Redux: The Book Was Better

This is an encore presentation of a previous post by author David Antrobus, from the Franklin Mint’s David Antrobus collection.editor’s note.

“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.

Author: David Antrobus

Born in Manchester, England, author David Antrobus currently lives in British Columbia. David also edits and writes in many styles and genres, from nonfiction to dark fantasy. He worked for twenty years with abused teens. You can also find David at his blog and at his Amazon author page.

22 thoughts on “Redux: The Book Was Better”

  1. Er, David? Arthur C. Clarke wrote "2001". Asimov wrote the "Foundation" books. 😉

    About "The Hours": After I read it, I read Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway". I thought Cunningham's book was better. (I know that's heretical. I can't help it.) But I agree with you that the movie version of "The Hours" was different from the book, and in some respects, I thought, it was better.

      1. Also, I know. This mistake was pointed out when this first ran, but like the good soldier who lives by the sword and dies by the sword, I decided to leave my error in for all eternity, so future generations can revel in my dumbassery. 😉

        Plus, more accurately, Clarke's novel was written concurrently with the film (which makes it perhaps the greatest, or at least purest example of classic book vs classic film ever, in a sense)and published just after its release.

        The movie version of The Hours has slowly and insidiously crept into my top ten films of all time, I swear. Its only flaw is probably the Julianne Moore uh, makeover (not wanting to give away spoilers).

        1. I know this is about more than movie reviews but Meryl Streep and Ed Harris together in The Hours was like a master acting class. Amazing.

  2. I agree that sometimes the phrase is used in that "I'm a book snob" tone.

    But sometimes the book is better – and sometimes the movie is better.

    I'm sure someone can come up with a list of great books made into terrible movies and not so great books made into wonderful movies.

    The continual redoing of Jane Eyre comes to mind. Whether you think the book is good or not, there are some horrible movies and some great ones made from it.

      1. Ouch. Ha ha! OMG, got me good there, Hise, just as I was enjoying my first beer of the evening! *Wipes off screen*

        Along those lines, I also thought Mr. Bean's Holiday was every bit as good as The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver's admirable attempt at a novelisation.

    1. Oh, and not to ignore PA Wilson's perfectly good point, here. The unexamined assumption that the movie is pretty much always worse than the book is my real target here.

  3. "Bladerunner" was WAY better than the book.

    As was "Traffic". "Man on Fire".

    Films that are as great as the books, in a different way:

    "Little Big Man"

    "A Clockwork Orange"

    "I, Robot"

    "Thick As Thieves"

    "Miami Blues"

    "Roger Rabbit"

    "Forrest Gump"

    "Ben Hur"

    "The Getaway" (Both versions)

    "Barry Lyndon"

        1. Yep, that floors a lotta people. Many have a hard time believing Gump was a book first, too. Both quite different from the films.

          The whole trolley conspiracy and villain were in the film alone: the book has a complex doppelganger third act.

          One thing cool about the book is for some reason saying things like Roger drinks out of a jug with three X's on it and smoke blows out of his ears seemed funnier than actually seeing it.

          On the other hand, Jessica Rabbit shines of screen more than print.

          Obviously the Gump book doesn't have all the cute dubbing in to old pictures, nor the big ping-pong thing. Nor the running thing, which I thought was kind of lame in the film. The telling counts for much, and the narrative voice is much better, I think, than Hanks' cracker accent.

  4. It was a crime what they did to A Prayer for Owen Meany when they tried to make it into a movie. I don't actually know who 'they' are but if I met 'them' that made 'that' movie, I'd kick 'them' all in the shins, really hard.

      1. The book is to be read DEFINITELY without any knowledge of the simplistic ridiculous movie that was made. Owen Meany couldn't translate to the screen, the reader has to imagine the character, both his physical qualities and his voice. Do try and read the book. It's one of my favourites and definitely has the best first line ever.

  5. "The Canterville Ghost" by Oscar Wilde was absolutely ruined by some "Hallmark" style movie. By the end I was furious. And the last attempt I saw at "The Count of Monte Cristo" with James Caviezel bordered on laughable. Talk about completely missing one of the major themes…

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