss books with fellow readers, to compare how the story is perceived given each individual’s unique profile of added details and inherently differing second derivative versions of the story.
This however poses another impossibility for adapted movies, for we cannot compare a movie to an author’s internal story, nor can we actually compare the movie to the story in a book. We can only compare a movie to the second derivative story in our minds, which is unique to only us, yet we expect the movie to live up to our vision.
The movie is also a second derivative. Derived from the book, derived from the story in the author’s mind. Besides being tailored to fit the medium of movies the best, the story’s ambiguous details now get filled in by the actors, director, wardrobe designer, set builders, computer artists, and any number of people involved with a movie’s production. Wherever these details come from, they are certain not to match the details in any given reader’s mind.
These might even come from the original author. The movie could go back to the author, ask him/her questions about all the details the author left out, or consult interviews or other writings the author composed referring to their original ideas, and then build the movie’s version of the story with those details. In such a case, one could argue the movie’s version of certain aspects of the story might be more closely accurate to the author’s story than is any given reader’s version.
Whatever the case, between the author’s internal version of the story, the book’s version, each reader’s version, and the movie version, one certainty is that no two versions will be the same. Rather than dwell on how different those differences are we should embrace those differences and relish comparing them, just like we might relish comparing thoughts with a fellow reader. Most importantly, I ask you to consider that the book is in no way necessarily more or less correct than any other version.
The book is not gospel; it’s one interpretation of many. Once you’ve accepted it, the enjoyment comes from understanding what has created the differences…
"The Book Was Better" Part 1
So many movies released these days are derivative of other materials: comic books, video games, and most often from books. Whenever movies adapted from books are released there’s an immediate wave, both in public reviews and personal exchanges, assenting that “the book was better.” In this, and the coming series of posts, I’ll analyze the pitfalls of this comparison, take a deeper look at the nature of both formats of storytelling, suggest a better way of thinking, and note some methodology for future adaptations.
I can’t and won’t defend every movie based on a book which disappoints. There are bad movies, both adapted and originals, just as sure as there are bad books that somehow get made into movies. However, as a writer of both novels and screenplays, familiar with the movie making process, I can offer a unique perspective.
I often see how what might be viewed as “missing” or “changed” by the book lover watching the movie, would have been very difficult and even more detrimental to include in the movie simply because of what movies can and cannot do well. As a result, I typically enjoy both the movie and the book, relishing the differences, rather than dwelling on them. With that in mind, I believe an adjustment to the way most people think regarding this comparison of media could bring a lot more pleasure and less aggravation to dual-media experience.
My first issue with comparing books and adapted movies is what typically carries over between the two. What elements from your first experience with the story, be it movie or book, carry over into your experience with the second?
A case study:
One of my favorite books is “The Eiger Sanction” by Trevanian. A favorite of my father’s which he introduced me to. It was published well before I was born, and years later (though still before I was born) a movie based on the book was made. It was directed by and starred Clint Eastwood, one of his early directorial efforts. I remember seeing the movie when I was very young and really enjoying it. I thought I understood why my father liked the book so much. However, at the time of the movie’s release it was shunned by many critics as “lacking the sophistication of the book’s character,” among other dismal comparisons to its root material.
It would be years later before I was old enough to actually read the novel myself. While I then found there was indeed much more to this story, character depth, subplot, etc., it didn’t make me hate the movie or change my opinion of it. I just enjoyed the book too, for what it offered different from the movie. I did notice however, that certain elements of the movie carried over into my enjoyment of the book.
In this particular example, a large part of the movie takes place while climbing a specific mountain in the Alps. The movie was filled with beautiful shots of this mountain range. Many parts of the book occur while mountain climbing, including the action filled climax, and all these were really filmed on that spectacular mountain. The setting was stunning, and the notion of all these intense scenes and conversations happening while the characters are doing complex and dangerous climbing activities was incredibly consuming. In the book, good as it is, Trevanian could not do justice to this mountain setting. That’s not a criticism, he just couldn’t pause the story to spend pages and pages detailing these impressive, towering monsters, and while he supplied enough technical climbing details for readers to understand the complexity, the film has the ability to stream the ever-present difficulty and danger, without pausing the dialog or action for a single moment.
These were the elements I brought over in my mind from the movie to the book. When Trevanian touched on the setting, I filled in the rest with the visuals from the movie, something a reader who hadn’t seen the movie could only do if they’d been to the Alps. Similarly, the duality of the plot and the separate action of climbing was always in my mind through the book, though Trevanian had to alternate between the two, again carried from the movie.
In short, the unique details of the movie carried over into my mind while experiencing the book, enhancing it, while so many who read the book first, saw only what the movie could not, or did not do. In general, very few readers it seems will bring those book details into the theater with them the way that the movie details came with me to the book.
When you read a book and find wonderfully deep characters, each with backstories, great little subplots, and you watch an adapted movie only to find all these elements have been omitted, shortened, or changed almost beyond recognition, you see only that something is missing. However, when you watch a movie, and see beautiful full settings and hear voices and see faces, if you then go read the book, often you don’t complain that the setting description is short changed, or the description of characters looks and voices are under explained. Often we just carry the movie detail over and let it shape the book we read, as we’re reading it.
Another battle movies must face is competing with ideas that are only in a reader’s mind. There are many cases when an author, in interest of keeping a story moving, must keep description brief. You don’t want to spend pages describing a room only to have a few lines of dialog and move to another location. So you give two sentences describing the room and move on, but two sentences doesn’t complete an entire room so we readers fill in the rest, filling in with details of our own choosing, and details of similar rooms we’ve been in. This makes books fun for our imaginations, but then pits movies against ideas that exist only in our minds, ideas not even the author of the book can fully account for.
As a writer of books, of course I don’t want people to wait to buy my book until after a movie is made of it, in order to watch the movie first and read the book second. No one will make a movie of a book that no one is reading, waiting for a movie instead. However, I do think we readers and viewers can enjoy both versions of a particular work, even when they might differ greatly, if we think of things a little differently and amend our expectations, and I’ll tell you how…in my next few posts.