“I just saw the movie, wasn’t a patch on the book.”
If I’d stuffed my face with a deep-fried Mars bar every time I heard this sentiment, I’d probably lose a weigh-in with an elephant seal, have a mouthful of teeth with the average consistency of a sea sponge, and skin the overall texture of pepperoni by now. I’ll bet every last one of us has said something similar, though. Which makes every last one of us a bit weird, really. Not quite stupid, but getting there, you know?
Let me explain my thinking. (I find I have to do that a lot, which says nothing good about me whatsoever.)
It’s actually quite simple. A book is a book. A movie is a movie. And Popeye is what he is… an extremely odd-shaped sailor with a fetish for canned green vegetables.
Seriously, though, “the book was better” has become one of those irksome knee-jerk phrases that are stand-ins for something else entirely. See: “it’s political correctness gone mad!” which actually means “damn, the world doesn’t condone my bigotry any more, so I’ll just have this here tantrum instead”. Or: “I knew them before they were famous” which translates as “I am an unctuous hipster and will drip oily, corrosive scorn on, you know, like, everyone not in the inner circle of me, dude.”
But what do we really mean when we utter this phrase? In a mundane sense, I suppose we mean “this apple is better than this orange”, but if we already prefer apples to oranges, it doesn’t really bear repeating, does it? We could just make that clear once and be done with it: “I am an apple/book person. Not an orange/film person”. End of story. No, I think what is happening is similar to when people say “oh, TV, I don’t bother watching that stuff any more”—a whole slew of assumptions lie barely hidden beneath the surface, not least of which is that certain media are adjudged inferior. My point isn’t to argue whether or not they are, but to lament the smugness of the assumption itself, as if our audience will automatically nod vigorously in agreement every single time.
The complicating factor, I suppose, and one that exposes my metaphor for the flawed and incomplete thing it really is, is that this orange is based on that apple in some elusive way. Which shouldn’t matter—it’s still a freaking orange!—yet somehow, to most of us, it does. Why? Are we incorporating a little of the knew-them-before-they-were-famous hipster vibe alongside an assumption that books are inherently superior to movies? Is it because, even after just over a century, movies are still the upstarts? Are we making that hallowed mistake every generation makes, by deploring the newest and latest medium (whether it be jazz, rock’n’roll, comic books, hip-hop or video games, whatever “the kids” are into) in favour of what we are comfortable with? Whatever it is, I wish we’d stop it. It’s starting to sound like the jerking of ancient knees, a particularly alarming mix of rubbery creak and twangy groan that makes my stomach feel weird. So yeah, stop it. Please?
Okay, look. There are many novels that have been adapted for film for which any qualitative choice is difficult if not impossible. Let me say it again: a movie is not a book and a book is not a movie. One is pretty much entirely text-based and requires the audience to use imagination and comprehension, whereas the other is almost entirely visual and auditory and requires a little of the same two qualities plus something more elusive. One takes eight or nine hours to ingest, while the other takes around two hours. One is largely a solo project; the other a massive team effort. They are both extremely complex in different ways. Sure, they are related, in that they contain narrative arcs and characters and themes and such things, but they are still very different. Just as a movie and a video game are different. Yes, there are convergences, but overall it makes little sense to judge them by the same metrics.
Anyway, because my OCD side loves lists, I am now going to fire off a random group of 30 books, in no particular order, which weren’t better than their movie counterparts, but were simply different. Not better, not worse, different. Like apples. Like oranges. Like Popeye. Like deep-fried Mars bars. Okay, those last things are bad.
1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (renamed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the original movie adaptation).
2. The Body by Stephen King (renamed Stand By Me in Rob Reiner’s film version)
3. The Shining by Stephen King
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Isaac Asimov
5. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (renamed Blade Runner in Ridley Scott’s classic film)
6. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
7. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
8. Psycho by Robert Bloch
9. Atonement by Ian McEwan
10. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (combine Peter Jackson’s trilogy for the comparison)
11. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
12. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
13. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
14. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
15. On the Beach by Nevil Shute
16. Deliverance by James Dickey
17. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
18. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
19. Children of Men by P.D. James
20. Misery by Stephen King
21. No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
22. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (the best film being the 1939 version)
23. The World According to Garp by John Irving
24. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
25. The Dead by James Joyce
26. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
27. The Hours by Michael Cunningham
28. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
29. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
30. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Note the mix of classic lit, contemporary lit and genre fiction… No real reason, just note it… Okay, I admit it, I was going to make a great point there and completely forgot what it was. Cough. Moving on… Unlike the occasional glaring piece of wrongness, such as The Bonfire of the Vanities or Moby Dick, not one of these film versions is significantly inferior, or even inferior at all, some being arguably superior. Certainly my point stands that you can make a case for either incarnation. An argument can also be made, based on a closer study of these successes, perhaps, that a film—recognizing itself as a different animal entirely—may often work better if it doesn’t try too hard to replicate the source material.
And now, since I’ve only included works with which I’m familiar in both mediums, feel free to add, in the comments section below, the many I’ve overlooked.
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David Antrobus is a contributing writer for Indies Unlimited and author of the nonfiction book Dissolute Kinship: A 9/11 Road Trip. For more information, please visit the IU Bio page, and his website: The Migrant Type.