There are few things in this world that evoke legitimate rage within me: middle school kids who curse and use smart phones; people who say “on accident”; when the New York Jets do literally anything. But something sits atop this list that may never be dethroned from its seat of infamy. And that is people who say, “The book was better than the movie.” This is a statement I have heard more and more as the years pass, considering Hollywood has fewer and fewer original ideas. Are you a producer and in need of a new movie? Grab a book off the best-seller list and throw money at it until it starts spitting money back. But no matter how great a film adaptation turns out, you will invariably hear a majority of purists who claim, “The book is better.” In this two-part article, I will explain why books and movies have absolutely nothing to do with each other.
I suppose I should provide a disclaimer here before I begin, by stating that I am not insulting books as a medium. I love books, and I encourage all ages to sit down with a nice book and read every single day. The point I’m trying to make is that books are not movies and therefore cannot be considered “better.” The same goes for anybody who says, “The movie was better than the book.” That statement is also fallacious, but honestly, how often do you hear someone say that? It’s always, “The book was better,” and you know it.
The primary argument one always hears from a book purist is that the movie changed too many things from the book. Some people cannot get past the fact that maybe their favorite subplot was dropped to make room for one that they enjoyed less, or perhaps one of their favorite characters was given a diminished role. These people will say that the movie lost the spirit of the book by dropping these subplots/characters/themes etc., and this will blind them from appreciating the movie on its own merits. What these people do not understand is that the reason anything is removed from the story in the act of adaptation is because that is what the writer felt was best for the movie.
Unless you’re dealing with untouchable territory, like Twilight or Harry Potter, a screenwriter is going to change anything he or she sees fit. Voldemort will always lose in any Harry Potter film, because changing that would send those fans into a violent frenzy. But when Stanley Kubrick adapted The Shining, he didn’t think the main character’s alcoholism should be as prevalent as it was in the novel, and so he made his movie the way he wanted. But just because these things were changed, it doesn’t make them inherently bad. Too many people are afraid of changes in works they love and are unwilling to accept different interpretations. This is narrow-sightedness, and it has no business in the artistic world.
On the flip side of this coin, there are people who defend a bad movie because it follows the original story so well. When Scott Pilgrim vs. the World came out, I had a discussion with a peer about the film’s editing. I thought the editing was far too hyperactive, and it didn’t allow me to become immersed in the film. Scenes lasted 10 seconds and then would leap suddenly to entirely new scenes, and before you can get comfortable there, it would jump again to a new scene. I liked the film as a whole, but I didn’t care for this editing style. My peer assured me that the editing was great, because “that’s how the book is.” The original comic book is frantic and jumpy and so that’s what they did with the editing. I can appreciate wanting to keep the spirit of the source material, but you have to understand that things that work in books WILL NOT ALWAYS WORK IN FILM.
Let’s step back for a moment and look at the above example objectively. If somebody tells you that an unnamed movie exists that has really choppy editing that bounces from one scene to the next, without allowing you a moment to settle in, you will say that the editing is bad. I’m assuming you’d say this, because you’d be right. Now, let’s say that the movie is edited exactly as I’ve described, however, it’s based on the book Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Does that change your opinion of the editing? You’ve just expressed that frantic editing is poor filmmaking, so why would that change if suddenly you are being faithful to some source material? Bad filmmaking is bad filmmaking, no matter what “spirit” you’re trying to maintain. It’s like chopping up orange peels and putting them in your orange juice, because you want to maintain the “spirit of oranges.” Be faithful to the orange all you want; your orange juice is still going to taste like crap.
So why do certain things work in print but not on celluloid? Why can’t filmmakers just copy and paste the book into a screenplay and then film it? It’s because books and movies, while both storytelling devices, are entirely different machines. A book is entirely driven by your imagination. The author puts the words on paper and guides you along, but the world of the book doesn’t really exist until you see it in your mind. You can imagine whatever you want while reading a book. The author describes this character with red hair? Screw that; you think he’d be better with black hair. The author points you in the right direction, but you are never locked into a single way of seeing things.
Film is the complete opposite of this concept. You can’t make characters look and behave the way you want them to because the writers, director, and actors said this is the way it has to be. There’s less imagination in film because other people have done all the imagining for you. You are simply there to view someone else’s world, and while the movie may make you ponder some existential questions (like The Tree of Life), you are ultimately just a viewer, not a participant.
The languages of film and books are entirely different, as well. A book can theoretically take place entirely in a character’s head. Stream-of-consciousness books, such as Ulysses or The Waves, are unique works because of the way they are told. It is 100 percent impossible to create a film version of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves because the whole appeal of the book is that everything that happens is expressed through the thoughts of six different people. A faithful adaptation of that would be impossible and unnecessary. Conversely, an action film like Transformers would make a terrible novel, because I imagine it would be written like this: “And then the one robot was like ‘GRSPLSHHHH,’ and then the other robot totally exploded, and it was awesome.” These are obviously extreme examples, but it applies to all books and all films. What works for one, may not work for the other.
Many people who enjoy basking in the purity of a book over a film adaptation also neglect the fact that both mediums deal with length in polar opposite ways. A book can be as long as it needs to be. Authors can write 800-page books, and people won’t bat an eyelash, because that’s just how books are. The author writes until the story is complete. Most important, the reader reads at his own pace, in his own time, with absolutely no deadline. I once read Stephen King’s seven book long The Dark Tower series. After I finished the fourth book and put it down, I didn’t pick up the fifth book until one year later. I took a yearlong break in between books, and it didn’t affect my experience of the story in any way. I did it at my own pace, and it felt great.
How often do you stop a movie halfway through, then wait a year to finish watching it? How about a month? A week? A day? Maybe a few hours? No, chances are if you sit down to watch a movie, you are not ending your night until you see the end credits roll. The usual runtime for a major Hollywood film is around two hours. That means the filmmakers have only two hours to hook you into the story, make you feel a connection to the characters, become immersed in the film world, and wrap up the story in a neat, little bow.
Two hours, versus limitless amounts of pages. The next time you’re surprised that a movie cut out a subplot from your favorite 500-page book, remind yourself that only one of these mediums has a time limit. I remember one movie that tried to cram the entire source material into a single, three-hour film. It was called Watchmen, and it made me want to set my face on fire.
This concludes Part One of my rant. Please come back soon to read the thrilling conclusion.