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When the movie is better. March 24, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are great readers, but we try not to be book snobs. People love to belittle movies by comparing them, unfavorably, to the books on which they were based. (The Lord of the Rings movie series comes to mind as a justifiable example of this, reducing a wonderful trilogy to a two-dimensional endless battle sequence worthy of a video game.) But sometimes the movies are better.

Perhaps it was the death of Elizabeth Taylor, possibly the most beautiful woman who ever lived, certainly the most beautiful we ever saw, that brought the topic to mind. Or watching the first episode of “The Pallisers” last night, or comparing the recent version of “True Grit” with the original. But whatever the case, we challenged each other to name some movies that were far superior to the books that inspired them.

First on our list was “The Running Man.” The novella that inspired the movie was little more than a two-dimensional sketch by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman). For whatever reason, the scriptwriters managed to flesh the story out with real characters, lots of color, and actual depth. Ditto for Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun versus the Sean Connery-led film “Rising Sun.” Silence would add the Timothy Dalton version of “Jane Eyre” and both the Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale versions of Jane Austen’s “Emma” to the list. Certainly, “Gone with the Wind” and “The Godfather” were far better on film than on paper. Ditto most of the James Bond movies and the Conan movies. “The Commitments,” the marvelous fleshing out of a very slight novella by Roddy Doyle. And “Slumdog Millionaire,” the brilliant bringing to life of an Indian novel called Q&A, a first effort by Vikas Swarup.

Plays are not immune, either. “A Man for All Seasons” and “Amadeus” are two cases where the film trumped the play; ditto “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” 

Sometimes, we feel that the film versions and book versions come out as a draw. We both love the Tony Hillerman mystery series featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. But we also really enjoyed the Robert Redford-produced dramatizations of the series. We feel the same for the movie “Smoke Signals” and the Sherman Alexie short stories on which it was loosely based. And we really enjoy both Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and its TV adaptation.

Then there are the film versions that fall short. Besides the Lord of the Rings movies, there is the issue of Sherlock Holmes. Silence and I love Basil Rathbone as Holmes and respect Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of Holmes as a twitchy, ADHD-bipolar genius enormously. But we are still waiting for the ultimate interpretation, the one that truly lives up to the stories and books. Silence enjoys the various interpretations of her favorite Jane Austen book, Pride and Prejudice, from the BBC version to the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth film to “Clueless” and “Bride and Prejudice,” the Bollywood version. But she still thinks the ultimate interpretation has yet to be done.

And of course, there are the books that should be made as films but are still waiting: Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne and Tigana; Joan Vinge’s The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen; Sheri Tepper’s Grass and The True Game trilogy; Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting; Mary Gentle’s Ancient Light and Golden Witchbreed; Wendell Berry’s Port William novels; Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons and Falls the Shadow; Hope Munt’s The Golden Warrior.  Directors, producers, scriptwriters, where are you?!!!

Readers, we know you have additions to our various lists. Please share them with us!  And meanwhile, let’s take a moment to honor those often-invisible, overlooked entities, screenwriters, who can turn run-of-the mill text into great cinema.



1. alan - March 24, 2011

To the better than the book catagory I’d add “The Princess Bride” (not that I didn’t enjoy the book…) and “The Power of One”. The other list is too long to post in the comments section.

Thanks, Alan! Though we’d enjoy seeing “the other list,” too…

2. pkg - March 24, 2011

I think movie based on a book turns out to be good when writers understand the medium of cinema and try to merge the best of book with the requirement of cinema. A movie too close to book (until and unless book is written with a movie in mind) does not work well. I was so disppointed by “Fountainhead” but “Godfather” was great.

Excellent point, pkg!

3. h.ibrahim - March 25, 2011

I agree with most of your choices except Pride and Prejudice and Emma, I loved the Colin Firth version but recently reread the book and the complexity of Jane Austen’s understanding of the class structure is missing even in the BBC version. Perhaps I have great loyalty as well as respect for Austen the writer!

Silence says: I think I must be the only person who wasn’t wowed by Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, but then, I’ve always found Darcy rather wooden, even in the original, so I don’t blame Mr. Firth for any shortcomings. I’d take Mr. Knightley over Mr. Darcy any day! I preferred the film versions of “Emma” over the book because I found Austen’s endless ramblings as Miss Bates too tedious to endure, and they were curtailed in the films. But it’s true that neither of the portrayals of Miss Smith really worked—one actress played her as an innocent girl rather than a stunningly beautiful simpleton, while Toni Collette couldn’t disguise her intelligence no matter how hard she tried, and her looks are not the equal of Gwyneth Paltrow’s, much less far lovelier, as the part required. Someday…

4. Jen - March 25, 2011

So many people LOVED “The English Patient” – I found it so overwrought and barely readable. But I loved the movie- go figure. Then last night I saw the adaptation of Kasuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” — it’s haunting me in a way that I don’t remember happening with the book. One book I think would make a wonderful movie is Gail Tsukiyama’s “The Samurai’s Garden”- also one of my favorite books of all time.

Ha! Hi Jen! I hated the movie version of “The English Patient,” but never read the book and might have hated it even more. But I found the book Never Let Me Go quite haunting (despite my frustration at the clones’ inexplicable passivity), and have been dying (so to speak) to see the film ever since. (It’s finally made it into our Netflix queue.) I’ve not encountered The Samurai’s Garden and absolutely must look for it. Thanks for the recommendation!!!

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