Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Books vs. Movies

So I recently saw Stardust, a movie adaptation of a Neil Gaiman novel. From the early trailers, I wasn't interested in this movie, and from the jacket blurb and the description on Amazon, I wasn't interested in the novel. It really just didn't seem like my type of thing -- even though I write fantasy, I really am not a fan of most traditional "high fantasy," which is pretty much what this seemed to be (albeit with many strange twists, such as an odd-looking pirate played by Robert De Niro -- though I like De Niro very much, he's not exactly what jumps to mind for fantasy, right?).

Well, I guess by now you've probably heard similar sentiments all around the Internet, in papers, and from family and friends. In my case, my sister was dragged into it with low expectations, and came out talking about how great the movie was. She convinced me and my wife to go, but even still, we went in fairly reluctantly. And then, of course, like everyone else, we came out talking about how great it was. De Niro was perfect for the role he played, and I can't imagine that pirate being played by anyone else.

Well, I suppose I could launch into a discussion of bad trailers and/or bad jacket blurbs, or even a discussion of how new and/or humorous twists on old formulas don't synopsize well -- but that isn't what I really want to talk about today. This post is titled what it is because I'm now reading the original novel of STARDUST, and so far I'm really loving it -- and I'm realizing that I really prefer to read the novels after I see the movies. Otherwise, I get irritated by everything that's missing in the movie version, and everything that they changed or "messed up" for reasons of time, or visual splendor, or whatever. This was how I felt about the last few Harry Potter movies, having read and loved the books long before.

It's interesting how it only seems to work one way, most of the time. I read Stephen King's THE SHINING earlier this year, really enjoyed it, and then saw the Kubrick film -- which, of course, Kubrick really made his own, and so was completely different from the book. If I'd seen the movie before reading the book, I wonder how I would have felt? It seems to me that when I read a book after the movie, it's like finding a treasure trove of new detail to flush out what I already liked in the movie, whereas when I see a movie version of a book, it's often a popularized, lobotomized version of the book.

The upcoming movie adaptation of THE DARK IS RISING does not look promising in that regard, but I'll be going to see it regardless, because that's one of my favorite books of all time and I'd like to see how it translates to film (even though I suspect it will not fare well -- they renamed it "The Seeker," for crying out loud, and gave Will more powers and a girl crush -- that's not the story that first captivated me in fourth grade). But there's always hope, right? Fans of the Lord of the Rings books (which I am not) largely seemed pleased by the movie trilogy, and I thought the most recent movie version of THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE was exquisite. I suspect that I AM LEGEND will be an excellent adaptation of the Richard Matheson classic (which I only recently read), despite how much it has obviously changed from the original, given the trailer.

So it's not that I don't think that adaptations of books make for good movies, but it's just that so often the movies are an entirely new entity. Sometimes the movie keeps the spirit of the book, sometimes it keeps the plot and/or characterization details, sometimes it keeps little of anything. In an abstract sense, I don't really even see anything wrong with that -- film and fiction are two totally different mediums. I'd think it acceptable for a writer to hear a song, or see a painting, and be inspired into writing a novelization. That's acceptable partly because the book and the painting would so obviously be two different things -- no one would try to claim that the book was the "book version" of the painting. That wouldn't even make sense.

But since movies and books do have so many elements in common -- though novels lack the visual component of movies, and movies lack the internal life of novels, they otherwise have many shared components -- I think the tendency is for people to think that they can see the movie or read the book, and one is just as good as the other. That's where I disagree. If you saw the movie Stardust and loved it, wonderful -- now go and buy the book. If you've read the book, you might well like this particular movie adaptation, as well -- though I will warn you that many details have been changed, the spirit remains intact.

Film adaptations generally say "based on the novel," but it seems like that generally isn't something that people take too literally. Perhaps it would be more clear if we said that most movies were "inspired by" the book. Interestingly, people often have the same problem understanding what "based on a true story" means. As if memoirists just jotted down the facts of their life as they happened. A lot goes into making a successful, interesting memoir, even if the memoirist's life was inherently fascinating. I think that the same thing is true of book-to-movie adaptations.

If only more people would realize the differences inherent between the mediums, and how much is missed by seeing just the one "version" in the theaters, then perhaps the recent upsurge in novel-based movies would cause a corresponding upsurge in readership. If only.


Rob Brooks said...

I saw The Shining before I read it, and I think that's one of the reasons why I became such a big Stephen King fan. I saw the movie and thought it was good, but when I read the book, I saw how King did so much more than Kubrik did, how deep and detailed it was. It was my first Stephen king book.

I'm not looking forward to The Dark is Rising movie at all. I loved the books around the sixth grade, and have been wanting to find time to read them again. I'm not opposed to movie adaptatiosn of books, but I am to adaptations of kid's books to a degree. When the Harry Potter books came out, the greatest thing they did was get a young generation of kids interested in reading again. But I know kids who read the first book or two, then stopped when they started making the movies. One actually said to me, "Why should I read the book when I can just watch it?"

Obviously, judging by the book sales, not all kids thought this way.

Sometimes adaptations aren't even that--they just use the name and a few plot points. I love Robert Ludlum's Bourne books, and I love the Bourne movies (though I haven't seen the third yet), but the movies couldn't be further from the books. The only thing they share is that the main character was a spy, then lost his memory.

I would almost always rather read the book rather than watch an adaptation. But movies are good for the writers in that they generate interest and sales will pick up. Even if Hollywood does a less than adequate version.

Christopher M. Park said...

Hi Rob,

Thanks for stopping by my blog. THE SHINING was my first Stephen King book, too, although I saw the miniseries of THE STAND years before I read any of his work.

My wife comes from your camp of thinking about movies based on kids books. She feels like it's often either ruining or commercializing the books she loved the most growing up. It's disappointing that some of those kids you know have expressed the sentiments that they did about book vs movie of Harry Potter, but hopefully they will change their ways as they get older. One hopes.

I had wondered about the Bourne books, but I haven't read those yet. I've got three of them on my bookshelf, waiting to be read, but I just haven't gotten to that point in my reading list. I guess I'm happy that they don't follow the movies very closely, then, because now I have entirely fresh stories to enjoy!

I don't know if you read much Tom Clancy, but they did more or less the same thing with all his books. THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER followed the book extremely closely, but THE SUM OF ALL FEARS changed an incredible amount. The other two that they made into movies were somewhere in between.

I definitely prefer books, same as you, but I'm also a visual person and enjoy having the movies available. It's just too bad that they often pale in comparison to the book, which can really ruin the experience.

Rob Brooks said...

I read all of Tom Clancy's books till a certain point, up through Executive Orders, I think. Loved the books, all the detail, the authentic feel. I didn't care for most of the movies. Red October was good, Patriot Games was okay, but the Sum of All Fears was awful in comparison. Like you said, Clear and Present Danger was one of those that was just different.

I'm not against movie versions of books at all. I love movies. I spend way too much time watching movies. And if it's a book I liked, I'd like to see the movie, even if it's different. I'm one of those in the loved-the-Lord-of-the-Rings-books camp, and I coudln't wait for the movies. Heck, I probably liked the movies better, although they're missing lots of good parts. But they also skip lots of dull parts, so it evens out.

Christopher M. Park said...

Sounds like we have pretty similar tastes, Rob, at least for thrillers. Thanks for commenting!