"The Book Was Better" Part 1May 6, 2015, 12:17 PM Adaptation, Screen vs. Page, Writing
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.