I’ve written a few posts on this blog about disappointing movies based on books. A few people have admonished me, saying that I “can’t” compare movies and books because they are simply two very different styles of storytelling.
I agree they are different styles. I disagree that I “can’t” compare them. Because, when it comes right down to it, storytelling is storytelling. A movie may be more limited than a book and therefore, certain details must be changed or left out. And nine times out of ten, the book will be better than the movie for that simple reason. But that doesn’t mean the movie is always bad. The movie is bad when it not only changes the story of the book but does not change it well.
When I was about twelve years old, I discovered a book called The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper and fell instantly in love. In some aspects Cooper was an early J.K. Rowling. Many consider her books, Dark is the second in a series of five, classics, but they don’t seem to have enjoyed the kind of popularity and fame the Harry Potter books have. But then again, they came out in the 1970s — a very different time in entertainment — and are only about two-hundred pages long, each. The entire series is shorter than The Order of the Phoenix.
I haven’t read that book in at least twenty years. Probably more. I only had a vague recollection of the story, though a clear memory of how I felt when I read it. So when I turned on the television the morning of my birthday, I was super excited to see the 2007 movie version (which I’d never seen) on FX and decided to watch it.
I knew from the get-go, though, that something was wrong. Cooper is British and her main character, Will Stanton, was British. The movie made Will an American living in England and aged him three years. Even after all these years, the movie was so different from the book that I could tell which details were wrong without remembering exactly how they occurred in the book.
The people who made the movie also took a very well-written, well-developed, amazing story and ruined it. It was simply bad story-telling. It did prompt me to pick the book up again (it’s only slightly more than two-hundred pages, so there was really no need to make such drastic changes). I had to know if my memory was rose-coloring the book or if it was as good as I remembered. It is.
And this isn’t the only example I’ve come across recently. When Sherlock Holmes came out in theaters (with Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr.) I hadn’t read enough Holmes to compare the stories to the movie. Still, I hated the movie. It was dreadful. Beyond dreadful. Still, I punished myself by going to see the sequel — Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows — last weekend. By then, I’d read all the stories and novels that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote.
What I’ve noticed about the movies that I hate in comparison to the books is that whoever makes these movies decides that he or she likes the concept of the books, but thinks he or she can tell the story better than the author. In the examples above (and also The Help), the screenwriters stripped the books down to the skeleton of a story and then put their own spin on the stories. And their spin was not better than the book. Their spin, in a word, sucked.
I waited to read the Harry Potter books because I almost always hate the movies if I’ve read the books. So, I watched all the movies and then read the books. And then watched the movies again. Now, the movies are slightly different. The books are very long, very detailed and there’s much about the books that just can’t be re-created in a movie studio. So there had to be subtle changes and details (and sometimes entire subplots) left out. But still, the movies are very good. They still tell the story Rowling intended. In some cases, I prefer the movie version of events to the books, although in the end, the books are better. The movies are still good.
Other examples: The Notebook was much better in its movie form than the book and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie version of Angels and Demons. Both movies told a great story and didn’t cheese it up or dumb it down.
So, you see, I can tell the difference between a movie and a book and even look at the two objectively. But just because it’s different doesn’t mean it can’t be as good. It’s a copout to say otherwise. And it does a disservice to authors and readers alike to ruin a good book by making a subpar movie.