The Movie Was Okay, but the Book…

My wife went to the movies with a church group last week and saw Noah. When asked how it was, she responded, “Not bad. But the book was better!” How many times have those of us who love to read told someone that? I can remember the first time I did. I was in third grade, in 1959, and a film version of Jules Verne’s JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was all the rage. It starred Pat Boone as Alec (who, in the book, was named, uh, “Axel”) and was great. It wasn’t however, as good as the book. And so it usually goes. Reading requires that the reader use their imagination, even when the character is described to a crossed-t. My idea of what Jack Reacher looks like isn’t going to match yours, or, apparently, Christopher McQuarrie’s. That’s fine; it’s neither the best nor the worst example. Sometimes the reader — me, in this case — is wrong; I never imagined Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark and thought casting him in Iron Man would cause the film to be a dud. Wrong. He was perfect.
I’ve been thinking about this because my younger daughter is in the middle of a short film project for her Photography class and has chosen to adapt a Kurt Vonnegut short story.  She is soldiering on in spite of all sorts of difficulties: the weather isn’t cooperating; her original choice for the male lead had a hissy fit and backed out (D.R., you’re on a Father’s List. Just so you know); she couldn’t quite get the equipment she wanted. She’ll get it done, and it will be good — great actually — but she is shooting as close to the story, word for word, as the medium will permit. We’ll see how it all works out.
All of this leads to my question for you, which is: what is your favorite film adaptation of a novel? I have a few: my friends might be surprised when I list the adaptation of Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, but and might not be when I mention Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. The one that really did it for me, however, was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep — the first one, directed by Howard Hawks — which I watched one summer morning on television when I was six years old and which planted the seed of love of detective fiction in my brain, long before I discovered The Hardy Boys or ever saw the knowing leer of Shell Scott on the cover of a Gold Medal paperback.  What’s yours? And if you wish, please tell us why.

48 thoughts on “The Movie Was Okay, but the Book…

  1. Considering the book in the case of Noah (well, the relevant parts) is barely 20 paragraphs long, the starting statement is bizarre. I don’t think, the statement “the book is better” is more than bias in most cases, this being an extreme one.
    That being said, I go with the Russian movie adaptation of Solaris for the final question.

    • Thomas, my wife’s statement was a bit of light-hearted repartee. Any failure in communicating that should be regarded as mine.

      Solaris is an interesting choice. I will have to hunt that up and watch it again.

    • But is that the point Joe’s making here? We are biased to the one our imagination most connects with. A short story in form turns into a full novel in the mind of the one who sees. Bias for sure, based on the image we prefer.

  2. I believe Mrs. Hartlaub was simply trying to make her husband smile. We wives are like that.

    What’s the one where the lawyer asks the jury to close their eyes and imagine the child was white? Can’t even remember the author, at the moment, and I loved both the book and the movie. A Reason to Kill?

  3. I don’t want to be boring and predictable; well, actually I do. For me one of the best adaptations, by an industry that usually butchers king’s novels, is The Shawshank Redemption.Everything about it is just right. From the chosen players, the pacing to the final ending. Perfect.

    • Roger, I get away with boring and predictable on a daily basis, though your choice is anything but. I’m with you on The Shawshank Redemption, a movie which respects the audience of the source material, not to mention the creator. Thanks.

  4. JAWS the book scared the you-know-what out of me, and so did the movie. I never believed that anyone could adapt LORD OF THE RINGS into a movie, but Peter Jackson did a great job IMHO. And THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL worked for me in both media.

    • Great choices, Joe. I thought Gregory Peck was just perfect in THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. He makes you believe that he is Josef Mengele and forget that he is Gregory Peck. Certainly it’s an actor’s job but it’s a tough task to pull off.

  5. “The Indian in the Cupboard.” Some may view this as bordering on sacrilegious, but I liked the movie better than the book. I thought the movie did a better job of developing the relationship between the boy and the Indian.

    • Y’know, Eric, I totally forgot about that movie which I took my older daughter to back in the day. I saw the movie first, and enjoyed it, and then was disappointed by the book. Cue the rending of garments.

  6. Joe, I’m glad you asked the question for the movie version we liked. My list of the ones I didn’t like is long. I’m with Joe Moore on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of LOTR. I also like John Hawkesworth’s adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories with Jeremy Brett — the real Sherlock.

    • Lance, we aim to please, though we usually miss! I’ll have to check out Jeremy Brett as Sherlock…I was raised on Basil Rathbone’s interpretation. Thanks!

    • I totally agree with you on Basil Rathbone. No one else can cut in as Sherlock in my opinion. That goes double for David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. I have seen other actors and though they may be good, they are not nearly as convincing!

  7. I’ll add a couple:

    Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (the movie was tight and tense; the book just the opposite)

    Jaws: Ditto what Joe said. Flabby book that became great story when Spielberg jettisoned the subplots.

    Bridges of Madison County. Really insipid book transformed by good actors.

    The Exorcist. Good book but stellar adaptation!

    The Godfather. Puzo’s book is good but kinda pulpy. Coppola transformed it into Greek tragedy.

    • Seconding the Bridges of Madison County – I thought the book was awful but the movie was pretty good thanks to Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood:)

    • I’m kind of outside the Bridge demographics (I think I got dragged to the movie when I was at a stage in life when I let myself get dragged to things). Did you know it was made into a musical as well?
      Re: The Godfather…I love the book, worship the movie. Thanks for reminding me.

  8. Seconding Kris’s votes for The Exorcist and The Godfather. Also To Kill A Mockingbird. I wouldn’t be able to decide whether the book or film was better. Both were perfect.

    • I also find it hard to choose between the film and the book for To Kill a Mockingbird. Both were excellent.

    • Joe, it’s interesting to note that while Gregory Peck played Dr. Josef Mengele (The Angel of Death) in THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL and Sir Laurence Olivier played Ezra Lieberman, the man who tracked Mengele down, Olivier then switch roles and planed Dr. Christian Szell (The White Angel) inspired by the real life Mengele in MARATHON MAN. Peck and Olivier were monster actors.

    • Joe, I’m glad you circled back to remind us all of MARATHON MAN. William Goldman — who wrote that novel, as well as its screenplay and a number of other screenplays and books mentioned here — wrote a sequel to MARATHON MAN titled BROTHERS. I am the only person I know who has read it; I love it as much as I do its predecessor, for totally different reasons. You should take a look at it if you haven’t already.

  9. John Huston’s adaptation of Dashiel Hamett’s “The Maltese Falcon” was as perfect a screen adaptation as I’ve ever seen. I read it on a bus trip home from Yosemite and wasn’t aware of the movie (I was a teen with so much to learn) but when I saw it, it exactly matched my mental images – down to Mary Astor and Bogie and Sidney Greenstreet. Mood, atmosphere, settings, everything. Still one of my all-time favorites.

    I had a long discussion with some friends about “The Lord of the Rings” that helps illustrate the point. The movie is good, the book obviously much better. BUT – There’s the story – then there’s the way a book can tell a story, and the way a movie can tell it. And Peter Jackson’s movie tells the story about as well as a movie can tell it. (Except in the “Two Towers” – there was no reason to make stuff up, and by cutting “The Scouring of the Shire” at the end Jackson showed he didn’t understand what the story really was about.) But other than that, the movie did a great job AS A MOVIE.

    • John, one of the many pluses of the current trend in television toward extended episode dramatic series is that a work such as the Rings trilogy can at least theoretically be presented in an extended form which permits a fuller exploration of an epic work without the time constraints inherent in a theatrical release. As I write this, my daughter is upstairs watching an episode of A GAME OF THRONES. I don’t think you could compress that canon, singly or collectively, into a two hour film release. In its present form, in 13 hour bites, it does very well. I wonder if someone would like to take on the Rings trilogy for television in a similar manner?

  10. I agree with The Shawshank Redemption and Jaws. I’ll add The Firm, which I thought had a much more clever ending in the movie version. Another I’ll toss in is Diehard, which many people don’t know was a first a novel called Nothing Lasts Forever.

    • Toss away, Boyd! Love Die Hard, which holds up very well over repeated viewings. It is a classic film in its genre — many films that followed it were pitched by reference, to wit, “Under Siege 2” (“Die Hard” on a train) and “Speed” (“Die Hard” on a bus), to name but two.

  11. For me it has to be The Princess Bride. The author also wrote the screenplay (as well as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) so it’s not surprising that the movie is faithful to the source material. Both the book and movie are fantastic and hold up very well today. It’s one of those stories for the ages and one that will resonate for generations.

    • Can’t agree on Princess Bride. Loved the movie, I light, lovingly told fairytale, framed by Peter Falk as the grandfather. But when I read Goldman’s book, I was stunned by the misanthropic world view. Gone was the dotring grandpa. In his place was the author telling the story almost as if he was trying to escape the ugliness of his reality, with a wife who seemed to hate him and a son he hated. The fairy tale story was mostly there, but setting it in that jaded frame made the whole thing mean spirited and kind of ugly. I LOVE the movie, and after reading that book I loved the movie even more, because the book was so unpleasant.

  12. Joe–
    I no longer think there’s much point in asking the question (book vs film based on the book). If a film succeeds, it almost certainly has little if anything to do with the book. And when it fails, the same is true. I would say, though, that when I really enjoy a book, the odds are poor that I’ll like the film. It will be someone else’s interpretation and it will, ahem, not be anywhere near as good as mine.

    • I take your point, Barry, though what happens if, for example, the author of the book and the screenwriter are the same person? While the script isn’t the only element in what can make or break a film adaptation, it can be a contributing factor. An example: I never cared much for film adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s work. Then came JUSTIFIED, which almost perfectly captured Leonard’s Raylan as well as the mood of the short story and novels. I see the relationship between the media as symbiotic… when it works, anyway. Thanks for your thoughts!

  13. I agree with the Shawshank Redemption and I would also add The Green Mile to that. The acting was stellar, but I must admit to being a big fan of Tom Hanks. I thought both were excellent and I am also a huge Stephen King fan.

    • Rebecca, King has never been shy about expressing his opinions regarding the film adaptations of his work, and one of his favorite directors is Mick Garris. Mick has an enviable track list which includes the made-for-TV version of THE SHINING, which King much preferred over Kubrick’s interesting but somewhat ham-handed adaptation. You might check it out if you haven’t already. And I’m a big King fan too! I still read MISERY once a year.

  14. Probably the movie Adaptation comes closest. I thought they did a good job with The Shining. Certainly, the book was better, but hey. I enjoyed the movie version of Last of the Mohicans, with all that running through the forest. The Godfather was a good adaptation. Perfect Storm was a winner.

    • I love the concept of ADAPTATION, Jim, which in concept puts me in the mind of an Escher piece. Interesting choice. I couldn’t finish LAST OF THE MOHICANS in school but picked it up again after watching the film. Thanks for stopping by again!

  15. I’m with Joe Moore on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaption. On first viewing of Fellowship I had same spine tingling as reading favourite excerpts… ok there were scenes missing, liberties etc but that’s the nature of remediation.

    Others that people mention like Shawshank Redemption – Top Five movie here – I sadly have yet to read the book, so shame on me.

  16. Re: “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” Roland, be of good cheer…you have a great experience ahead of you that those of us who have read King’s novella will never have again: reading it for the first time. Enjoy.

  17. I’ve I neither read the books nor seen the movies, David, but the popularity of the movies with the legions of faithfuls, including yourself, pretty much says it all. I wonder if somewhere down the road someone will attempt to revive the franchise? Who knows, it may be like THE WIZARD OF OZ and just keep on rolling.

  18. Darn tough to compete with the Bible! My favorite movie adaptation was The Help. I thought they did a great job of bringing most of the greatness to the big screen. Of course, still not as good as the book 🙂

    • Julie, I happened to be in Louisiana when THE HELP was released and the theaters were packed, folks standing in line to see it. My somewhat impromptu, unscientific survey indicated that many of them were white women who had been essentially raised in their childhood homes by black housekeepers. And the book? Local booksellers couldn’t keep it in stock. Great example.

  19. I whole heartedly agree with Shawshank, but I also want to throw in there the movie Stand By Me based on Kings story The Body. The movie takes what King wrote and in many cases has a different character speak the words on the screen.

    • Lorne, my sons loved that movie and were delighted when they discovered (through me) that it was based on King’s novella. They’ve both been fans of King since. Thanks!

  20. I’ll nominate “The African Queen” as a movie that was equal to if not better than the book. Bogie and Hepburn= cinematic magic.

    Now if they could only get one of CS Forester’s Hornblower novels properly done on screen. 🙁

  21. I agree with the comments regarding Bridges of Madison County and To Kill A Mocking Bird. The other classic that was made into a great film was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. Hollywood tends to do better, as a rule, with books that are not as well written.

    I recall seeing Bonfire of the Vanities and being so disappointed.

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