When the Movie Trumps the Book-Top Ten

[National Review Online; May 16, 2008]

Every once in awhile, a movie improves on the book on which it is based. In my bold opinion, Prince Caspian , the second Disney film drawn from C. S. Lewis’s beloved Chronicles of Narnia, is such a movie. Criticism of C. S. Lewis is rightly taboo, but facts are facts: Prince Caspian , the book, is a dud.

It was the second to be written in the series, and it’s rushed and thin. You’ll remember from the first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe , that the four Pevensie siblings find their way into the land of Narnia through a mysterious wardrobe. In Prince Caspian they are called back to Narnia again, where they must help young Prince Caspian claim his rightful throne. Unfortunately, they land nowhere near Caspian, so most of the book is occupied with the Pevensies’ struggle to cross mountains and rivers to get to him. (The action also pauses for four chapters so that a dwarf can fill us in on Prince Caspian’s life so far.) When they finally meet Caspian there is a brief battle and a happy ending, and before you know it you’re running into the opening pages of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (a much better book).

Prince Caspian, the movie, fixes all this. It knits a whole lot more story around that spare frame, and the plot gains traction while the characters gain complexity. The movie is just plain better than the book.

How often does that happen, I wonder? I sent an e-mail to a long list of friends, family, and e-mail acquaintances, inquiring about book to movie transitions. From a flood of nominations for books that fare better as movies, here are the ten made it to the top. (In some cases I am passing them along in ignorance; I haven’t screened and read every title here.)

1. Gone With the Wind. It’s my guess that nearly everybody now sees the movie before they read the book . And if you give your heart to a work in a certain form, that’s the way it will forever seem right. Gone With the Wind is a movie that’s easy to love, and it seems that viewers who went next to the book found it a let-down, full of unnecessary events and characters. The book also presents a more complicated Scarlett, one who is narcissistic and cold-hearted. (I thought this was better, actually, but I’m a lone voice.) The movie Scarlett is one of the most popular characters of the 20th century, and many people claim she outshines Margaret Mitchell’s original.

2. The Godfather. The movie is something magnificent — those sets, those actors, that whole heady atmosphere, marching steadily and inexorably to beautiful tragedy. I wonder if it is the sheer richness that viewers appreciated, in contrast to the book . Mario Puzo conceived of good scenes, but the big screen provided more punch.

Perhaps for similar reasons, a number of classic noir movies were nominated as being better than their books. The foggy-lonely-street-lamp look of films like The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon established a kind of atmosphere that didn’t come across on the page. Take a look at Hitchcock’s brilliant The 39 Steps, darting from a clamorous London music hall to the moonlit wilds of Scotland, and then open John Buchan’s thin novel. Then close it.

3. The Wizard of Oz . Picture all those kids who loved Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the rest settling down to meet them again at greater length in the book — but gradually concluding that they just aren’t there. To some disillusioned readers, the book was littered with extraneous events and characters; even the familiar characters were somehow less endearing.

4. The Princess Bride. The novel is “relentlessly meta,” my daughter Megan says, and employs a sure-sounds-real-phony narrator along with other tricks. She liked it, but many people who loved the movie ’s ironic flip found the book to be strange and unrewarding. Some rejected it the text version emphatically, and one correspondent lifted a catchphrase from the movie: “Get used to disappointment, William Goldman!”

5. Jaws. Connoisseurs say that the book ’s weaknesses in handling characters are corrected in the movie . And what an unforgettable theme — the most menacing two notes ever played. They’re worth a thousand words.

6. Forrest Gump. They tell me that the book had too much whimsy, and a harebrained ending. The movie charmed viewers by reining in the story, unifying it, and giving every amazing turn of the plot a charming, just barely plausible, basis.

7. Blade Runner. The movie was based on a novel by sci-fi author Phillip K. Dick, and some respondents cited another of his works, Minority Report. There were a number of authors whose books kept cropping up like this — Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, Stephen King, John Grisham, and Robert Ludlum, among others. Some authors have terrific ideas, but don’t express them at the acme of perfection. A creative filmmaker can draw on original raw material and produce something more satisfying.

Also, some works show their age more than others. A 1980’s novel may have too much of the era’s fragrance, but when freshened up for the screen and invigorated with plenty of action, the best elements shine forth again.

Some directors seem to have a particular knack for bringing good movies out of so-so books and stories. Stanley Kubrick’s name kept coming up, credited for making gold out of straw with A Clockwork Orange, Paths of Glory, and The Shining.

8. The Lord of the Rings trilogy . Them’s fightin’ words, I know. Among respondents there was a feeling that the series, as J. R. R. Tolkien wrote it, is just plain ponderous. A couple of years ago I recorded the whole thing for my local radio station for the blind, and found that reading all that inverted syntax and archaic terminology out loud, hour after hour, makes parody nearly irresistible. Director Peter Jackson had a better idea . He saw the essential beauty of the story, and brought it to the screen unimpeded.

The situation is nearly opposite with The Chronicles of Narnia. While Tolkien’s works are vast and grave, Lewis’s Narnia stories feel unaffected, sympathetic, homey. If in The Lord of the Rings someone is always swinging an axe at the head of a monster, in The Chronicles of Narnia he is getting out of the rain, warming up by the fire, and having some tea and biscuits. I think that Lewis had a better knack for storytelling than Tolkien did; I recorded the Narnia books as well, and could feel the difference.

But as charming as the Narnia stories are, the movies give them more body, more strength. That’s especially true with this latest, Prince Caspian. One of my correspondents, Stuart Koehl, sketches out a theory:

In many ways, Caspian is the weakest of the Narnia books, showing the effect of hurried composition, imperfect familiarity with the characters, and the need to present a message about the role of Christians in a time of war (it was a propaganda as well as an apologetic piece). A screenwriter would have the whole Narnia corpus in front of him, and knowing the mythology from beginning to end, could remove inconsistencies and sand down the rough edges. 

Peter Jackson, likewise, has not just the Ring trilogy texts to draw on, but fifty years of reflection on those stories by those who have savored them.

There is admittedly one unfortunate aspect of translation to the silver screen: in movies, the loud part is the memorable part, and the clamor of CGI battle overwhelms the subtler moments in these films. Still, the Lord of the Rings movies are more bright and lively than the novels, and Prince Caspian is built up into something more satisfying, more complete. For that I’m grateful.

9. The Harry Potter series. Another nomination to fight over. The complaint I heard is specifically about the more recent novels , not the entire series. Readers claim that as Rowling’s celebrity increased her writing lost its edge, and therefore the later stories sprawl about, unfocused. Movies of these books do what an editor should have done in the first place — they select and tighten so that the story itself has a punch.

10. Adaptation. This movie grew from a nonfiction work titled The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. The book, straightforwardly enough, is about an orchid thief — a man who steals orchids from public land in the Everglades. Respondents who nominated this movie said that they tried to get through the book but just couldn’t do it.

The movie, Adaptation, proposes that the same thing happened to the screenwriter. In it, a man named Charlie Kaufman is hired to write an adaptation of Orlean’s book so that it can be made into a movie. He wrestles mightily with Orlean’s story (or the lack of story to work with), and is drawn toward semi-comic despair. Eventually his twin brother Donald arrives and things take a surprising turn — though the entire concept has been surprising, right from the beginning. In real-life, The Orchid Thief was adapted into Adaptation by Charlie Kaufman and his non-existent twin Donald. Both were nominated for an Oscar, the first time a completely fictitious person had been put up for an Academy Award. My son David says that, when he realized how Adaptation was ending, it made him laugh out loud. Adaptation is a very clever film.

This suggests a whole other category, movies that began with books but made something entirely different from them. Kubrick gets another nod for Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb , a “nightmare comedy” (as he called it) based on a straight-faced political thriller, Red Alert.

Of course, when you’re talking about comedy it can be hard to tell when something is a clever turn on an original, or simply parody. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is related to Morte d’Arthur, but not in the same way that Adaptation is related to The Orchid Thief. Closer to this category would be Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily . Instead of making a parody of spy movies, he bought a genuine, crummy spy movie and replaced all the dialogue, for results that were hilarious at the time.

Among the films with fewer nominations were The English Patient , The Bridges of Madison County , The Devil Wears Prada , Fight Club , Atonement , and Amadeus (an unusual entry, because Peter Schaffer adapted his own play for the movie; nevertheless, people felt the movie was better).

Many people also wanted to mention movies that they thought were just as good as the books. Jane Austen’s name kept coming up, and William Shakespeare’s (well, they are plays). Folks liked both book and film versions of To Kill a Mockingbird , A Room with a View , The Time Machine , and In Cold Blood . (And many said they found the Lord of the Rings movies just as good as the books.) Two people mentioned the movie Enchanted April, in which a character delivers a line at the end that doesn’t appear in the book, but which perfectly fulfills the story — a satisfying way for film and fiction to intersect.

It’s entertaining to think of movies that excel their sources, if only because they aren’t that common. Most of the time, the book is better than the movie, if only because greater length allows for greater depth. That depth doesn’t always happen; sometimes there’s more potential than the author explored, as with Prince Caspian. But the names of movies that came nowhere near the achievement of the book are too numerous to list. I’ll close with just one example: The Greatest Story Ever Told .

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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