Dear Jim (#27) Re: The Movie Is Always Better


Dear Jim,

It is accepted wisdom that adapting a book is a task fraught with dangers – mostly angry fans of the book who didn’t imagine the book the way the filmmaker did, often because key creatives have never read a book let alone the one they are adapting.

The wisdom, however, isn’t wise. It isn’t even vaguely true.

Take for example: The film is always better.


It’s the most general generalisation you can get. And I imagine if you are a fan of a book that got – lets say ‘rearranged’ – rearranged in the move from ink to celluloid you can almost immediately see what’s wrong with the statement: It only takes one bad adaptation from book to screen to prove the statement wrong (thank you Karl Popper). The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005), for example. Or The Golden Compass (2007). Or Jackson’s recent Hobbit trilogy.

Go ahead and apply that logic the other way. When I was coming up with that Top 40 last week, I kept spotting films based on books up there. And most are as good as the books. Lots leave the book in the shade.

Popular opinion for example does not rate Mario Puzo’s The Godfather nearly as highly as Coppola’s and to take an example not on the list  – so skipping over: Cool Hand Luke, The Hustler, The ExorcistStarship Troopers, etc… – Jaws by Peter Benchley is properly, properly terrible. Spielberg’s Jaws, on the other hand, is one of the great artworks of the 20th Century.

The book is not always better. It’s not even better often enough to make it a useful rule of thumb. Cus it’s not just bad books getting fixed on screen. Great books can be the source for great films. Fight Club is almost always the subject of intense close discussion as to whether book or film is better (the correct answer is ‘yes’), and American Psycho is basically the same thing as the book in a different format. Who out there has been disappointed by either the book or film of The Princess Bride.

Other adaptations work in concert with the book. Like Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, which is more of a dramatised and surreal ‘making of the book’ type story, than a straight adaptation, while still being thoroughly in keeping with the not-really-a-novel.

Bruce Robinson did something similar with The Rum Diary making a few changes that turned it into a bridging work between the rather straightforward book and Hunter S. Thompson’s later, more Raoul Duke-y, efforts.

Film is a great storytelling medium, every bit as rich and interesting and diverse as the written word. Assuming that moving from one to the other is a guaranteed omnishambles is daft.

So stop it. Stop repeating the flawed wisdom. Or I’ll go after something you love.

Jon out.

1 Comment

Filed under Dear Jim, The Silver Screen

One response to “Dear Jim (#27) Re: The Movie Is Always Better

  1. Yo.

    An interesting post, this, bearing in mind I’m reading it without the full knowledge of Jim’s controversial anti-film sentiments. The conclusion I’ve come to is that the best film adaptations of books recognise the limits of the medium in both directions: getting, say, a plot-centric thriller *right* on screen – Silence of the Lambs and Jaws being two excellent examples – is a whole hell of a lot easier than doing visual justice to Henry James, given how inward and syntactically dense his prose is (why on earth anyone would voluntarily read Henry James, let alone think to adapt his wearisome, upper-middle-class-worshipping tracts to the screen, is another matter entirely). I’ll admit to being a fan of those ‘adaptations’ which are more about the creative process than producing a finished product that translates the original work to screen: A Cock and Bull Story, and Adaptation being the examples that spring to my mind at the moment.* (A C & B S, in particular, works really well at mirroring the spirit of Tristram Shandy, even if it junks most of the content, and it’s a much better use of Coogan and Brydon’s talents than The Trip, which still – still – haunts me with its smugness and flatulence to this day).

    The rule for good book-to-film adaptation seems to be, there is no rule, but I would hazard a couple of guiding principles:

    Terrible books can make amazing films (cf Jaws).

    ‘Unfilmable’ books can make excellent films, if the director assumes either that only the spirit will get carried over onto screen, or that the narrative of the movie will be about the processes of failing to make a movie.

    Plot is always easier to convey visually than internalised emotion (which is why Oliver Twist translates better than Great Expectations almost every time.)

    Screen-writers who are also novelists tend to be world class (cf William Goldman, screenwriter of, among others, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men, A Bridge Too Far, Chaplin, Misery, and The Princess Bride. Quite a list, that.)


    *And I would also add American Splendour to that list: a compression of Harvey Pekar’s work, rather than an adaptation, and it serves – deliberately? – as an origins myth for Pekar’s distinctly human comic persona. Been a long time since I’ve seen it, but I remember loving it. Does rather trouble the parameters of the discussion, though.

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