You know the boisterous, verbose pedant at a party who finds it necessary to point out how the book is always superior to its movie adaptation? I want that person to buy a pair of roller skates and walk down a flight of stairs.
I’ve always found the statement infuriating. I heard someone talking about it recently and it echoes terminally in every discussion about books and movies. There’s a list of common problems folks have with adaptations: lack of imagination, casting decisions, missing sections, drastic changes, and wild interpretations. 1
People complain that a movie doesn’t allow your imagination room to play. Or the right actor or actress didn’t match with the one in your head. Or, even worse, they change the ending like Graham Greene‘s “Brighton Rock,” a gritty novel with a dark ending changed to make it happier on the silver screen. 2
The key in the discussion, however—and a point often not mentioned—is that these are two very different mediums. Comparing one to the other is like comparing photography to painting; though they both might be depicting the same object there are distinctly different reasons to appreciate and enjoy both.
On my list of the best books and their adaptations, I’ve stuck to the books I’ve read and the adaptations I’ve seen. Setting this criteria means there are major omissions from my list. “Fight Club” and “Silence of the Lambs,” two books I’ve never read, are both incredible films but absent here. From my understanding the former actually changed the ending, but when the Pixies kick in and those buildings are falling, who the hell cares? I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the movie “Adaptation,” a film that gives a reason to forgive Nic Cage for every shitty movie he’s ever done. I never read “The Orchid Thief,” however, so, again, it’s missing here. As for movies like “Dr. Zhivago” and “Shawshank Redemption,” I have to ask how in the world anyone could think the book was absolutely better than the movie? Both films are timeless, taut, and beautiful like Omar Shariff’s mustache.
Let’s set aside the argument for a moment and look at my favorite books and their superb adaptations. Because, like always, my opinion is the only one that matters.
Joseph Heller‘s book views rationality as lost on the masses and places survival at the core of our raison d’être, even if it means acting like you’re stir berserk. The structure of the book could not be replicated in the movie, but the razor-sharp wit and satire are far from lost with Alan Arkin as Capt. John Yossarian. There’s a dark comedic presence in the book and the film celebrates it. These are two of my favorites. Now, granted, the book is by far more engaging, but that doesn’t mean the movie is garbage. I’m probably crazy.
You know how you get stranger than Anthony Burgess‘ book? You call in Stanley Kubrick to do a film. Kubrick was obsessed with the idea of society’s fringes and many of his films focused on elitists and how they keep the rest of us out. 3 I’ve read this book a handful of times and I’ve only seen the movie twice. But I’ll tell you this: the movie sticks with you, images and music melding in ways that even if your imagination dwarfs Kubrick’s, could not come to life in the book. I’m not suggesting one is better than the other—because that would be defeating the purpose of all this rambling—but holy hopping penguin farts is this movie incredible.
The Quiet American
Graham Greene, one of my favorite authors, loved movies. He wrote screenplays and his movie, “The Third Man,” is one of my favorite films ever. In “The Quiet American” we have a prophetic book about the United States’ failure in Vietnam and a homage to the dying British Empire. There was a 1958 adaptation and I will admit that I’ve never seen this film. 4 I would argue, however, that the 2002 adaptation starring Sir Michael Caine 5 would cause Greene to stand up and applaud. Caine played Fowler, a reporter nearly broken, aging, holding fast to the ruthlessness and idealism of his youth—not unlike that British Empire he represents in my mind—with perfection. As a side note, if you’ve never read the book, I have no respect for you.
Here’s an example where I just might argue that the movie is better than the book. James Dickey was a poet first and a novelist second. “Deliverance” is no second-rate piece of work, but it would be hard to call it a great novel. The scene where Ed Gentry climbs up the cliff is incredibly written and somehow Jon Voight duplicates the energy and suspense in the movie. You probably know it from the “squeal like a pig” line and the dueling banjos. Your mom and Malory Archer probably know it because of Burt Reynolds.
All Quiet on the Western Front
During the last part of my senior year, the English department had me in to discuss my time at the college. They asked me what my proudest moment was as a student. I told them that as a freshman in a survey class I once wrote five papers on the same book, including my own, and got no lower grades than a B. The book was “All Quiet on the Western Front” and the practice caused me to know Erich Remarque‘s book well. One of the first books to display the horrors of war and still one of the best. The first film adaptation, in 1930, remains one of the most authentic war movies ever made. The ending is melodramatic, but it doesn’t take away from the power of the film.
Apocalypse Now (Heart of Darkness)
If you want a movie that takes a great many liberties with the actual text of the novel look no further than “Apocalypse Now,” which was based loosely on Joseph Conrad‘s “Heart of Darkness.” Mr. Kurtz is a legend in the history of characters and Marlon Brando as Kurtz is so fucking creepy and sinister he makes Jerry Jones seem tame in comparison. Conrad’s nautical scenes are authentic for a reason: He was an actual sailor, an obsession of his from an early age. If Conrad could see Martin Sheen and Laurence Fishburne sailing down the Nung River, I bet he’d be happy to see what Francis Ford Coppola did with his novel. On a separate note, how does Bobby Duvall manage to only be on screen for a minute and somehow still become a legend in this film?
I’m going to finish with this book because it will also be on my list of Great American Novels to celebrate July 4th next week. Vladimir Nabokov‘s second best novel 6 was adapted to the screen by Kubrick in 1962. 7 Like “Clockwork” the movie is streaked with dark comedy and the dialogue’s
subtle obvious sexual innuendo will have you in stitches. When the little cherry pie Lolita (Sue Lyon) takes off her glasses, you’ll Humbert Humbert all over yourself.
- wiseGeek.com ↩
- The only time the generic argument has merit is when Hollywood mucks up the ending to cater to the masses. ↩
- This is armchair movie analysis, but it’s hard to imagine a film like “Barry Lyndon” or “Eyes Wide Shut” not having central themes of exclusion by elitists. ↩
- Let the refutation of my argument commence. ↩
- I’ll argue to the the death that “Pale Fire” is his best work. Haunting and mysterious and as clever as a Thomas Pynchon novel, it’s something you should take time to read. ↩
- Maybe there’s a pattern here; in fact, you could do a list of his adaptations alone and compile one helluva list. ↩