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When The Movie Outshines The Book

Locus points to a NYT article called When the Film Outshines the Novel which offers the interesting opinion that film adaptations sometimes surpass the books on which they were based.

I say “Hogwash!” (Mostly because I never get a chance to say “hogwash”. What the heck is hogwash anyway? Ah, bless the Internet!)

Movies are almost always inferior to books – at least for the story that the book tells. They are different mediums and books offer a more comprehensive canvas on which to tell the story. In fact, it is the resulting literary goodness that made some Hollywood suit notice it in the first place. Books can get inside the characters’ heads; movies are relegated to the spoken inner dialogues of Dune.

That’s not to say, of course, that all adaptations suck. Actually, many adaptations succeed quite nicely and should not be offhandedly dismissed. However, anyone who favors a movie over a book is missing out.

Seriously, can anyone name a film adaptation that was superior to the book?

[Hmmm…I know this is a loaded question since there are bound to be some people who disliked some author’s writing style but found the 90-minute film version more than watchable. So, go ahead. Edumacate me.]

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

12 Comments on When The Movie Outshines The Book

  1. I’m going to go with a heretical choice, and say that the Lord of the Rings movies are the equal of the books.

    For all of the wonderful world building and imagination shown in the novels, the novels have flaws which, in the span of shorter movies, are less seen, and in fact, some things are better choices. Arwen, for example, being promoted to a major character is a good thing, since there are damned few good female protagonists in the books.

    And there are parts of the book which are dull, or told in flashback, or are not handled as well as the movie deftly does.

  2. While I find Paul completely wrong, I left one of his double-posts :).

    Seriously, I while enjoyed the heck out of LOTR trilogy and can see your point Paul, I don’t feel the movies outshined the book(s). Tolkein did write very well overall, even if in places the books aren’t perfect.

  3. On topic – there are certainly films that are better than the literary works that inspired them. Take Rear Window for example – the short story (titled It had to be Murder) is fine, but the movie (in Hitchcock’s masterful hands) is fantastic. In fact Hitchcock borrowed from several short stories in his career (rarely giving credit to the original work.)

    Steven King’s Stand by Me and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption are also examples of short stories being outshined by the films.

    Maybe these are clues that short stories make better films. I personally believe that’s because the short story is a pure story – there isn’t much room for backstory or side characters, exactly as a film should be. Just like every line in a short story, every shot in a film needs to be moving you towards the film’s climax.

  4. Having read the book on which the movie M*A*S*H was based, I can say the movie was far better. The book is just a standard war memoir.

  5. Another one: the film 2001 is better than the Clarke story it was based on.

  6. I would disagree with you on 2001.

    Firstly, if memory serves, the story on which the movie was based, “The Sentinel”, stopped when the moon’s monolith sent a signal into outer space, signalling its creators as to mankind’s advancement. The movie tells a broader tale of what happens next with the Jupiter’s trip into space. So, it’s not fair to compare them in terms of “does the movie outshine the book”. (I tried to prevent such comparisons by writing ” at least for the story that the book tells”.)

    If you are referring to the book-length novelization of 2001 – that was written in concert with the movie script so it matches more closely – I still disagree. The movies ending was completely inexplicable without the descriptions in the text. Was there anyone who understood the ending without having read the book?

    Just my 2 pennies.

  7. Oh, in response to the other comments…

    I agree with everyone here that the Lord of the Rings movies were excellent and (mostly) faithful to the books. As to which one was better…well, I’d have to side with the books. The movies are, however, one of the few examples (as I mentioned in the linked adaptations article) of an adaptation that does do justice to the source material.

    I haven’t read the source material for M*A*S*H. And I haven’t seen (or read the source story) for Rear Window. But I have seen and read the Stephen King stories and movies. I wouldn’t say that the movies outshined the stories in those cases. (BTW, both source stories are short – novellas to be precise – lending weight to the opinion that a shorter story makes for a better movie.) However, the movies were very good in their own right.

  8. Well, great art can be “inexplicable”! Sure, in some ways, the film 2001 fails, or is inferior to the short story or the novelization. But, IMHO, overall the movie is a far deeper, more involving, more artistic, more interesting and important work.

    Think of it this way: let’s say you have a choice between 1) every copy of the film 2001 disappears, never again to be seen by anyone, or 2) every copy of “The Sentinel” and the novelization disappears, never again to be read by anyone. Which would be the greater loss? Would anyone, other the Arthur Clarke himself, choose option #1?

    (Of course, I say that as the proud owner of an original-release 2001 24-sheet billboard….)

  9. Three Days of the Condor. The film is an intense, complex thriller. The book — Six Days of the Condor — was a tepid example of adventure/spy genre. What’s even odder is that I don’t normally like Robert Redford, but he’s quite good in this movie; his character comes off as intelligent and honorable … the guy in the book mostly gets buffeted around by events.

    Chocolat. The book wasn’t bad, but the movie re-set it a few decades back to good effect, and added layers of meaning, motivation, and mystery to the main character that helps bring everything together into a more coherent package.

    Girl with a Pearl Earring. The book is very, very good, but the movie translates the written descriptions into visuals that can do far more than words could ever accomplish. And like Vermeer’s paintings, Scarlett Johanssen and Colin Firth pack chapters of meaning into a single look. This movie put the tools of film into the service of the story and did more for it than the writing could ever hope to do.

    For the most part, though, I tend to prefer books over the movies made from them … at least for the books that are good in the first place. If a story works well in print, it probably will suffer on film, just as many brilliant movies produce limp novelizations — the genres have different strengths. Thus I think a good book rarely can be surpassed by its film version, but a mediocre book with a promising premise can perform brilliantly if treated right on the screen.

  10. I prefer “Bladerunner” to “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep” (and yes I do like PKD books)

    And “The Firm” was a better film than the book, the book descended into legal dullness.

  11. “Contact” by Carl Sagan. Yeah, the resolution of the film was too pat, especially when compared to the ‘pi’ development in the book, but all in all I have to say that as a novelist, Sagan was a great science writer.

  12. chris hall // July 15, 2005 at 8:27 am //

    The Man Who Would Be King, like Total Recall, is based on a fairly short short story. The film version of TMWWBK, though, is (IMNSHO) far superior to Kipling’s original, whereas TR, though fun, doesn’t hold a candle to PKD’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

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