The Book Was Better

“I just saw the movie, wasn’t a patch on the book.”

If I’d stuffed my face with a deep-fried Mars bar every time I heard this sentiment, I’d probably lose a weigh-in with an elephant seal, have a mouthful of teeth with the average consistency of a sea sponge, and skin the overall texture of pepperoni by now. I’ll bet every last one of us has said something similar, though. Which makes every last one of us a bit weird, really. Not quite stupid, but getting there, you know?

Let me explain my thinking. (I find I have to do that a lot, which says nothing good about me whatsoever.)

It’s actually quite simple. A book is a book. A movie is a movie. And Popeye is what he is… an extremely odd-shaped sailor with a fetish for canned green vegetables.

Seriously, though, “the book was better” has become one of those irksome knee-jerk phrases that are stand-ins for something else entirely. See: “it’s political correctness gone mad!” which actually means “damn, the world doesn’t condone my bigotry any more, so I’ll just have this here tantrum instead”. Or: “I knew them before they were famous” which translates as “I am an unctuous hipster and will drip oily, corrosive scorn on, you know, like, everyone not in the inner circle of me, dude.”

But what do we really mean when we utter this phrase? In a mundane sense, I suppose we mean “this apple is better than this orange”, but if we already prefer apples to oranges, it doesn’t really bear repeating, does it? We could just make that clear once and be done with it: “I am an apple/book person. Not an orange/film person”. End of story. No, I think what is happening is similar to when people say “oh, TV, I don’t bother watching that stuff any more”—a whole slew of assumptions lie barely hidden beneath the surface, not least of which is that certain media are adjudged inferior. My point isn’t to argue whether or not they are, but to lament the smugness of the assumption itself, as if our audience will automatically nod vigorously in agreement every single time.

The complicating factor, I suppose, and one that exposes my metaphor for the flawed and incomplete thing it really is, is that this orange is based on that apple in some elusive way. Which shouldn’t matter—it’s still a freaking orange!—yet somehow, to most of us, it does. Why? Are we incorporating a little of the knew-them-before-they-were-famous hipster vibe alongside an assumption that books are inherently superior to movies? Is it because, even after just over a century, movies are still the upstarts? Are we making that hallowed mistake every generation makes, by deploring the newest and latest medium (whether it be jazz, rock’n’roll, comic books, hip-hop or video games, whatever “the kids” are into) in favour of what we are comfortable with? Whatever it is, I wish we’d stop it. It’s starting to sound like the jerking of ancient knees, a particularly alarming mix of rubbery creak and twangy groan that makes my stomach feel weird. So yeah, stop it. Please?

Okay, look. There are many novels that have been adapted for film for which any qualitative choice is difficult if not impossible. Let me say it again: a movie is not a book and a book is not a movie. One is pretty much entirely text-based and requires the audience to use imagination and comprehension, whereas the other is almost entirely visual and auditory and requires a little of the same two qualities plus something more elusive. One takes eight or nine hours to ingest, while the other takes around two hours. One is largely a solo project; the other a massive team effort. They are both extremely complex in different ways. Sure, they are related, in that they contain narrative arcs and characters and themes and such things, but they are still very different. Just as a movie and a video game are different. Yes, there are convergences, but overall it makes little sense to judge them by the same metrics.

Anyway, because my OCD side loves lists, I am now going to fire off a random group of 30 books, in no particular order, which weren’t better than their movie counterparts, but were simply different. Not better, not worse, different. Like apples. Like oranges. Like Popeye. Like deep-fried Mars bars. Okay, those last things are bad.

1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (renamed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the original movie adaptation).
2. The Body by Stephen King (renamed Stand By Me in Rob Reiner’s film version)
3. The Shining by Stephen King
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Isaac Asimov
5. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (renamed Blade Runner in Ridley Scott’s classic film)
6. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
7. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
8. Psycho by Robert Bloch
9. Atonement by Ian McEwan
10. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (combine Peter Jackson’s trilogy for the comparison)
11. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
12. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
13. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
14. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
15. On the Beach by Nevil Shute
16. Deliverance by James Dickey
17. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
18. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
19. Children of Men by P.D. James
20. Misery by Stephen King
21. No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
22. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (the best film being the 1939 version)
23. The World According to Garp by John Irving
24. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
25. The Dead by James Joyce
26. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
27. The Hours by Michael Cunningham
28. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
29. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
30. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Note the mix of classic lit, contemporary lit and genre fiction… No real reason, just note it… Okay, I admit it, I was going to make a great point there and completely forgot what it was. Cough. Moving on… Unlike the occasional glaring piece of wrongness, such as The Bonfire of the Vanities or Moby Dick, not one of these film versions is significantly inferior, or even inferior at all, some being arguably superior. Certainly my point stands that you can make a case for either incarnation. An argument can also be made, based on a closer study of these successes, perhaps, that a film—recognizing itself as a different animal entirely—may often work better if it doesn’t try too hard to replicate the source material.

And now, since I’ve only included works with which I’m familiar in both mediums, feel free to add, in the comments section below, the many I’ve overlooked.

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David Antrobus is a contributing writer for Indies Unlimited and author of the nonfiction book Dissolute Kinship: A 9/11 Road Trip. For more information, please visit the IU Bio page, and his website: The Migrant Type.

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Author: David Antrobus

Born in Manchester, England, author David Antrobus currently lives in British Columbia. David also edits and writes in many styles and genres, from nonfiction to dark fantasy. He worked for twenty years with abused teens. You can also find David at his blog and at his Amazon author page.

58 thoughts on “The Book Was Better”

  1. Disney's Bridge To Terabithia was actually a very good translation. They failed with the Narnia movies but, what are you gonna do?

    Harry Potter was all right. I stopped watching after they gutted the fourth book to make a time quota. Blood Work was very good. Never saw The General's Daughter, loved the book, though. Queen Of The Damned was laughable at best, as was Blood And Chocolate. Both excellent books, did not translate well on screen.

    1. The first Harry Potter, yes. good call. Have still to see the Narnia movies. o_0 Researching this topic, I realised how poorly read I am. Often I'd find a movie that was a book adaptation yet I'd not read the book! Fail. My list were pretty much the only ones I could think of where I'd read/see both. Oh, I just thought of another: the original Rambo movie, First Blood. The David Morrell book was very good, too.

      1. Another one: Polanski's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Although the book is probably better, Kinski's performance raises this one, for me. Then again, I totally crushed on Nastassja Kinski for the longest time, so… yeah…

        1. Slapping aside, GWTW was the first really big novel I read at a very young age. I was very interested in the Civil War at the time (I know, strange thing for a pre-pubescent child to be interested in). The movie has become a classic, but the book is by far more detailed and has more "stuff" going on. On that note, tho, I can literally recite the entire movie, I've seen it so many times. 🙂

  2. Alrighty David, I was willing to go along with your premise until I glanced down and saw glowing in bright letters (perhaps it was just my eyes)"To Kill a Mockingbird". I wrote about the book on my blog,here's the link: http://bit.ly/AonemQ Yes books create worlds that we then recreate in our minds and movies have to limit the visual impression to a single vision to make sense. But for me, To Kill A Mockingbird, is the only time that the planets aligned and clocks stopped so the perfect movie adaptation could be produced. Don't tell me that one is different from the other. They are, perfectly, the same. Don't make me tell you again :))!

      1. gosh, it's a good thing you agreed with me! Bit of a fanatic about both the movie and the book. In my haste to post about that one item, I forgot to mention something else. Really good post David. 😉

  3. Excellent post, David. I could talk about this all night. On my list, The Accidental Tourist was one of the best book-to-movie translations I've ever seen. (As you've already mentioned Garp and The Wonder Boys.) I know it's basically money that propels books into movies. But the creative side of me wants to see it as a challenge. How to capture all that internal monologue? How to capture that one, perfect scene? But most of the time, I wish they wouldn't bother. I don't want to see a cherished book smooshed and folded and simplified into 100 minutes, with actors I would never dream of casting. I avoid certain movies just for that reason. Yet a brilliant original screenplay is its own magic. I can't imagine Juno as a novel, for instance. And what I really hate is when the movie version is so terrible that it kills the potential for rebound book sales. Wish we could have our apples and oranges, as well as our grapes and kiwis and cantaloupe.

    1. All good points… and all good fruit, too. Yes, I do have to confess I get nervous when one of my most treasured books is rumoured to be in movie production. Current case in point is On The Road. The trailer is promising, but still… they said it was unfilmable! Stephen King's Dark Tower series is another one that keeps me awake nights wondering how exquisitely badly some Hollywood suits could @#$% it up!

  4. Okay, I will say that I saw Jaws the movie first. When I read the book, I was SHOCKED at how much deeper and complex it was. I have to say, it was much more enjoyable than the movie.

    1. I was SO irritated with the movie. I'd read the book first. (It was an agreement I'd made with my parents; I could see any potentially scary movie as long as I read the book first.) Ugh!

    2. Good example, Kat. Although I'd argue they were both good…. in different ways. The book for the reasons you cite, the movie because… well, it's freaking JAWS! And that's part of what I was trying to get across. A book (so far, anyway) can't come up with iconic theme music like that. Even memorable quotes tend to get lost when not highlighted in Technicolor, you know what I mean?

  5. FYI, I once met Larry Beinhart, who wrote the novel, American Hero, which was made into the film, Wag the Dog. He came to our writers' group meeting to speak and answer questions. The inevitable question came up: did he have any control over the screenplay, did he like what they'd done? (The movie was quite different from the book and many said horribly done.) Clearly his body language said that he was tired of the question and he was not happy with what they'd done. But then he shrugged and said, "It built my house, so I can't really complain."

  6. Great post David,

    I saw a bunch of the Movie/Books on your list that I totally agree with. We need to have a little chill in us, especially as writers, to accept that the movie adaptation has merit. That being said, Bridges of Madison County should be added to the list of really bad adaptations… oh wait, it was a really bad book too, never mind.

  7. Sometimes a movie makes a better story than a book because it's tighter and shorter. Hunt for Red October was excellent as a movie – taut and high-tension all the way through. The book was flabby and flailed around all over the place in comparison.

    1. Excellent point, Bev. Not having read the book, I still get that sense the movie captured the most essential parts and distilled them into its two hours and fourteen minutes of perfectly paced tension and characterization. Going even further back in time, I think Stanley Kramer's On The Beach is another similar example of this (although I am admittedly biased against the horribly wooden, clunky prose of the novel, no matter how creepily atmospheric it manages to be overall).

  8. You got the ones I was thinking of except Apocalypse Now. I would argue the film won out with that one. Heresy? Great post and good points brother. But the podcast was infinitely better. There was a thereness there. 😉

    1. Oh, you see, you're braver than me here, Dan. Was Apocalypse Now really a remake of Heart of Darkness? Yeah, kind of (if you haven't seen the documentary film about the events surrounding its filming, Hearts Of Darkness, seek it out, it's awesome). But if so, it was a worthy adaptation. And yeah, it's perhaps one of the best examples of using source material to create a whole different world. Not only that, but a more interesting, operatic world that jibed far more seamlessly with its time.

  9. Above, in turn, made me think of The Last Temptation of Christ. Which was a lot of effort as a book and a movie but totally worth it in both media.

    In the Name of the Rose, in contrast, worth the effort as a book and sort of wanted to make me beat my head against the wall in film form. It was a good effort to separate a plot line out of a much more complex whole, it was just a boring movie. I'll admit to having started the book three times before I actually finished it but I that had more to do with me than with the book itself; it is brilliant. I'm not 🙂

  10. I think Inkheart falls into this category as well. The movie was vastly different from the book, but very enjoyable. Or perhaps I'm just a sucker for the combination of Brendan Fraser and Paul Bettany. :O

    1. Ha, ha. Outside of cute actors, though, "vastly different" can be the key, I think. Movie directors: don't try to follow a novel word-for-word, scene-by-scene, you are almost guaranteed to fail.

  11. The Da Vinci Code was the worst film adaptation I've seen. A total embarrassment to Tom Hanks who must have bottom-clenching fits every time he thinks of that film. The Potter film (the ones I've seen) aren't bad adaptations of the book, and Gone with the Wind (you chicklets here won't remember it…..)wasn't bad and the Grisham adaptations are very acceptable.

    1. I haven't seen the film, but I couldn't even get past the first page of the book. Some of the worst writing I've ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on, sadly. Awful, terrible stuff. (Sorry, Dan Brown fans.)

      Oh, Grisham. again, not my favourite writer, but the films I've seen based on his books have been mostly decent…

      *Slaps forehead* How could I forget? The Jason Bourne books/movies. Ludlum. Uh, I suck.

  12. I was at a conference last year and they had a screenwriter speak. I asked him how is it some books make better movies than others- he simply said that some books LEND themselves better into making movies. And really, it's all in how the director, producer, and actors "see" that book (if they even bothered to read it!). So, there are some books that will make great movies, others are just meant to be books, even though folks may say "Oh, this would make a great movie!"– Not so true. Lesson learned.

    Great post as always- enjoy your humor.

    1. Some books seem more "visual" than others, and some even feel like the author kept one eye on a potential film adaptation. They are just very cinematic. Others, no. Can anyone imagine a movie based on, say, Infinite Jest? Has anyone even tried to film a Pynchon novel?

      Thanks for the anecdote, K.

  13. Now that generated some reactions. lol. Good arguments all round. Just to stay in one genre – I preferred the movie for Cujo and hated the mini series for The Stand. The bottom line is, as I think you are saying, David, is that they are different and we ought not to expect them to translate perfectly.

    1. Exactly, although it's clearly fun comparing them, so I'm a big hypocrite, lol.

      Cujo was very good, really lent itself to the movie format (suspense, suspense, suspense) but I thought they chickened out with the ending. Then again, in a way, my inner wuss thinks it was a *relief* they chickened out.

        1. I just read recently that there is another film version of The Stand in the works, with Ben Affleck already set to direct and David Kajganich (best known for penning the script for Invasion, the '07 redo of Invasion of the Body Snatchers) to write the screenplay. I know the idea has been bouncing around forever, but who knows, eh? Might happen eventually.

  14. Really good post David but you stole my idea! I was, as we speak, preparing a blog post with very similar comparisons. Oh well, on to the next idea!

    You did, however, miss one book/movie comparison. Pet Semetary By Stephen King. I have ALWAYS thought that books were better than movies (my imagination apparently is SO much better than anything Hollywood has yet to come up with) but the film that followed that book somehow got into my head and stole all the wonderful images I conjured up while reading that book. When I watched for the first time, genuinely expecting to be disappointed as usual, I was pleasantly surprised at how dead on the characters, plot and scenery were. I have never seen a movie, based on a book, that was so closely related in every detail.

    1. Wendy, you should still write it!

      I agree on Pet Sematary in one crucial way; it was very faithful to the book. But the movie made me realize one plot hole that actually almost ruined one of King's most upsetting and harrowing novels for me: [SPOILER ALERT!] after what happened to the cat, why didn't Louis Creed build a fence?

      (Oh, I was trying really hard not to overload my list with Stephen King adaptations, most of which are terrible, but some of which are brilliant, which explains why I left so many off.)

  15. One of my favorite novels as a teen was Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York, by Gail Parent, who wrote for "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." (google it, kids.) Essentially, it's about a young, overweight Jewish woman who can't find a husband and rather than face the humiliation of singletude, she decides to plan her suicide. It's a comedy. When I heard it was being filmed, I was excited, because it seemed perfectly adaptable. But they cast a gorgeous, thin girl in the lead, and she ends up with Roy Scheider. WTF? Point completely ruined. I hope Parent was well compensated.

    1. Ha, this made me laugh. Demonstrates how unbelievably stupid Hollywood can be. And also, Laurie, you use the word "singletude" which singlehandedly makes this comment worthwhile.

  16. The Firm! I loved both the book and the movie, but the book was better in the sense you got more into the actors' heads. I enjoyed the movie thoroughly, though.

    1. Showing my ignorance here (not to mention my laziness, since Google is right here if I open a new tab), but isn't The Firm Grisham? Wait, you meant the characters heads, right, lol? Now my *own* head (am I an actor, am I a character, what existential angst is this?) is a roiling mass of confusion.

        1. Yeah, but it's all good, because you started me on this weird tangent in my head, about whether characters and actors are interchangeable. Imagine writing a story where you think of your characters as actual actors. Or something.

  17. I really like your example of The Shining and the fact that King hated the Kubrick movie. Having just reread the book followed by watching the movie again I have to say that there were many differences between the two and I can understand why King feels the way he does. However, the basic plot is the same and both the book and movie are excellent. I love them equally.

    I would add the movie "Shawshank Redemption" to the list, which was based on one of King's short stories. With a few other notable exceptions, the rest of King's novels don't translate to movies/TV well at all. I shudder at the thought of "The Dark Tower" and "The Talisman" being brought to the screen.

    1. Shawshank Redemption, yes! I just mentioned to someone else I didn’t want to overload my list with King, but yeah, a completely worthy addition. Book (okay, novella) and movie both brilliant.

      The latter two I’d love to see done well, but I can’t see anyone really pulling them off. Isn’t the Dark Tower being filmed as we speak or did I dream that?

  18. 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn't written by Isaac Asimov, it was written by Arthur C. Clarke who wrote the screenplay for the movie with the director, Stanley Kubrick.

    1. You're right, of course, and now I'll go stand in the corner before being berated by HAL on an endless loop: "I've just picked up a fault in the AE35 unit. It's going to go 100% failure in 72 hours" and "Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?"

      Thanks for pointing it out!

  19. Ron Howard is still in talks with Warner Brothers and, as of a few days ago, it's being reported that they are close to negotiating a deal. I believe it is being done as a TV series starring Javier Bardem as Roland Deschain. I think I might be a little more hopeful if it were being done as a movie trilogy.

    I forgot to add to my list of shudders the talked-about remake of "The Stand" into a movie. I still haven't forgiven the powers-that-be for casting Molly Ringwald as Fran and Jamey Sheridan as Flagg in the original mini-series. At least Gary Sinese was perfect. There is discussion about "Under the Dome" being turned into a Showtime cable series by Spielberg (can you say "Terra Nova?") King's new book, "11/22/63," might be turned into a movie with Jonathan Demme writing, producing and directing. I'm trying to withhold judgement for now. Can't say I'm succeeding and hoping I'm wrong!

    1. Oh, thanks for this information, LMG. Javier Bardem. That part's promising, but, yeah, the made-for-TV part is not.

      I still haven't read his new one. But Demme could be interesting. The Silence of the Lambs is one of my examples above, after all.

      Fingers crossed.

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