Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Book Was Better... Or Was It?

It's common knowledge among fans of popular books and series that "the book is always better"... or is it? Film is just as much of an art form as literature, and though it may be rare, there are times when the transition from one medium to another has no detrimental effects on the story, or perhaps even improves upon the original. So here is my--perhaps controversial--list of five times when I believed that the book was NOT better.

1) Fifty Shades of Grey- I'll just get this one out of the way first. There's not much to say that I haven't said already in my review of the movie, but it's hard to deny that the Fifty Shades movie is objectively "better" in a lot of ways  when compared to the book. The filmmakers consciously decided to tone down Christian's abusive behavior, they improved the dialogue in what few places they could circumvent E.L. James' iron grasp, Ana was made to be more likeable, and the overall story was marginally less cringe-worthy. However, by improving upon the source material the movie was also paradoxically worse for people like me who milked entertainment out of how incredibly bad the books were. So better technically and "artistically" (I still refuse to acknowledge Fifty Shades as actual art) yes, but also much less fun to hate.

2) The Da Vinci Code- This is mostly an old opinion of mine from back when I was still an Dan Brown fan (when I was about 14). Since then I have seen the movie multiple times and now think that it mostly sucks, but it's been longer since I've read the book, so be aware that this is not a fresh comparison, just a trip down memory lane for me.

I can't remember now if I had read the book or seen the movie first, but back when it first came out I shocked to have finally seen a movie that I thought was just as good as the book, if not slightly better! True, the book was a lot more detailed and the film did make some changes that I didn't like, but overall I thought that story worked better as a movie than it did being told through Brown's amateurish writing style. Controversy about his subject matter aside, I've come to realize over time that he's simply not very good. He's like the Christopher Paolini of conspiracy/mystery novels.

But dat Tom Hanks hairstyle, tho. Yuck. I love Tom Hanks as an actor, but seriously, it's so hideous that it's distracting. Maybe that was intentional, though; use the monstrosity growing on the main character's head to distract viewers from all the plot holes in the movie. At least they ditched the hair for Angels and Demons.

Look at the hair. LOOK AT IT.

3) The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian- Again, considering the fact that it's been a while since I've seen the movie or read the book, I'm mostly just recounting what my original impressions of the film were a couple years back when it was released. Before anyone bites my head off, I just want to clarify that I did not/do not think that the movie is necessarily better, but rather that I considered the book and film to have equal merit. The story was drastically changed for the movie, but they were both entertaining and each had their own strengths. You can argue that transforming a children's book into a violent action movie that barely clings to a PG rating would have C.S. Lewis rolling in his grave, but 14/15 year old me thought that the movie was awesome, and was probably more or less the intended demographic of the movie, as opposed to the books. That, and at the time I was a giggly teenager who thought that Ben Barnes was the hawtest guy evar.

The Chronicles of Narnia have a unique charm, and the books will always have a special place in my heart. But that still did not stop me from loving the shit out of the epic, action-schlock adaptation of Prince Caspian. Now that I'm a bit older and wiser I can see it's faults--the corny love story, the pointless melodrama with the White Witch, the utter stupidity of the final battle sequence, the needless rivalry between Peter and Caspian--and ever since the first movie I have always hated the way Peter is portrayed as a whiny, angsty, entitled douchebag. Sure, he's an annoyingly perfect Gary Stu in the books, but I'd much rather have him be an annoyingly perfect Gary Stu than a total asshat. But despite all its faults Prince Caspian was just so much fun to watch that I never gave a shit.

4) The Godfather- Widely considered to be one of the greatest achievements of American cinema, it's easy to forget that Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece The Godfather was based on Mario Puzo's novel of the same name. Hell, despite growing up in a family that absolutely loves the movies I still didn't know that it was based on a book until I was about 18. By the time I got around to reading the book I was a pretty big fan of the movie myself and had seen it many times, so I had some high expectations for the original.

Needless to say, I was disappointed. I don't mean to say that Mario Puzo is a bad writer, because he's certainly not; I just feel that The Godfather worked much better in a visual medium and that perhaps his strength as a writer lay more in co-screenwriting the scripts for the films. He's a decent author and can certainly tell a great story, but his writing style just wasn't to my taste. Especially when he's trying to write sex. I shit you not, in the book Sonny's gigantic dick is literally a minor plot point for no reason at all, and at one point gets described as an "engorged pole of muscle". Eeeuuuggh.

This is just a personal opinion, though. As can be expected, the book goes into much greater detail than the movie, and gives fascinating plot lines and backstories to people who in the film are just minor characters. Unfortunately, I just didn't find the writing style engaging enough to hold my interest most of the time. For me, I feel that sacrificing the unique subplots of minor characters was a fair trade off for a film that ended up being much more engrossing.

Overall, though, I think that the biggest fault of the novel is that it's not the movie. As a film, The Godfather is so beloved and so well-known that it completely overshadows the book it's based on. A lot of the film's most iconic moments aren't from the book at all: "Leave the gun, take the cannoli" was improvised, the infamous death-predicting symbolic oranges aren't in the book, and perhaps most significantly, The Godfather Part II wasn't based on the book at all.

5) Gone with the Wind- Much like The Godfather, Gone with the Wind is another classic film that is by now much more famous and critically acclaimed than the book it was based on. Unlike The Godfather, I flew through this novel when I first read it. Having already seen the movie multiple times, I was surprised by many of the changes I found, most notably the fact that Scarlet actually had multiple children. Despite perpetuating some antiquated racist ideas, Gone with the Wind is an extremely well-written and lushly detailed novel that shies away from nothing in drawing a stark contrast between the beauty of the Old South and the harsh realities of war. An undisputed masterpiece for sure.

But was it better than the movie? Not necessarily, in my opinion. The film is a classic for a reason, and I believe that not only does it stand well on its own, but that it is equal to the novel in quality. Although a number of elements from the novel were changed or discarded, the movie does not suffer for it, and still remains faithful to the spirit of the novel. I think more people should read the book if only to add to the richness of the experience of the film, but the film is still a masterpiece in its own right.
I don't really have a clever GIF for this part
 I'm pretty sure I scandalized a few people with this list. Do I care, though? Not really. Like I said, a few of these were older opinions of mine, primarily based off of my initial impression of the movie when I first saw it and when it was most relevant to my tastes at the time. So what are your favorite movie adaptations? Have any that you feel were better than or equal to the book?


  1. Well, I basically agree with you in most of the parts!

    The Godfather is such a good movie that it's so difficult to read the novel without comparing it.

    My favourite book to film adaptation (or at least the one that comes to mind right now) is To Kill a Moking Bird. Gregory Peck fits ideally my mental picture of Atticus Finch.

    1. You know, I've never seen To Kill a Mockingbird in its entirety! I know I have to one of these days, I love the book so much. But you're right, he was definitely perfect for that part.

    2. One of the problems I had with The Da Vinci Code as a novel is that it contained long sections where the characters sat around and talked. This is not appropriate in a thriller. It ruins the pacing. When I heard that it was going to be a movie, I realized that this would be an improvement because movies are always more action oriented. The movie met my expectations. I think you should stand by your old opinion. The Da Vinci Code is one of my examples of the movie being better than the book too.

    3. Yeah, this is one of the big issues I have with Dan Brown's writing, too. The movie was better in that regard, but at the same time they didn't improve on the "sitting around and talking" as much as the could have; there's plenty of times in the movie where Langdon halts the action entirely to give a history lecture. They improved the pacing a lot with the Angels and Demons movie, with his explanations being much more succinct, delivered while on the move, and fitting in with the scene much more organically.