Sunday, July 15, 2007

Books and Movies: Enemies That Never Were

This post was originally going to be just a straight reaction to the fifth Harry Potter film but as I began drafting a lot of my ideas/responses, I found my words gradually veering into a treatise on our tendency to compare movies with the books on which they are based and why I find that to be such an empty endeavor that ultimately does a disservice to both. So I decided to go ahead and "bite the bullet" and just put down my thoughts on that subject.

About ten minutes into Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (the fourth entry in the series), Harry and his friends attend the 422nd Quidditch World Cup. The movie then immediately cut to afterwards and I remember at that moment sitting in the theatre overhearing a teenage girl in the row behind me whisper to her companion: "Oh man. They didn't show the game." Two things crossed my mind at that point. 1) "Oh no. Unlike me, these girls have actually read the book and I'm gonna have to endure the entire movie listening to them whine about how it's different" (which, thankfully, didn't happen), and 2) "I am so glad I don't read these books before I see these movies." I mention this anecdote only because this Friday I went to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and heard two girls (for all I know it could've been the same pair) whispering behind me at a certain juncture in the film. I couldn't hear what they were saying but I knew that tone all too well and although I didn't have the first thought this time I did have the second one.

I'm sure you've heard this statement before: "I'll wait for the movie." Oftentimes when one hears it one immediately makes assumptions about the individual who expresses such a sentiment. They must be lazy and/or illiterate Philistines with short attentions spans who don't want to take the time or effort to simply sit down and read something; they'd rather let someone else do the work for them and wait for a movie adaptation to get made. I know I think those things whenever a student comes into the video store asking for John Ford's Grapes of Wrath or Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans, not because they are great movies but because they have a book report due the next day. And yet, as time has gone on I've found myself operating by a mantra that is--if not identical--rather similar to it: "I always wait to read the books until after I've seen the movie." To many this may seems backwards but to me it feels like the most logical approach to take and my reasons are as follows.

One of the things I have observed in numerous conversations with people over the years is that 99% of the time, folks who read the books first are dissatisfied with the movies. This leads me to one of two conclusions: a) moves are always automatically inferior to the books upon which they are based because cinema is an inherently inferior medium to literature or b) something else is going on. Since I absolutely refuse to accept the former, I am forced to go with the latter. So, what else could be going on? Why is it that people seem to always prefer the original books to their movie incarnations? My theory is simply this..... because they read the books first. They imagined what the characters looked like and how they dressed at any given moment, they heard their voices speaking the dialogue recorded by the author, they saw the events described on the page unfolding in their own minds and the filmmakers weren't able to capture what they envisioned in their heads. The objectification of their fantasies on the movie screen fell short, as they had to. They really couldn't do otherwise. Our imaginations are always going to be more wild, more vivid and more personally satisfying than anything any director could ever put on screen.

There is something else at work here too though. By definition, the accumulation of human knowledge is such that we build upon former knowledge. The formation of new ideas and concepts naturally comes from previously held ones. Thus, when we evaluate something we do so on the basis of our earlier experience. We see a Harry Potter story told cinematically and we can't help but analyze it through the "lens" of the book we read, it is the standard by which we judge the movie. Does the movie make us feel the same way the book did? Is our favorite moment from the book present in the movie? These are often the questions we find ourselves asking rather than questions about how well the movie functions in itself . This is why I tend to think people confuse the ideas of a movie being a good adaptation and a good incarnation.

A good adaptation is a something that stays true to the source material, that captures the "essence" of the original story, that maintains the integrity of the characters/events and which satisfied a fan of the book. In other words, that changes as little as possible. A good incarnation, on the other hand, is a movie that works on the basis of its own merits, that does not depend on the book for its good qualities. It may alter the story, characters, structure or details of the original book (either subtly or drastically) but in doing so it creates something wholly original that is quite excellent on its own way. I think these are significant distinctions to make because a film can be a great adaptation and a lousy movie. Likewise, it can also be a lousy adaptation and a great movie. Is it possible to be both? Sure, but it is rare (the BBC Pride and Prejudice mini-series being, in my mind, one of the few examples). What is unfortunately not nearly as rare, though, are movies that totally suck as both. I gave up a long time ago comparing books with movies, but sometimes it just can't be helped. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is one of the greatest books I've ever read and Roland Joffe's movie is one of the worst films I've ever seen. It was not only a lousy adaptation, it was a lousy movie.

Buried at the back of this conversation regarding books and movies is, I think, an unfortunate prejudice that seems to peek its head out occasionally. If a person is obsessed with movies to the point that their knowledge is encyclopedic, they are called "geeks" and looked on with pity or told they need to get a life. If a person is obsessed with books such that their knowledge is encyclopedic, they're called "educated" and made into college professors. Is this fair? I don't think so, but it's a reality. Literature is still esteemed as a higher, purer form of art and communication than cinema is. It's sad but true. The written word has been around for thousands of years while the moving image has only been around for about a hundred, so it's had a bit more time to get a reputation and gain a following.

At this point I should probably confess my own prejudices on the subject. I am not much of a reader, or at least not as much as I would like to be. Despite attending a liberal arts college where I spent four years reading the greatest books ever written, I am (and always have been) a more audio/visual person. It's just the way I'm oriented. I watch far more movies than I read books (although I am currently reading a fascinating book on Michael Eisner and his tenure at the Disney company; it may prove to be the subject of a future post) and as such I know more about movies and I prefer movies. However, I would NEVER say that movies are "better" than books. I may happen to like movies more but to say that they are inherently superior to books is absurd (although I know there are people who believe books are inherently better than movies). Books and movies are two completely different art forms with their own unique rules, conventions, language forms, etc. They both have strengths and weaknesses. One is no better than the other any more than photography is superior to painting, or sketching is inferior to sculpture.

This brings me to a rather important point. Since cinema and literature are such radically different art forms, why do we feel the need to compare the two? People don't often compare a work of sculpture with a painting, do they? Normally not, because they realize the criteria for evaluating the two is so different that such an enterprise would be futile. Especially since--and I firmly believe this--the qualities that make a work of art truly great (i.e. brilliant, timeless, etc) are going to be unique unto the format in which that work of art is created. I have long been convinced of this. The things that make any book a masterpiece have to be elements that are specific to writing. Same with movies. This is why, I think, no truly great book (Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables, The Sun Also Rises) will ever be a truly great movie. They might become decent, perhaps even good, movies but they will not be great. They can't be. Crime and Punishment was meant to be a book. The written word was the medium in which that particular story was meant to be told. Dostoyevsky knew it and that's why there will never be a definitive movie version.

Some people might argue that there are glaring exceptions to this. Grapes of Wrath, Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird are all hailed as great books and their corresponding movie versions also seem to be great as well. How do I account for this? Well, firstly I have to acknowledge the possibility that such critics are correct and that these films are indeed exceptions to the rule... but they are rare. Secondly, I have to propose the possibility that in any or all of these cases, either the original book or the movie adaptation is not truly great. In fact, one of the things that I have often wondered about To Kill a Mockingbird (one of my favorite films) is whether or not it is a truly great film or whether it's source material was simply so excellent that even a decent adaptation couldn't help turning out quite good. In other words, did the greatness of the book simply "rub off" on the movie. I still haven't made up my mind about that (it should be noted that I saw the movie before reading the book).

Consider for a second what it would be like going the other way. A phenomenon that has long been in practice (although Woody Allen's character in Manhattan "can't comprehend it") is movie novelizations. I used to collect a number of these when I was younger and sometimes, on rare occasions, they lent some insight into the film that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise. Usually, though, they were redundant. Plus, none of the novelizations I ever read were for great films. I don't even know what such a thing would look like. (Citizen Kane: the novel?) No, it seems to me that great films don't make great books either. I do think, however, that mediocre books, supermarket trash novels, short stories or novellas usually serve as better source material, because a potboiler or short story usually has a "germ" of an idea but doesn't utilize it as well as a movie could. In a movie, a premise with promise can be expanded on, developed and enhanced rather than having to be condensed, simplified and composited as films tend to have to do with large books. Some of the best films I've ever seen (The Godfather, Jaws, The Shawshank Redemption, Psycho, Schindler's List ) all came from books/novellas but they were (at best) pretty good. Yet they made for great films... not least of all because the filmmakers made changes. In all of these cases people who might've simply wanted "the book with pictures" would've been sorely disappointed. What they got instead, however, were films that retained what worked about the original incarnations and added elements of their own that elevated the material. These filmmakers understood that creating a great final product was preferable to simply doing a faithful adaptation. William Goldman (who is both and author and a screenwriter) understood this as well when he said "In adaptation, you have to change things. In any adaptation you simply must." In the changing, these movies ended up being better movies than the books were books (notice I did not say that the movies were "better than the books," that's a whole different statement).

So, what purpose are we really serving when we pull completely different entities out on the table and try to determine which is "better?" My opinion is that we are ultimately serving no purpose whatsoever. For some reason we are creatures that just like to compare things. It satisfies a rather juvenile tendency that goes back to our childhoods ("Who's better: Spider-man or Batman?"). Sometimes the comparisons might be based on some sort of miniscule connection between them but oftentimes it's pretty arbitrary. Forget apples and oranges. One might as well compare apples and rocks. I long for the day when people are finally going to be able to say: "You know what? The book and the movie are both good in their own unique ways. It's not that one is necessarily better than the other, they're just different." No more comparing, no more contrasting, no ranking... we approach things individually take things on their own merits (or lack thereof) not on the basis of something else which may (or may not) be connected to it but in a tenuous way.

This is why I choose to see the movies before I read the books. Not because I am lazy, not because I am illiterate and not because I think movies are always "better" than books, but because I want to be as open as possible to where the movie will take me, to have as few expectations for the experience the film will provide, to be able to see the flaws contained therein without having a "manual" to refer to in order to make them clear to me. I went into it Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix knowing extremely little about what would happen (aside from the death of a major character which is pretty hard not to know about, even if you haven't read the book). Consequently, I didn't have anything to compare it to other than the previous Harry Potter movies. I still haven't read any of the books other than the first one (which I did so after seeing the movie naturally). Many of the reviews I've read from these films mention differences from the books, differences which were lost on me. However, judging it simply on the basis of being a good movies, I thought it worked quite well (arguably the best one so far), though I have no idea how good it was as an adaptation.

I find that in following this pattern it is much easier for me to enjoy the movie for what it is and then, if I think it's worth it, to read the book afterward and discover some of the subtleties that had to be cut from the movie for whatever reason (time, simplicity, etc). One thing that is certainly true is that books are able to contain more information than a movie can. Again, in some people's minds this makes them "better" but, as I said, I think this just makes them different. So, while I'm not ready yet to call a ban on reading all books before seeing their movie counterparts, I would recommend people try as best they can to stop using the books as criteria in evaluating the movies. If you avid readers and filmgoers are able to be objective enough in your analysis of any given film to not use its original book as part of your "measuring stick" but simply try to determine whether the movie is good as a movie, then I implore you to do so... whatever it might entail (for me it entails watching the movie first). Try writing a review that doesn't even mention the book. It may be difficult--perhaps even impossible--but it is worth trying and, frankly, it has to happen if film criticism is ever going to achieve the stature I think it deserves, which is one equal to (but different from) literary criticism. No more cries of "the book was better" or even, as can be occasionally heard, "the movie was better." Books and movies ought not be competitors and they should never have been pitted against one another in the first place. They are two excellent art forms that each have their own place in our world. They're not enemies... and they never were.


Edward Copeland said...

I've found that the order doesn't usually matter. I saw The Prince of Tides before I read it and then realized how much better the book was. I didn't read Fight Club until after I saw the movie and while I liked both, I'm glad that was the order it happened, because I think reading the book first would have lessened the experience for me. Most times though, I find that books and their adaptations can both be good even if the movies are less than faithful. I love the book The World According to Garp and while the film version changed a lot, I still enjoyed it. On the other hand, a bad movie experience can sour you on the book itself. I loved The Cider House Rules as a book but John Irving's butchering of his own work in the awful film version left a bad taste in my mouth. Often, the movies do best at adapting trashier novels into works of film art, such as with The Godfather and Jaws. What really impresses me is when they manage to really capture the experience of the book in the movie version, such as with Martin Scorsese's exquisite The Age of Innocence.

Adam Ross said...

Interesting points. Regarding the forming of ideas and accumulation of knowledge, try applying that thinking to Shakespeare: you read a Shakespeare script, and are excited to see it on stage, even though you know all the plot elements and characters. Why do you see it? To see the human element of acting, the production design, hear the songs, etc. This doesn't really translate to film because books don't have as much gray area as a stage script. And you don't really hear the same criticisms you listed with movies based on plays, do you?

Also, I'm in the same boat reading-wise as you are Damian -- I hardly ever read books, and when I do it's non-fiction. I've been this way my whole life, and I think part of the reason I almost never read fiction is because a lifetime of moviewatching has conditioned me to the "rhythm" of film narrative. Pop Rocks may have been another factor.

Mark said...

While I agree with you on the down side of seeing the movie first, I don't think you give enough credit to the opposite argument, which makes me a bit more conflicted than you. My problem with seeing the movie first is that it robs me of my opportunity to create my own mental images of the characters and scenes when I read the book. For example, I cannot read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest without seeing Jack Nicholson. That's why I deliberately read a few Harry Potter books before seeing the first movie. I wanted a chance to create my own mental images before they were dictated to me. Amazingly, the movie versions of the Harry Potter characters are almost always just as I imagined them.

I also take issue with your claim that books contain more information than movies. Books are much more efficient at delivering story; however, movies are much more more efficient at delivering mise-en-scene, accomplishing in a moment what might take pages to describe.

J.J. said...

(Mark's Cuckoo's nest example is a great one.)

I take issue with the assertion that books contain more information than movies. Not so. Books contain different information delivered differently. A film can be as richly textured as any novel.

Case in point: When Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain first came out, I read it and instantly thought it would make a fabulous movie, even though it's arguably uncinematic in every conventional sense. My film version of Cold Mountain would've been virtually a silent movie -- it's a movie that would speak mostly in visuals, just like Frazier's book. The book is a very interior experience, filled with exquisite detail, and a film version could've brimmed with that same amount of information. Anthony Minghella and the Weinstein had other ideas, unfortunately.

Anyway, I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but wanted to comment on this good thinkpost of yours.

Damian said...


You may be one of those rare patrons who is actually able to approach a film (whether you've already read the source material or not) as its own unique "entity" and not as merely an adaptation and judge it accordingly. I find the majority are unable to do this. How "good" the movie is in comparison to the original book always seems to be part of the criteria for most people.


I am actually one of the few people who disagrees with the contention that all Shakespeare plays should always be read before seeing a stage production of it. Some of them perhaps (such as Comedy of Errors), but generally speaking if the actors and the director have done their jobs then the story and the language should be accessible and interesting to an audience witout having to know ahead of time who is who and what happens. One must remember that although Shakespeare's works are indeed great literature, they were first and foremost plays intended to be seen/heard and not read.

Mark and J.J.:

You both make very good points about the amount of information contained within books and movies. I have to concede now that my initial point was incorrect. Books don't necessarily contain more information than films. They just contain different kinds of information than films. It could also be said perhaps that they generally contain more pertinent information than films (since every word used by an author is deliberatly place for a specific purpose, but not necessarily every inch of a movie frame contains something crusial). One thing that is interesting with films is that "real" time is much more of a factor in its creation than in a book. Although I'm sure publishers generally want their authors to keep the length down, ostensibly a book can have no limit (especially since a reader can stop reading at any time, put it down and come back to it) whereas movies are meant to be experienced in a single "sitting" so length is far important (2 hours or less being the "normal" running time). As you point out a few seconds of a movie could show something that would take pages to describe. At the same time, however, a chunk of dialogue that could take 5 minutes of screen time could be done in a single paragraph. Imagine if publishers put restrictions on authors like saying that they had to have no more than 120 pages (minutes) in their book with an average of 60 words (seconds) on each page and no one word could contain more than 24 letters (frames). It would be interesting to me to see what authors could come up with those rules in place (Hemignway would've been fine though, that's for sure).

As for the point about not seeing the actor's faces or hearing the actor's voices in their heads when reading, that is a good point and is actually another one of the main reasons why I prefer to see the movies first. As a more audio-visual person, I often find it difficult to keep track of the number of characters in a book 9especially since authors tend to just load them up). The writer could vividly describe what so-and-so looks like in any given book but ultimately, when the author says "so-and-so did X," they are really just a name on a page to me. If I have an actor's face with which to attach the name it becomes much easier to see the character as a living, breathing person than just an idea in the mind of the writer and consequently to be more engaged by the story and, not least of all, to keep track of who's who. I am not saying everyone is like (or God forbid should be like this) it's just a personal thing.

At any rate, all this really only goes to further illustrate my original thesis which is that books and movies are just different. One is not "better" or "worse" than the other. They each have their distinct characteristics and those need to be taken into account when either is being evaluated. A movie shouldn't be faulted for not being "the book" and vice-versa.

Melinda said...

I have to say I disagree with what you say here:

If a person is obsessed with movies to the point that their knowledge is encylopedic, they are called "geeks" and looked on with pity or told they need to get a life. If a person is obsessed with books such that their knowledge is encyclopedic, they're called "educated" and made into college professors.

It kind of depends what type of books you read. The people that read "literature" or whatever is classified as literature nowadays (Harry Potter is now also "literature" according to some people), somehow seem to think better of themselves than those who read other stuff. If a person is obsessed with scifi and fantasy books to the point that their knowledge is encylopedic, they are also called "geeks" and looked on with pity or told they need to get a life. I think it depends on what the majority of the people find acceptable, normal and respectable. Somehow movies and scifi/fantasy books don't fall in that category yet.

The rest of your post? I still have to think about that and collect my thoughts, before I can reply to that.

Damian said...

I think it depends on what the majority of the people find acceptable, normal and respectable. Somehow movies and scifi/fantasy books don't fall in that category yet.

Precisely my point. By majority standards, books are just generally considered more "respectable" than movies and a person who has an immense knowledge of all different kinds of books (and not just a particular sub-category of books like sci-fi/fantasy but books from various writers, centuries, cultures, etc) is looked on with higher esteeem than a person who has an immense knowledge of all different kinds of movies (again, not just a certain genre but a variety of genres, countries, directors, etc). It has been my personal experience that, by and karge, one is considered "edcuated" and the other is called a "geek." If there are places where this is not the case then please let me know. I would like to live there.

Dan E. said...

I find it interesting that you mention The Grapes of Wrath in this post. My experience was a relatively unique one in how I usually consume books and films. I read the first half of the book, then saw the movie, and then finished the book. This gave a completely different perspective on both the film and book. It also helps that Steinbeck's writing style in the first half is significantly more cinematic than it is in the second half. In fact, one of the reasons I love the book so much is because it has a cinematic feel to it. Chapters that contain, alternately, an explicit description of a location and the scene that occurs in that location, feel like they would be perfectly suited to Malick's wandering eye. Meanwhile, despite Gregg Toland's great cinematography, the film is heavy on dialogue and lacks the eye for the surroundings that made Stagecoach so great. In other words, each feels like it was made in the wrong medium, and that's part of why I love them both so much.

As for other novels, such as Harry Potter, I have no specific strategy. I cannot help comparing them, just as I find it hard not to think of how the original film did a sequence when watching a remake. Though both may be good, one will inherently inform your experience with the other. It's just recognition. The trick is to allow the recognition to occur without it affecting your judgment, which, sadly, most people (myself included) cannot do without significant effort.

Shon Richards said...

It was the Lord of the Rings movies that settled this debate in my mind. I loved the books as a kid but found them clunky and almost silly as an adult. I still knew the books by heart though. The movies had enough alterations while keeping the spirit, that I was able to really enjoy the movies for what they were.

The Harry Potter movies however were so faithful to the books that any deviations or omissions, felt like I was watching on R-rated movie cut for Sunday afternoon television. Everything in the movie is so like the book, that when something is skipped, I can't help but notice it. The Potter movies never assume their own identity as much as they feel like cliff notes versions of the books.

I always thought the preference for books over movies came down to internal dialogues. Books tell you directly how a character feels and thinks. Movies leave characters' motives open to interpretation in most cases. That's a broad generalization but it is usually what people complain to me about when they don't like a movie over the book.

David Lowery said...

As a passionate fan of both literature and film, I was excited to read this post (whose subject is something I've written about in the past myself). To begin with: Harry Potter is a phenomenon in and of itself, and as someone pointed out above, part of the game in adapting them has been to keep the fans' expectations in check. The cast was chosen precisely because they resembled the characters in the books (or, at least, on their dust jackets). On that note, the Chris Columbus films were enjoyable solely because they were such stolid visual interpretations of the text; it was like a Classics Illustrated adaptation, safe and harmless and fun. Cuaron wreaked havoc, comparatively, on the third entry, and (cinematically speaking) made both a better adaptation and (to my mind) the best film to date. The latter two entries marked a return to Columbus' checklist approach while encorporating Cuaron's tonal shift; personally, I've found the results somewhat middling.

The Harry Potter series can, in a sense, be seen as a lens through which the dilemma of literary adaptations is put into sharp focus. How much should a screenwriter rely on the source? How much of a great novel's greatness is contained in incident, and how much is merely thematic? When is it best to play it safe? When I first saw Tom Tykwer's adaptation of Perfume (a marvelous literary experience) last year, I wrote that I felt like I was watching Harry Potter for grown-ups -- my enjoyment was predicated entirely on seeing the book being so closely adhered to. Would I have enjoyed a film that departed liberally from the text, while offering a strong cinematic equivalent of what Suskind's prose offered? Surely. But it wouldn't have been Perfume.

You write that perhaps some novels are so great that they inherently produce great films. Maybe, maybe not (the example of To Kill A Mockingbird is a good one, unless one considers the possibility that it's not actually a great film, or a great book -- something Ebert argued rather persuasively a few years back). I'm leaning towards maybe not. I think that the grounds for a great adaptation - a form that is inherently unoriginal - must begin with original thought. Implicit in that is the notion that the writer and director (or writer-director) does not defer to the text.

I think Kubrick had the right idea -- his films are drawn from novels, one and all, but he wasn't afraid to make them his own in adapting them. The Shining and Lolita represent the opposite extremes of faithfulness, perhaps (in so much as that their original authors had a hand, or at the very least some say, in their inception), but I think the finest example of his skill at transforming words to pictures was in Barry Lyndon.

I'm very much looking forward to There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Upton Sinclair's Oil. Sinclair's novel is a fine one, but unwieldy - and by all accounts Anderson has taken a few central conceits from the book and spun them into a different story. In an interview, he said that he started with Sinclair's characters and just began writing new scenes for them, letting them go where his own directorial inclinations lead them. I can't wait to see it.

Anonymous said...

Both books and movies are arguably about story. Since both the movie and the books are telling the story of Harry Potter, there is interest in how these two media differ, and which medium the story best suits. When adapting the book, often the story is not quite as well suited for film. So if the book is merely retold on film, it is mediocre at best. However, if it is changed enough to make it a good film, the story itself commonly suffers, and is not quite as strong. It takes a great screenplay writer to effectively adapt a good book into a good film.

And Damian and Melinda, I'd like to clarify something. The "Educated Elite" in our culture do not enjoy films made for the populace. They enjoy only art-house films that are hard to understand. Similarly, they do not enjoy "escapist novels" but only "serious literature" (which usually means books with obscure pretentious prose). In the same way that anything realistic is no longer considered "art" but merely "design" and not worth paying attention to. (They would also point out that I shouldn't have ended the above sentence in a preposition.)

So I don't think it's a matter of what most people find acceptable, but rather what the "educated elite" uses to differentiate themselves from "most people".

Most people I know consider film to be an important medium, at least as important as books. But Most People don't get a vote.


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