We all know the old adage that the book is always better than the movie. But sometimes it’s not true. This week we asked our esteemed contributors the following question…
I’m going to talk about Philip K. Dick, but not about his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was made into the film Blade Runner, which to me are chocolate and cheese and equally delicious. I’m going to consider Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” which was adapted into the 1990 blockbuster Total Recall, the entertaining SF action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger
“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” isn’t a novel, but I reckon it’s reasonable to compare a short and its film adaptation. Consider Dick’s short story “Minority Report” made into the 2002 film of the same name, both are chocolate and delicious. Maybe the short story is a little more Hotel Chocolat than Cadburys. In fact, if you consider the 2012 remake of Total Recall, starring Colin Farrell, you might agree with me that a short story can be better than the film adaptation.
Exploring a reality bending premise, investigating false and real memory: “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” is a very good story and was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (1966). It’s a typical reality-bending Philip K. Dick premise: the protagonist is an ordinary bloke dissatisfied with his humdrum existence who dreams of going to Mars. So he approaches Rekal, Incorporated which promises to implant a set of new and exciting memories into his mind. But something goes wrong. Our hero’s repressed memories are reawakened, leading to a whole world of trouble. From this point the film and short story diverge, with short story man staying on Earth and the film hero travelling to Mars.
Over the years, I guess I’ve re-read the story as often as I’ve seen the film, maybe half a dozen times each, but the film is buried in my memory. Totall Recall is a big-budget extravaganza, with eye-popping special effects and larger-than-life performances. I’ve total recall of a number of scenes from the film: Sharon Stone’s kick-ass fighting, Arnie revealing his face from his female disguise at the airport, Mary with her three boobs, the resistance fighter, George and Kuato, two men sharing the same body, the drop of sweat rolling down a psychologist’s face that reveals our hero is not trapped in a fantasy of false memory, and the ending which ponders the opposite premise, as our hero wonders if he’s still trapped in a false reality before he turns to kiss the woman of his dreams.
Don’t get me wrong: “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” is a great short story, but Total Recall is unforgettable.
I’m always a bit reticent to give an opinion on whether or not a movie is “better” than the novel on which it is based for the simple reason that a book is a very different medium from a movie. At times it might occur—for all of the accolades placed on them, both William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel suffer from dreadful prose and clumsy dialogue, yet the adaptations (The Exorcist and Angel Heart) manage to overcome them through striking visuals and powerful performances—but often, and especially in science fiction, fundamental elements must be changed in order to successfully adapt the book to screen. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? isn’t inherently better than Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, unless you look at the latter as insufficiently faithful to the former, which also could be said of Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining; in fact, as the comic adaptation of Dick’s novel and Mick Garris’s miniseries demonstrate, literal transliterations seldom work well. Perhaps the only three movies I can think of where the movie and book are identical are The Maltese Falcon, Ordinary People, and Rosemary’s Baby. If you’ve seen those movies, reading the books is unnecessary, and if you’ve read the books, the movies add nothing new.
That said, at times a movie might enhance something a novel misses. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris examines the challenges in communicating with an alien species, but Andrei Tarkovksy’s adaptation incorporates a dimension of humanity that the book explores with only partial success, with its final images providing a more unified work than the source material. Tarkovsky adapted another Russian science fiction novel, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, this time into the meditative Stalker, which makes liminal the more overt alien artifacts strew throughout the book in favor of a far more eerie and poetic experience. Are they “better” than the books? That depends on how whether or not the viewer accepts them as faithful adaptations. The books are there, but the addition of Tarkovsky’s singular vision infuses them with a degree of artistry they otherwise might lack.
At times, the cinematic rendition so overpowers its novelistic counterpart that it becomes the language by which we associate the tale. I suspect that few modern readers today bother to pick up a copy of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers, but I’m sure many more know the pod people from any of three adaptations made between 1956 and 1993. I’m not fond of the novel; I always have found the movies directed by Don Siegel, Philip Kaufman, and Abel Ferrara, be they called Invasion of the Body Snatchers or simply Body Snatchers, a far more terrifying experience than the novel ever hoped to be. The directors work with paranoia and fear of loss of identity extremely well, showing the action as opposed to talking about it, as Finney’s novel seemed to. (And, in the case of the 1978 version, there is a great in-joke that has Leonard Nimoy playing a psychiatrist who encourages people to get in touch with their feelings.)
The most surprising adaptation of recent memory turned out to be the Spiering Brothers’ Predestination, based on Robert A. Heinlein’s short story “All You Zombies.” The movie seldom strays from its source material, but never feels dated; in fact, it elevates the gender politics from the typical shock value of the story’s publication to pointed commentary, something that the story never quite pulled off. Even more surprisingly is how the sparseness of its special effects nonetheless conveys glimpses of the future without resorting to cinematic overkill. Heinlein almost never translated well to the screen—see the film version of The Puppet Masters to get an idea of how painful some attempts were—but Predestination not only did it well, but in a way did it far better than we could have hoped, to the point that it did the source material justice.
Which sometimes is exactly what is necessary.
Before fans of the book jump on me, let me admit that what we have here is a case of the excellent versus the magnificent. The book is quite excellent and has a wonderfully dry, funny tone that the movie does not. It captures the sense of a world of starch and stuffed shirts traveling into the jazz age, the age of commercial electricity, the age of widespread Freudian thinkers, the age of casual sex and modern thinking. It has a narrator so naïve that he becomes an unreliable narrator because of it. Witty dialog, whimsical turns of events, not the least bit predictable…quite excellent.
However, it has two shortcomings as compared to the film.
First: the way director and co-writer Nick Willing handled the material and tightened it is incredibly skillful. Subplots are cut, plots moved from one character to another, motivations added, thematic structure reinforced, stakes raised. It’s still a surprising plot, but now it’s smooth as clockwork.
Second: when one’s theme is photography, a novel will almost always be at a disadvantage when compared to film in general and this film in particular. The film is so vividly, clearly realized that one can easily imagine the movie as a hand-drawn Miyazaki feature. I can’t really speak to the amazing cinematography other than to say it’s fascinating to watch the themes of light and darkness evolve throughout the film: at the beginning, light and darkness are clearly delineated, with light for life, and darkness for death; however, by the end, they mean something more subtle and intertwined.
I can, however, talk to the differences between plots.
The book begins with a man about to lose his business, when in comes a policeman with photographs of fairies, taken by local children. Charles Castle studies the photographs, tells the man they’re rubbish, and sends him off–then considers tracking the children down, not because he believes the photographs to be real so much as he believes the girls to be beautiful and innocent enough to want to take pictures of them. And then his assistant quits to start his own business, telling Castle that he’s going bankrupt, and then Castle enters a deal with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to buy the photographs from the children, and then there are burglars, and then he meets the vicar’s wife, and then…there are a lot of “and thens.”
The film begins with mountains and a wedding at a snowy church, along with a version of Castle who seems almost as blissfully naïve as his written counterpart. His character, however, quickly diverges (for a reason I won’t mention here). Each scene thereafter leads unavoidably to the next, like a set of dominoes. Castle photographs the dead for identification during World War I, more concerned about his photographic plates than the bomb landing next to him. After the war, Castle sets up as a professional photographer–a trick photographer who patches the faces of the dead into photographs of the living, for a reasonable fee. And when the Cottingley Fairy photographs are shown at a Theosophical Society meeting, of course it’s Castle who debunks them (in a nice turn, Edward Hardwicke, an actor who often played Watson, plays Doyle here). One of the people Castle cynically hands out business cards to as he destroys their hopes of an afterlife is a reverend’s wife who wants to know if her children are faking their photographed fairies, too.
Each event in the film flows so naturally from the previous one that it’s almost impossible to believe that none of this is based on a true story, other than the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a member of the Theosophical Society and was, at one point, taken in by the Cottingley Fairies. The events in the book seem haphazard, the way actual events might occur, messy and improbable, and there’s nothing wrong with that–but where the novel touches on ideas, the film dips deeper into myth.
The book and film continue to diverge almost until the ending (in some rather unexpected ways!), at which point they become very similar, and end in almost exactly the same place, the fact of which is almost more surreal than the works themselves. Comparing the book and film is a study in how to turn the plot of something excellent into a masterpiece, and I recommend both.
At the time that I Am Legend came out in the theaters (2007) I had never heard of Richard Matheson. I watched the movie mostly because of the post-apocalyptic scenes of New York City I’d seen in the previews. And of course, who doesn’t love Will Smith? As a rule, I’ve never been hugely excited by zombie apocalypse stories, but I do enjoy them from time-to-time. I thought the movie was unique enough in its approach that I would give the book a chance. Boy, was I disappointed.
I really liked the fact that the movie’s main character, Robert Neville, was a virologist, and he was trying to solve the zombie/vampire outbreak with biology. Science is always blamed for the zombie apocalypses, but it’s never the hero, and I thought that alone was worthy of follow up. In the novel I Am Legend Robert Neville is not a scientist. Not even close. He eventually, much farther into the story, takes some medical books from a library and teaches himself some biology, but he’s not a scientist. He lacks the rigor of the process of experimentation. The triumph of the movie becomes the hubris of the written story, when Book-Neville decides the disease can’t be cured after a few attempts and simply tries to find the best way to eradicate the vampires.
Both the book and the story have tragic endings for Neville, but the feeling of them is quite different. Movie-Neville is a martyr. His death enables all the other survivors to live and even to cure the infected. Book-Neville is killed because he’s a threat to the burgeoning society of alive-infected who are living with the disease.
The other big difference between the two, and also a point where the written story loses some potential impact, is the dog. Book-Neville’s dog companion doesn’t get much time on the page, and his eventual death doesn’t have much emotional resonance. And that’s saying a lot, because dog injury and death is almost always a tear-jerker for me. In the movie? I cried when the dog died in the movie. So hard. That’s because the dog was not only Movie-Neville’s best and only friend, but also got himself infected saving Neville.
What it comes down to is that the movie’s characterization of Neville is so much better. It may be that Matheson wanted his Neville to be more morally gray and unlikable than the film version turned out to be, and if that’s the case I would call his written story a success. However the Neville of the movie is just so much more charming, and I wanted him to win. There are a few scenes where Movie-Neville goes out to a store he’s populated with mannequins that he dresses and talks to like friends, and those scenes were gut-wrenching. There’s nothing in the books like that. Book-Neville pines for his lost wife, certainly, but he doesn’t pine for interaction of his fellow-humans. This makes Movie-Neville hugely more sympathetic, and more appealing.
I’m afraid I’m going with the obvious here—The Princess Bride by William Goldman. It’s not just a question of having seen the movie first. (I saw the movie Jumper first, for example, but decided I needed to read the book because of the huge number of unanswered questions and plot holes in the movie.) Both the movie and the film opt for a frame story, although it’s a little more overt in the movie, and that doesn’t bother me.
For the record, there is at least one spoiler below if you haven’t read the book, so if that bothers you, you might want to skip it.
The bits where the grandfather skips reading parts of the book to get to the good stuff? Fun in the movie. In the book, it’s a little tedious to be told how many pages there ought to be of trunks of clothes being packed and unpacked. Prince Humperdinck’s search for a bride is back story that really doesn’t need to be told at all.
The fencing scene obviously works better in a visual medium. Sure, it’s all stage fencing, and in an actual swordfight, there wouldn’t be nearly as much banter. Doesn’t matter. “Why are you smiling?” Because it’s one of my favorite on-screen swordfights ever, and plausibility be damned.
What really and truly seals the movie being better than the book for me, however, is the ending. I’m a sucker for a happy ending, and the movie nails that. The book, though…
The book meanders about instead of having a definitive “The good guys won!” ending. Here’s where it gets weird. When I first read the book, I could have sworn that it got to the point with the kiss, and then Prince Humperdinck’s people come charging over the hill, kill Westley, and take Buttercup back.
Just now, I looked it up on Amazon to double-check the ending, and instead there’s this chase at sea, and jumping overboard (which might be okay, if anticlimactic after they’ve defeated Humperdinck once already), and Westley and Buttercup have a daughter, and Fezzik dies saving her. I mentioned it meandered, right? Seriously, the book reads like bad fanfic of the movie. Save yourself some time and heartache and go watch Mandy Patinkin and Cary Elwes duel again.
The eel doesn’t get her. I’m explaining to you because you looked nervous.
There’s no shortage of bad movies made from good books, and quite a few good movies that began life as mediocre books. This is everyday magic. But to take a good book and make a great movie – that is alchemy.
There’s no question that The Princess Bride is a good book: that’s certainly why comedy legend Carl Reiner gave it to his son, the soon-to-be legend Rob Reiner, and started it down its path to becoming a great movie. (It’s important to note, of course, that William Goldman wrote both the book and the movie, and so deserves credit for both.) All of the basic elements are the same in both: the same basic plot, the same characters, even a fair number of the same jokes. Characters’ stories that are summarized or hinted at in the movie are much more fleshed out in the novel. This is probably why you occasionally get people who insist that the book is better; it’s telling, though, that they’re almost always people who saw the movie first, and therefore appreciate the book largely because there’s more of it. In fact, though, the movie is better because it’s shorter. Most of the additional detail doesn’t really add to the characters and in some cases detracts from them (Buttercup, passive but largely unobjectionable in the film, is actively dumb in the book) and, to be frank, many of the jokes that didn’t make it to the movie were better off left in the book. That’s not really why the movie is better, though. Nor is it the fact that the movie is perfectly cast, though that’s certainly a big part of why it’s a great movie. The big difference is in the framing stories.
The way the novel is framed is pretty clever: William Goldman, the author, recounts looking for a copy of his favourite childhood book, The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern – a work full of derring-do, pirates, magic and so on. When he finds it, though, he discovers that his father had only read him “the good parts” – most of the book is, in fact, full of long-winded digressions about Florinese history and politics. Therefore the book we’re reading is actually Goldman’s abridgement of Morgenstern’s book, an attempt to recreate for his son the book that his father read to him.
The frame story for the movie, of course, has several of the same elements: a sick child having a book read to him which he, like Goldman’s son in the book, initially does not like. It’s likely that the idea of the father (or grandfather, in the case of the film, probably just because Peter Falk was available) abridging the book was removed for practical reasons: it’s a hard idea to convey in film. Whatever the reason, it’s the key to why the movie is better. In the book, the framing device really is just that: it creates a funny little fiction around the book, but since the book we’re reading is, after all, just “the good parts,” it doesn’t have much of an impact on how we read the story. The movie, on the other hand, intercuts between the two stories more often, placing the Grandfather in a more active role as he reassures, challenges, and occasionally even tricks the skeptical grandson. The two stories are much more thematically linked than in the novel: while Goldman’s son rejects the original version of the Princess Bride for perfectly legitimate reasons, the grandson’s objection – “Is this a kissing book?” – relates directly to the main story’s questions about the existence, meaning and value of love.
That line leads to the other reason why the movie is better than the book. In some ways the movie is more genuinely autobiographical than the book: in Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman writes of his childhood experience going to see Invitation to Happiness, only to discover that “it wasn’t a prizefight movie, it was a kissing movie.” The grandson, in other words, is also Goldman, but a more engaging version than the defeated, self-mocking narrator of the novel. So rather than being a father’s story, it’s now the son’s; the story of a boy on the first steps of the road to adulthood, who is just starting to realize that girls may be as interesting as swordfights. And who might, someday, write a book – and a movie – that has both.
The movie The Princess Bride came out when I was five years old. I was far too young to see the film in the theaters, but my father loved the film and brought the VHS home the moment it was released, and I loved it. Watching The Princess Bride became a family ritual, something that happened frequently, at the slightest provocation, and which everyone enjoyed. I can’t remember the first time that I saw the movie; I can’t even remember what it was like not to know all of the movie’s lines. I would mention several of them here, but people who quote excessively from well-known classics are tedious, and we’ve all seen the movie.
It wasn’t until I got into high school that I realized that there actually was a book The Princess Bride, and I naively believed the maxim that the book is always better than the movie. So I read the book, expecting to be wowed.
What a disappointment.
The book reads as a rough draft for the screenplay. The basic story is the same, and all of the movie’s iconic scenes are present, but they’re all worse. Less interesting, less funny, less original. (Yes, somehow the movie, despite coming later, feels less derivative than the book it’s based on.)
Let me give some examples: in the movie, Buttercup attempts to escape from Vizzini by jumping overboard, only to be stymied by the “shrieking eels.” But the book has no shrieking eels. The book has sharks. Regular sharks. They don’t even shriek. Later, the movie features the Pit of Despair, a lovely hidden torture chamber which features a hilarious albino and provides the context for a great scene with Inigo Montoya. The book does not have the Pit of Despair. It has the “Zoo of Death,” which is in every way less funny than the Pit of Despair. The only scene in the book which I remember being as funny as the one in the movie is the scene with Miracle Max, and even that is a little less amazing in the book since it lacks Billy Crystal.
So who deserves credit for making the movie as good as it is? Rob Reiner, the director? Cary Elwes? Andre the Giant? I’m going with Andre the Giant.
I’m sure I’ll take a lot of flak for this, but I’m putting forth The Lord of the Rings saga. I love these books and have read them many times, but I have to admit I often find myself skimming the drier sections of prose.
I really enjoyed Peter Jackson’s adaptation. While not perfect (nothing ever is), it showed me a visual representation of a world that I’ve adored since childhood in lovingly-rendered detail. And it also did what only two other films have ever done; it reduced me to actual tears at the end of Return of the King when Aragorn tells the hobbits that they “bow to no one.” That scene alone is worth a vote.