Movies from Books

There are certain axioms that “everyone knows” about movies: Sequels suck, remakes are never as good as the original, and movies based on books are never as good as the books they’re based on. None of these are true, of course. While I’m defending remakes over at the Retromedia forum, the topic of movies based on books came up over at Ace’s on the discussion of the Iron Man mvoie.

Here’s what I wrote:

Silence of the Lambs. Good book, better movie.

The Amityville Horror. Crap book, slightly less crappy movie.

The Da Vinci Code movie, as bad as it was, was probably not as bad as the book.

When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, and for that matter The Time Machine are all genre classics–talking the George Pal movies, now. Ballmer and Wylie’s book was very good (and holds up pretty well) but not the classic that the movie is. It’s been a while since I’ve read Wells, but his stuff is pretty dry.

You get into questions of what it means for one work of art to be “better” than another, and in this case, two works of art in different media. Books are a different experience from movies, and very rarely do you get a Silence of the Lambs, where the movie adheres faithfully to the book and manages to become a classic, where the source material (while very good) is unlikely to achieve the same relative respect.

Most often, the movie will diverge from the book somewhat to make something more watchable (see Spielberg’s removal of the rape scene from the opening of The Color Purple) or completely reinvent the idea (James Whale’s Frankenstein). Unfortunately, if you don’t have a Spielberg or a Whale (and sometimes even if you do) you end with crap.

I can come up with better examples than the ones I did, too. This was top-of-my-head stuff. But look at the movie Wizard of Oz, iconic and culturally huge in ways the book series never was (and the book series was and is popular).

Basically, people tend to confuse the experience of reading a book with the experience of watching a movie. If they’ve read the book first, they want the movie to make them feel like the book made them feel. But a book is a completely different experience from a movie, and it can evoke a kind of experience that a movie simply can’t.

Not to say that books are “better” than movies. Just different. That’s why a Silence of the Lambs is so rare. Or, to go back a few years In Cold Blood. You can’t put as much stuff in a movie, but when you cut large relevant chunks off, you lose a lot of things that made the books special. It takes more talent to adapt a novel in such a way as to create a truly engaging movie than t does to just make stuff up that sort of reminds you of the premise of the novel (e.g., any movie adaptation of a Dean Koontz novel).

That’s why the latter is done so much in Hollywood.

But it’s easy to forget Sturgeon’s Law. If 90% of everything is [crud], then that’s going to apply to movies adapted from books. And it’s a common mistake to generalize from that any of the three axioms I mentioned above.

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