Recently, I had a conversation with someone (I can’t remember who) about the movie “The Help.” Despite my better judgment, which isn’t all that good, I let my wife drag me to see it and I actually enjoyed it (except for the antagonist, who I found disturbingly cardboard and one-dimensional). The person in question (I still can’t remember who) told me that he or she enjoyed the movie but it wasn’t as good as the book. I’ve never read the book, but the observation doesn’t surprise me. We’ve all heard it and experienced it. Most movies are a pale imitation of their source material.
Partly it’s because films and books are two completely different mediums (or should that be media? I seriously could use a good editor). Films by their very nature are forced to rely on the visual aspects of storytelling. Sure, they sometimes use voiceover techniques, but unless it’s some kind of noir, that can get old fast. Same with flashbacks. Novels, on the other hand, enable the writer to tell a more fleshed-out story, delving into characters, plot, motivation, theme, subtext and the like at a much deeper level. The novelist has more freedom than the filmmaker. That can be a help or a hindrance, depending on the talent of the individual. But mostly it makes for a better tale.
Really, we shouldn’t compare books and movies at all. It’s a true apples and oranges exercise. Still, I’ve been racking my brain to come up with a few examples of films that were every bit the equal of the book (and sometimes even better). It’s a short list but here you go:
“The Big Sleep” – I had to reach way back for this one. 1946 to be exact. That’s for the movie; the book by Raymond Chandler is even older. I first read Chandler’s mystery in college as part of a “History of the American Novel” or some such class. Although stylish and ground-breaking, the novel’s plot is a mess. So is the film. I’ve seen it a dozen times and I defy anyone to explain what the hell happens. But the movie has something the book doesn’t: Bogie and Bacall. Talk about chemistry. I guess it was real because they had already tied the knot in real life. Regardless, it definitely shows up on screen. Whenever those two are together, sparks fly. Which, for me, makes the movie better than the book.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” – I know, I know. Harper Lee’s novel is one of the greatest of all time. And I’m not saying the movie is better. But it’s a close call. My parents took me to see it when it came out in 1962. I was seven. Not exactly a Disney flick. And it was black and white to boot. But I remember being riveted. Maybe it’s because of the little girl, Scout. Or maybe I thought Gregory Peck looked like my dad. (They both sported black slick-backed hair and thick glasses). Years later, when I read the book (possibly in that same college course), I couldn’t stop picturing the actors. I’ve revisited the movie and novel in subsequent years and found both to be powerful, yet different, experiences. No matter which side of the argument you fall on, one thing’s for sure. The film is a worthy companion to an American classic.
“The Bridges of Madison County” –An execrable novel. Or novella. I don’t even know what to call it. Every now and then, a piece of crap like this captures the public’s fancy. I have no idea why. It happened with “Love Story” and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” too. At any rate, the book set the bar so low that the movie had to be an improvement. And it was, by a wide margin. Again, chemistry plays a major part. Streep and Eastwood are perfectly cast and they just click. Once again she proves why she’s the finest actress of her generation. The movie taps into the wellspring of regret we all hide just beneath the surface. I’ve only seen it once, but I remember it packing a solid punch.
“The Accidental Tourist” – I frequently refer to this book as damn near perfect. Ann Tyler’s characters and situations couldn’t be better drawn. You care about her people. And she does such a masterful job of keeping you guessing that you’re not sure what’s going to happen until the final paragraph of the final page. As our main characters, Macon Leary and Muriel Pritchett, rush headlong into a life-changing decision, you realize that both options are so plausible you don’t even know what to hope for. Either way could be equally satisfying and bittersweet. So the film adaptation has big shoes to fill. And it rises to the occasion because of, you guessed it, the actors. William Hurt, a much under-appreciated talent, and Geena Davis (at her quirky best), fully inhabit their challenging characters. Hurt’s scene on Davis’s doorstep, where he explains why he can’t have dinner with her, is gut-wrenching. The book is still better by a nose. But it’s a photo finish.
I’m sure there are plenty more examples. I’d enjoy hearing from you. Please weigh in and I’ll discuss your suggestions in a future blog.