”Oh, the book is so much better.” How many times have you heard that? Don’t you just want to smack the self-important nimrods who say shit like that about your favorite film? Movies give us the opportunity to see characters fleshed out for us, rendered with surround sound and infinite variations of color. Ambiguous endings, the kind that fly in novels, are seldom seen in films. In movies, the boy always gets the girl. The good guys win. They stop the meteor from killing the puppies – or whatever.
Sure, it’s nice to see everything play out with no difficult thinking or imagination involved, but often many things are lost in the transfer from book to screen. You can learn a lot more about what the characters are thinking, why they act the way they do, and what happened that led to these events if you simply pick up the book. There are some movies that are much, much fuller after you’ve read the novel that inspired them. Sometimes one can then go back with a much richer understanding of an already excellent film.
The following are five examples of books that made a fairly good transition to the screen, and one notable film that should never, ever, ever lead anyone into reading the novel.
One of the coolest things about the James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is how neatly the plot comes together at the end. The book is much longer and more detailed than the film could possibly do justice to, yet the filmmakers did an excellent job of – while simplifying the plot rather drastically – preserving those feelings of suspense and resolution. Centering on a trip of detectives working their own separate cases that, by the end, turn out to be only different angles of a much larger series of crimes, the book is a riveting tale of corruption, redemption and good old-fashioned police brutality. The movie, while missing some of the most interesting aspects of the book’s plot, manages to salvage enough to be a great story unto itself, and some of the plot changes will surprise you if you watched the movie first (not everything plays out the same way as in the novel). If you liked this film, the novel will absolutely blow you away.
Everything is Illuminated
This indie film, starring Elijah Wood and released last year, is based on the 2002 novel of the then 25-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer, who is also the main character of this whimsical book. Based extremely loosely on Foer’s trip to Ukraine to try to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in World War II, the novel explores a dizzying array of themes and ideas. The film, which I saw first, is excellent and emotionally compelling, but much is lost from the novel. This is a book that could not possibly be faithfully translated to the screen – there’s too much internal monologue, and the film would be a long series of voice-overs and backtracking. The novel traces the history of Foer’s family through several generations of strange incidents and mishaps with an almost magical feel, and explores the present-day trip to Ukraine with his hilarious tour guide, Alex, his grandfather (who claims to be blind), and the grandfather’s “seeing eye bitch,” who is insane. The book has a highly magical quality that the film, try as it might, can’t touch, and the ending is different enough that I was surprised when I finished the novel, although certainly not unpleasantly so. This is a movie that suffers a bit for all that was cut out to make a feature-length film, but for all the limitations of budget and medium, it still manages to be a poignant and hilarious story.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Ken Kesey was famously unhappy with the film version of his most celebrated novel, and refused to watch it. He actually changed the channel when he stumbled upon it on TV. His main point of contention is that the movie doesn’t tell the story from the perspective of Chief Bromden, something he saw as a vital part of the book. Indeed, Bromden’s voice and way of relating the story are a large part of what make the book special, but the film adaptation stands on its own as a beautiful story, which garnered Oscars for both Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher (the evil Nurse Ratchet). Whereas the book has a dreamy, surreal quality due to being written from the perspective of a mental patient who is often sedated, the movie seems much more matter of fact and, dare I say, fun. In both, the ending is heartbreaking, the injustices are gut wrenching and the story is worth experiencing. Either telling can break your heart, and the movie is excellent on its own, but the novel is truly unlike anything else you’ll ever read, rich with the voices of its characters and the desperation of being trapped inside physical walls and the walls of one’s mind. Please, for yourself, read the book.
The Talented Mr. Ripley
This is a case of the book actually being very different from the film. It’s also the one real exception I’ll make to “the book is better” rule (my final review, below, is not an exception so much as a warning). The Tom Ripley of Patricia Highsmith’s book is a very different man than the one portrayed by Matt Damon in the 1999 film, and the story in the movie is much fuller and far less emotionally removed, to the point of making the two tellings almost two different stories that happen to follow the same vague lines. The added warmth of the movie only serves to draw the viewer in further, making the twists and turns of the plot that are much more engaging. Each of the characters is much more fully realized on the screen than Highsmith allowed them to be in the novel, and the changes are wholly for the good. Whereas the Ripley in the book is a cold, calculating and basically amoral man, in the film he is passionate, impulsive and seems to at least experience some remorse. His relationship with Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf is much more colorful, and his escape from his crimes even more amazing. It’s not that the book is bad. It’s just a bit lackluster compared to how cool the movie turned out to be. Ditch the book.
If you thought the movie was fucked-up, do not – seriously, DO NOT – read the book. If you start the novel, and one of the first killings strikes you as unimaginably horrible, put the book down and never pick it up again. The book only gets gorier and more disturbing as it goes on, and some of the things that take place are forever etched in the deepest recesses of this writer’s mind. Now, whenever anyone asks me, “What’s the worst that could happen?” my mind immediately begins to run through some of the scenes of American Psycho. Because I’m pretty fucking sure that Patrick Bateman does the worst thing that could happen to anyone, ever, and in this book, you can really take your pick as to which scenario, exactly, is the worst. Any one of them, really. Holy hell. This isn’t a case of the movie being better than the novel. It’s a case of the novel being something no one I’d want to befriend could read without feeling seriously ill. Don’t read it unless you’re prepared to have nightmares. It’s funny at times, sure. It’s a brilliant critique of the 1980s, OK. But in between the talk of designer suits and fancy dinners, people are getting maced and skull-fucked. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.