We all have that friend who cannot sit through a conversation about certain movies without letting everyone know that, well, the book actually was much better.
(Confession: I often am that friend to my friends.)
This isn’t exactly a revelation. Literature can be encompassing and simultaneously intimate in ways even the best of films usually cannot. Also, literature can be widely loved but also very personal. The Frodo Baggins I picture (pre-film days, of course) is not exactly the Frodo you picture, right?
When you’re watching a film, it’s an experience, no doubt; something to which you are bearing witness. But a book? That’s immersive, practically a relationship — especially a long novel, let alone a whole series.
So, yes. Most often, the book is “better” so far as the perceived quality of the story is concerned.
There are, however, times when both the book and the movie are equally — if differently — “good.” Cases in point: “Cape Fear” (both versions, actually, which were based on a short novel “The Executioners”), “Deliverance,” “The Godfather,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Dracula,” “The Shining,” (the Kubrick film being equally as good as the novel, of course, not that dreadful miniseries remake) “True Grit” and all the Harry Potter adventures, to name just a few.
Then there are times when the routine gets flipped and the movie, despite the odds, is better than the book on which it’s based. It’s a comparative rarity considering the percentage of cinematic endeavors based on printed progenitors, but it does happen.
I’ve been on a bit of a reading quirk lately, one which saw me seeking out the novels on which some of my favorite films are based. It seemed to me that if the book is often better than the movie, and these movies were already pretty awesome, how great did that mean the book had to be? Pretty great, right?
Not always so, I found.
Here then is a list of books I read and found wanting when examined in the harsh light cast by their more satisfying film adaptations. I read them, dear reader, in essence, so you wouldn’t have to. You are spared the chore because now you know that sometimes, well, the movie was actually much better.
1 “Jaws” by Peter Benchley
Even without the legendary Steven Spielberg adaptation (the first true summer blockbuster movie, a phenomena more prescient in the entertainment industry now than ever), this book had problems. Upon release, it was criticized because the human characters were just generally unlikeable. Now, that may make it easier to swallow when they begin to get, well, swallowed. But it makes for a heck of a slog through this poorly paced novel.
To be fair, the climactic shark hunting scenes remain tense and effective, but it’s just not enough. There’s a whole weird subplot about the crooked mayor being even more crooked (he’s in bed with the mafia or something), and then the sheriff’s wife has an affair with the Richard Dreyfuss character, which takes up way, way more narrative space than it merits.
Unless you’re also a weirdly compulsive completist (ahem), feel free to skip it in favor of better Benchley fare. I recommend “The Deep” or “Beast.”
2 “Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton
Yet another tenuous tome put to shame by a Spielberg adaptation! Several beloved aspects of the film are noticeably (and painfully) absent from the original story: billionaire John Hammond is instead a greedy megalomaniac, the kids are annoying and then forgettable, the Grant/Sadler relationship is practically nonexistent and Ian “You know him as Jeff Goldblum” Malcolm is a cranky old man.
There is, though, one great exchange that didn’t make the movie, wherein Malcolm informs Hammond that regardless of how badly we damage the Earth, or what actions we take to “fix” it, the planet, and life, will continue on regardless — it is only people who are doomed.
That kind of talk will get you banned from the progressive table at dinner these days, but it’s at least a very well written bit of nihilism. The best Spielberg could muster was, “Life finds a way.”
3 “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (“Blade Runner”) by Philip K. Dick
This one’s tough, because the book’s not bad so much as it is just overshadowed. If you should be so lucky as to read it first, you might even say it’s just as good as the iconic Ridley Scott film.
But you would be wrong.
I’m sorry. I’m an unabashed Philip K. Dick fanboy, but “Blade Runner” is vastly superior to the novel on which it is based. It won the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, brought Dick to the attention of non-genre culture, revolutionized the sub-genre of film noir by combining it with realistic sci-fi imagery and themes, and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
If you haven’t seen it — or if, maybe, it’s been a while — seek it out right now and see for yourself. If you have, of course, I’m not telling you anything new. Look again, and all comparison disapears. “Like tears in the rain…”
P.S.: Get psyched, people. “Blade Runner 2049” is coming out in October — and it actually looks pretty good.
4 Half of Stephen King’s “Different Seasons”
Two of the four novellas in this collection have been filmed to even greater degrees of poignancy than was managed in the already pretty awesome original tales.
Stephen King is my favorite author. I will accept no list of Greatest American Novelists that does not include him in at least the top 25, preferable somewhere near the top.
However, even I have to admit that the film versions of “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body” (You know it as “Stand By Me”) are perfect. Absolutely perfect. In this case, it’s nothing against the original works, it’s just now impossible to separate your ideas of these stories from the images — and yes, the voices (thank you, Morgan Freeman) — so flawlessly realized in the films and so deeply ingrained in our culture.
5 “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper
OK, fine. It’s a classic. I get it.
That doesn’t mean the book can hold a candle to the awesome power of Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1992 adaptation. A film which, by the way, continuously grapples with 1986’s “Manhunter” for the honor of being My Favorite Adaptation by Michael Mann. The latter, of course, being the first cinematic appearance of Hannibal Lecter, which was only just barely left off this list, saved as it was by the stellar performances of William “Don’t Call Me Grissom” Petersen and Tom “Creepiest Man Who Ever Lived” Noonan, and a terrifically tacky soundtrack.
“Mohicans,” though, has a noticeable lack of tacky. It’s all heart, all the time.
The film is so earnest, in fact, it can catch you off guard. I love everything about this movie, even the wince-worthy violent moments, which so wonderfully rip away the strange veneer of simplistic glory we seem to coat historical warfare with so often. Canons, swords, really big knives — these things are brutal, and this film does not flinch away from that.
Watch especially Wes Studi as the racist Huron mercenary Magua, a truly complex and nuanced performance that will affect you.