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Movies made from books: Don’t mess with my tasty brain treats.

March 28, 2011

The greatest book-to-movie adaptation ever.

Don’t you hate it when you come across a yummy bowl of brain candy, only to discover that it’s made out of inferior intellectual ingredients? I’m not talking about Shakespearean criticism here, but a Flavorwire essay about movies that are better than the books they are based on.

The chief problem with Jason Bailey’s “10 Movies That Were Better Than the Book,” aside from his patchy literary and cinematic taste, is that he never defines his aesthetic criteria. We never know what critical foundation he’s basing his judgments on.

At his worst, this results in purely subjective (and purely indefensible) declarations such as No. 6: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (!). Milos Forman’s Oscar winner is a good movie, but it pales in both accomplishment and significance to Ken Kesey’s novel.

Bailey’s lack of a guiding principle leads him into embarrassing silliness, too, as when he discusses The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner from William Goldman’s novel: “While the book is a funny, exciting treat, the film version (which famed screenwriter Goldman adapted himself) brings the story’s swashbuckling action scenes, magnificent scenery, and imaginative situations to vivid and memorable life..”

In otherwords, the book does what books do and the movie does what movies do, and Bailey personally likes the movie best. But by his own words, he’s practically saying the movie is not better than the book, but a superb translation of the material from one art form to the other.

Which brings us to the point in this confectionary discussion (we’re talking about brain candy, remember?) where I give you my defining principle for comparing movies to the books they are based on: It’s an apples and oranges thing. Movies and books are separate art forms with entirely differing technical and artistic tools for building and conveying a narrative.

One is built out of words, the other out of pictures. That’s why the best adaptations are those made by directors with the confidence to deconstruct the literary source material and put it back together in a way that works on the screen. It’s why directors who are too respectful of the source material tend to make dull movies.

Perfect recent examples: Peter Jackson made willy-nilly changes to The Lord of the Rings, freely (as just one example) taking dialogue out of one character’s mouth and putting it into another’s — often in a different scene entirely — and thereby brilliantly capture the spirit if not the letter of J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasy masterpiece.

By contrast, Chris Columbus hewed closely to J.K. Rowling’s books in the first two Harry Potter movies, with dreary results for any viewer over the age of 12.

Therefore, what we’re really deciding when when compare a movie with the book it’s derived from is not whether the movie is better than the book — whether the orange is sweeter than the apple, or the apple crunchier than the orange — it is simply this: Is the movie better as a movie than the book is as a book?

By my criteria (oh, you’re welcome, say nothing of it), Bailey manages to be right about half the time, albeit for the wrong reasons often as not: No. 3, The Graduate; No. 4, Dr. Srangelove; No. 8, The Firm; and No. 9, The Godfather. The rest are merely examples of movies that are well made and serve their source material well.

In fact, it’s amazing how often Hollywood does a good job at turning books into movies. For every The Natural, which completely subverts Bernard Malamud’s novel, or the simply inept (a sampling: All the King’s Men, The Golden Compass, Bonfire of the Vanities, The Scarlet Letter, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Eyes Wide Shut, City of Ember–as a mercy, I’ll stop now), there are many excellent adaptations.

Here are a few I happen to love (and what we talk about when we talk about movies is always, in the end, love): Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse, The Shawshank Redemption, The Wizard of Oz, Misery, Little Women, The 39 Steps, Get Shorty, Rebecca, Our Man in Havana, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The English Patient, Nosferatu, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The French Connection, A Little Princess, The Third Man…

And the three movies that most exceed the books they’re based on? Okay, I’ll admit this is somewhat subjective, so I’m open to discussion on the point. But here goes: 3) Gone with the Wind, a good and also important popular novel, but a great and timeless movie; The Bourne Identity, a confused meatball of a novel turned into an excellent adult thriller; and — ta-da!– the greatest movie adaptation of all time: The Bridges of Madison County.

No, of course The Bridges of Madison County is not the best movie based on a book, but I submit that it is the greatest achievement in adaptation ever.  That director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese could turn Robert James Waller’s novel — one of the most wretched ever put out by a commercial publishing company — into a decent film is a testimony to almost superhuman cinematic skill.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2011 1:24 pm

    Very well put, Chauncey. And like you, even as apples and oranges, I’ve got to question whether Bailey has actually read either The Princess Bride or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Somewhere up in Oregon, Ken Kesey is turning in his grave.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 28, 2011 2:46 pm

      Aw, he’s in Heaven, having a laugh and a toke with Neal Cassady, waiting on the rest of the Pranksters to show up so the party can start in earnest.

  2. March 28, 2011 8:41 pm

    Don’t remind me of those Bridges, Chauncey. The book is puke. So is Midnight Cowboy. BUT the movie is super fine in my humble opinion. And the Academy Award goes to John Wayne for True Grit (a good book), instead of Dustin Hoffman for Ratso. Wayne did a major job, but lordy he couldn’t hold a candle to Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy that year.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 28, 2011 10:47 pm

    Those are both excellent suggestions, Duff. I had forgotten that Midnight Cowboy is a novel, too.

  4. Jesse permalink
    March 29, 2011 9:42 pm

    I think that the Merchant Ivory team – screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – do a bang up job with E.M. Forster. Howards End is by far their best adaptation. Good books, good films.

    • Jesse permalink
      March 29, 2011 9:44 pm

      PS…I forgot to mention how much I ADORED Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady. Controversial choice, perhaps, not suited to everyone’s taste, but worked wonders for me!

  5. PJ Parrish permalink
    March 30, 2011 10:29 am

    Best movie made from a bad book:

    Hands down, it’s “Jaws.”

    I dare you to go back and try to read Benchley’s book. I did for a class I teach on writing thrillers and was shocked at how god awful it is, even by the lowliest genre standards. Jaws the movie has the quintessential great three-act structure and is as tightly focused and compelling as a good movie can be. The book is a hot mess. He gives the SHARK its own POV, for corn’s sake. And it’s got one of the ickiest sex scenes I’ve ever read.

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