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Culture Warrior: The Book Was Better…

With this weekend’s release of Angels & Demons, Culture Warrior looks at what types of books make good movies and why.
By  · Published on May 18th, 2009

When it comes to adapting popular novels to film, it seems there’s no winning strategy that successfully balances the demands specific to the film medium with a simultaneous loyalty to the source material—in most cases, especially when the novel is reputable and beloved, one or the other must be compromised. I personally prefer movies that treat their source material as a jumping-off point rather than a holy and unchangeable text, movies that acknowledge the filmed image and the written word as two very different forms of expression with their own unique utilities and strengths, and that modes of expression deriving from one form cannot always be successfully translated to another. Sometimes it’s better when a film acknowledges the fact that it won’t be able to fit the scope of a novel in its form (which is why short stories often make for more “successful” adaptations) and instead focuses on making the best film possible rather than exercise an unquestioning devotion to the source material. Adaptations have proven time and again that if one looks for the full scope of their favorite novel to be replicated in a film, they will most often be disappointed, for the constraints of the film medium often prevent the level of detail present in the novel from making its way to the projected screen, like in the requirements of a certain running time in film or the different ways of expressing inner monologue or point-of-view between film and novel.

“The book was better” is a common utterance expressing such inevitable disappointment, but I believe such complaints from devoted fans of books or book series often don’t acknowledge the differences between these two media, and thus inevitably hold adaptations up to a standard that cannot possibly be achieved. As Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. (2002) illustrates, sometimes the source material is better served when these limitations are acknowledged in the first place, thus allowing the adaptation to not only be particular and unique to the film medium rather than a dry and uninspired manifestation of the original content, but furthermore treats the source material as a creative collaboration between artists working in two distinct forms of media.

Yet, at the same time, I can’t help but sympathize with people who highly anticipate seeing the film of a novel they adore, only to be met by disappointment. Particular manifestations of this disappointment are often very personal and dependent on one’s specific taste in both literature and cinema, but there is something universal about enjoying some detail on the page and being saddened when it doesn’t show up on screen. Even if one acknowledges that an adaptation is going to be lackluster, there is often still an unwavering excitement in seeing the words of a valued book made flesh by actors, costumes, color, framing, etc., but the imagination of the director never seems to match what the reader envisioned.

I can think of seeing four movies based on novels I read that elicited a particular type of negative reaction. Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Green Mile (book 1996, film 1999) was indeed comparably as massive and epic as the serialized novel, but lacked many of the striking details and subplots that made it such an enjoyable read. The Bratpack-era adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero (book 1985, film 1987) turned a breakthrough novel detailing the nihilism of a young, over privileged generation and butchered it into a hypocritical anti-drug PSA that demonized the lifestyle it depicted while also making it seem oh-so MTV-hip and attractive. Lastly, the film versions of Love in the Time of Cholera (book 1985, film 2007) and 1984 (book 1949, film 1984) showed me that adaptations of my very favorite books, and truly great pieces of literature in general, can be loyal to the source material and yet lose the significance, relevance, joy, or weight that made the original source so great in the first place.

Yet there are often exceptions to these trends. For instance, the film versions of The Grapes of Wrath (book 1939, film 1940) and To Kill a Mockingbird (book 1960, film 1962) are often considered great pieces of American filmmaking essential to the annals of film history in a way that arguably renders them independent from their respective source materials’ comparably important role in the history of American literature. These films stayed devoted to their source material (Mockingbird probably more so, as Grapes was more loyal in spirit then content), yet were such effective adaptations that they became simultaneously separate from and equal to the importance of the novels from which they were based.

On a different scale, the adaptations of the Harry Potter (books 1997-2007, films 2001-present) and Lord of the Rings (books 1954-55, films 2001-03) books represent a mass consumer attraction to material attached to so many mediums within a larger franchise to such an extent that the original story material almost becomes source-less; that is, the movies are arguably rendered as beloved or canonized as the books they were based on, and the manifestation of the storybook worlds of each seem to be dependent on, reflective of, and inextricable from one another in an ongoing conversation in a way that renders book and film as equally relevant. While the reading of all such books may be seen as the greater accomplishment if for no other reason their greater consumption of time, fans of the films see themselves as equally initiated into the world of the story as those of the books.

But with most movies, there are two ways to go: a loyalty to the source material, end result be damned, or a flexibility in adapting it to film. One of the most successful adaptations in recent years I think was No Country For Old Men (book 2006, film 2007), which didn’t veer off from the source material in any major way in terms of story or content, but ensured that the experience of seeing the novel projected on screen had characteristics particular to the utilities of film. There are things in the novel that can’t be replicated in the film, but No Country in the skillful hands of the Coens displayed that the reverse also applies: elements of sound, pacing, performance, and atmosphere are largely what made the film so great, and such aspects cannot be experienced in the novel in the same way.

On the flip side, you have films like The Da Vinci Code (book 2003, film 2006) or Watchmen (book 1985, film 2009). Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was in every way a popcorn book, a brisk read whose pace and structure made it almost cinematic, as if it was written with the manuscript for a screenplay adaptation in mind—which made it all the more surprising that the film turned out so clunky. Yet when Ian McKellen kills all tension as he delivers a five-minute monologue in the middle of a car chase, or during the History Channel-style special effects in its historical flashbacks, it became evident that a popcorn book can’t necessarily be directly transcribed into a popcorn flick. (As far as Angels & Demons goes, I haven’t read the book and I have little interest in seeing the film, but it seems to be pretty much a consensus among critics that it works more effectively as a film than did Da Vinci, though this compliment doesn’t seem all that great when the biggest pieces of praise afforded to it thus far are simply that it’s not as clunky as its predecessor.) With Watchmen, you have a piece of source material from a uniquely visual literary medium, the graphic novel, that did not quite translate successfully from the still frame to the moving image in its dogmatic (though sporadically selective) adherence to source material instead of an attempt at a unique, standalone adaptation.

Although it may seem ass-backwards, I recommend reading some books after you see the film. I’ve done this with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (book 1972, film 1998), Lolita (book 1955, film 1962), and Naked Lunch (book 1959, film 1991), and, as these films are not direct adaptations of their challenging and allegedly unadapatable source material, they can give a further understanding of the artistic process of adaptation when the unique creative minds of author and filmmaker meet in the middle to create something separate from the source material. David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch should be an essential case study in examining the transition from book-to-film, as it took a confounding and seemingly impenetrable meandering free-association non-narrative and, when combined with the unique signposts of Cronenbergian filmmaking, hybridized a final product that explored the eccentricities and obsessions of both authors—an endlessly fascinating and challenging film based on an equally fascinating and challenging book that is just as much about the excruciating creative process of writing (or adapting, or filmmaking) as it is about the characterizing traits of its mutual authors. The film adaptation of Naked Lunch reminds us that, whether or not a work of art falls under the designated post of original work or adaptation, every work of art adapts something, whether that be observations, important life events, sensory information, or, perhaps most importantly, other pieces of art.

I’ve included the original trailer for the film, which is not only an awesome trailer, but is unique as it promotes the process of adapting the film as much as the film itself…

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