Monday, March 5, 2012

Books vs. Movies

The adaptation of books has always been a part of movie making. As far back as 1903, when the first adaptation of Alice in Wonderland was made, filmmakers have looked to the literary realm for inspiration. It makes sense. You take a story people are already familiar with and present it to them in a new medium, chances are they'll want to see it.

The relationship between books and film continues to this day, and in fact is probably stronger than ever. Think about some of the biggest film franchises of the past decade: The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Twilight, as well as the superhero movies based on comic book characters such as Batman and Spider-man. Even this year, the first two big tentpole films of the summer are John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' books, and The Hunger Games.

It's a trend that's never going to stop so long as it continues to be profitable. Something that invariably comes with film adaptations is a comparison to the source material, and I've been thinking about it a lot lately.

There are basically three ways a film can be viewed: better than the book, worse than the book, or as good as. Of course it's all subjective, but most films are viewed in general according to these terms. In my own experience, I find that the source I view first, be it the book or the film, tends to be my preferred version, with a few exceptions. Below are some examples.

The book was better than the film:

This is probably the most common, especially when I've read the books first. There's just something special about discovering a character on your own, about taking the author's words and creating the look and feel of a world without any other influence. The best example I can think of is Harry Potter. While the films were good, and they got better as the series progressed, they simply couldn't compete with the books. This has much to do with the time constraints placed on a movie and its inability to include all the minutia of the book. But it also has to do with JK Rowling's incredible writing ability.

What bothers me most about the Harry Potter films isn't what they took out of the movie, it's what they added to it. (The Burrow burning scene in Half-Blood Prince comes to mind.) For some reason this really bugs me in Harry Potter, but not as much in other stories. The world of Harry Potter was and is one of my favorite literary places to visit, and while I can say they did an excellent job with the cast for the movies, it's a little sad to me that future readers will likely be picturing Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson as they read, instead of creating the characters' likenesses in their own minds.

The film was better than the book:

This usually occurs when I've watched the movie first. The first two examples that come to mind are Stardust and How To Train Your Dragon. In the case of Stardust, the filmic world had a more enchanting feel to it, and Tristan's journey seemed much more complete. While I love Neil Gaiman, the book to me was underdeveloped, and the ending of the movie was far better and more romantic.

Now I want to watch this again.

The same applies to How To Train Your Dragon. The movie bears little resemblance to the book, and I think it's so much better for that. I spoke with a friend at DreamWorks, and he said the original take on the film was much closer to the book, but they eventually moved away from it, which is a move I can't applaud them enough for. By enhancing characters as well as the scope of the story, the filmmakers improved on the source material and created two excellent, memorable films.

The film and book are equally good.

Comic books are interesting, because often there isn't a definitive take on a character, both in film or the comics. Adam West's Batman, Michael Keaton's Batman, and Christian Bale's Batman are vastly different, yet still remain true to the source material in their own way, and I think their respective movies are awesome. (We don't talk about Val Kilmer or George Clooney. We just don't)

Oh the pain.

I first watched Miyazaki's amazing animated version of Howl's Moving Castle, and it's one of my favorite films of his. I later read the book, and though it has a different feel, it's also an excellent story. I feel as though the best book version of the story was told in the book, and the best film version of the story was told in the film. Telling the stories in the other medium may not have worked as well.

The best example I can think of is one of my all-time favorite stories, both in book version and film, and that is The Lord of the Rings. I read The Hobbit way back in junior high, but didn't get around to reading LOTR until right before the first film came out. Though the book is long and there may be a song or two too many in it, I love Tolkien's classic story. So much so that I was worried about the upcoming films. But my worrying was wasted, as Peter Jackson and company delivered one of the greatest film franchises in history.

The films, especially the extended editions, did what most good adaptations do best. They take the key parts of the story and they present them in a way that is both new and true to the source material. At times, this means leaving beloved parts behind. But when done well, as in this case, the movies are so good you don't miss those parts for long.

And I honestly get chills watching this. Can. Not. Wait.

So what do you think? What are your favorite or least favorite book to film conversions? How much does watching or reading the story first influence your experience in the other medium? Feel free to debate me about Harry Potter, but I'm right about George Clooney as Batman. I promise.


Jordan Dane said...

Great post, Dan. I'll have to check out Stardust.

The first film that I was shocked to see the book so well represented (very rare) was SERPICO. The script even kept a tender moment between Serpico & his grandmother as they spoke Italian & never did subtitles or a translation/explanation. It was like getting a hug if you read the book. You became an insider.

The book to film BOURNE IDENTITY with Matt Damon made an exciting action film for moviegoers, but did not even scratch the surface of Ludlum's amazing book or character Jason Bourne. Totally missed the essence of Bourne. I've never seen a Ludlum book turned into film that ever captured his phenomenal writing & storytelling.

An author recently said in a panel that her book screenplay treatment was completely different & unrelated to book#1 in a series. That came as a surprise to the author, but not to me. The only thing novel about the plot in the book was the premise. That's what the filmmakers bought. The book plot was a total knockoff of another book & missed the mark on worldbuilding as a result.

Great post, Dan.

Dan Haring said...

Thanks Jordan! You haven't seen Stardust? You need to! It's right up there with The Princess Bride if you ask me. (Which was also an excellent book) That's very cool about Serpico. I haven't read or seen it. Have to check it out. I enjoyed the Bourne movies, but I heard they were quite different than the books. That's interesting about the author. It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to most writers. It's rare when a book is adapted note for note to film.

Jordan Dane said...

Ludlum was the MASTER at spycraft. He was the first author I ever read that kept me noticeably turning pages & I marveled at his amazing sense of structure and pacing. He was one of my biggest influences. I can see why a moviemaker would find his books hard to adapt, because they simply are complicated, yet compelling. Matt Damon is way too young to play the role of Jason Bourne but he also didnt take on Bourne's chameleon nature of adapting, improvising, and changing his appearance. The film even killed off his future wife for the franchise. The best thing about Bourne Identity was that Bourne didnt know who he was, if he was a killer or a good guy, because of his amnesia. Everywhere he turned, the clues were there that he was the world's most renowned assassin, Carlos the Jackal. They cut all that part out, let Damon show his pretty face without ever changing it, and focused on another plot line that catered to the action sequences.

BTW I loved Princess Bride. Definitely will ck out Stardust. Thanks for the heads up, guy.

Michelle said...

I thought that the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish; haven't seen the Fincher one yet) was vastly superior to the novel, mainly because it focused on one of the two story threads. I found the book to be horribly convoluted and in need of a serious edit, but apparently I'm one of the few that felt that way ;)

I also loved the cinematic ending of About a Boy. The book botched it, I thought, but the film script had a much tidier conclusion.

Paula Millhouse said...

Hi Dan,
I'll check out Stardust - thanks.

OMG, Michelle - I'm on page 362 of that beast and I couldn't agree more - I wish I'd watched the movie first.
I thought I was the only person on the planet who thought that. It took 362 pages before the two main characters meet!

I find that when I watch a movie first, if I like it, the book typically is better, not the other way around.

Movies have been ruining books since the early '20s.


Anita Grace Howard said...

What an informative post, Dan! And so much fun! I do love me some Stardust. The romance, the danger, the fantasy. :) *swoon* I haven't read the book yet.

Oh, and you really hit my geek-fan button with LOTR. I think that series is the most well done of any books-to-movie I've ever seen or will see, to be honest. I can't WAIT for The Hobbit!!

Dan Haring said...

Okay, Jordan. Now I have to read the Bourne books. They sound awesome!

@Michelle and Paula, I haven't read or seen Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I'm hesitant. I love About a Boy but haven't read it either.

@Anita, I know! Stardust is sooo good! And, what more can be said? Such an incredible series. I'm so glad Peter Jackson is doing the Hobbit. Get here December!

Jordan Dane said...

I feel the same on the first Tattoo. Couldnt read any more. Elroy Leonard had an interesting take. He wasnt a fan either.