Books vs. Movies

It’s an age-old question: Which is better, the book or the movie?books vs movies blog image

Recently I posed a version of this question to my RCLS colleagues. I wanted to know about their experiences with books that have been adapted for either the large or small screen. Books that were better than movies, movies that were better than books, movies that got them to read books… I wanted to hear about it all.

And they delivered!

Beneath the cut you’ll find reflections from seven different library staff members, each with a slightly different take on the book/movie debate and each with vastly different tastes in media. You’re sure to take away a recommendation of something good to read, watch, or both.

It’s always tempting, as an avid reader and as a librarian, to trot out the ever-popular aphorism “The book is always better” when talking about film adaptations. And to be sure, books have plenty of advantages over movies. They allow for greater detail, personalized mental casting, and scenes that would strain the budgets and limitations of even sophisticated special effects. But I can also think of cases in which I do, in fact, prefer the movie.

The example that comes to mind most readily is Interview with the Vampire. The first volume of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series, Interview was published as a novel in 1976 and was adapted for film in 1994. It features performances by several big names of the ’90s–including Brad Pitt as Louis Pointe du Lac, Tom Cruise as Lestat de Lioncourt, and a young Kirsten Dunst as the child vampire Claudia–and a screenplay by Rice, herself.

It has long been among my favorite movies, and I have similarly counted the novel among my favorite books since I read it in middle school. But now I’m rereading the book after many years in preparation for a trip to New Orleans (where much of both book and movie are set), and I’m discovering, to my surprise, that I much prefer the movie. It streamlines the plot and strengthens the characterization, while keeping particularly beautiful phrases, pieces of dialogue, and the most important plot points intact. Minor characters are axed, especially toward the beginning, and honestly, they are not missed.

Unfortunately, I can’t praise the 2002 adaptation of Queen of the Damned, and I will forever sigh when I think of how amazing a Neil Jordan-directed adaptation of The Vampire Lestat would have been. If only…

For me I would say the book The Green Mile by Stephen King saw an outstanding movie adaptation starring Tom Hanks. Both the book and movie were fantastic. Due to terrific character actors accompanying Tom Hanks the movie in this case might even have a slight edge over the book. I don’t usually give the winning nod to the movie adaptation but in this case it is merited.

Do previews count? The Hate U Give preview makes me cry every time I watch it.

I must confess on this, I did not read Still Alice before watching the film. I am sure that Lisa Genova did one heck of a job; however I am so fearful that something like this might happen to me that I couldn’t bear to read the pages and see my grandmother or myself as I read it. It was very painful to watch my grandmother experience the signs and symptoms of dementia. She passed away before Alzheimer’s could completely destroy her brain.

I am a big Julianne Moore fan and I cannot knowingly bypass a movie she is in. I am glad I watched it. I was able to visualize the character instead of myself or my Granny and it really is a eye opening story. One that I feel needs to be told. None of us are immune for any reason. We should all join the fight to help put an end to this degenerative disease. I have recently discovered Walk to end Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s® is the world’s largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s care, support and research. I have signed up to do my part. I am hopeful that by the time my daughter is faced with the reality of this disease that there is a way to either slow the progress or cure this disease altogether.

I am a huge mystery buff and especially love the older ones–both books and movies.  I a big fan of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Hugh Pentecost—what I consider to be the “classic” mystery.  I can’t tell you how many times I have watched The Big SleepThe Maltese Falcon and the Thin Man series (yes, I even know most of the dialogue!).  Last year, I decided to go back and read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.  I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised how little difference there was between the books and the movies!  It was great!!!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a good example to think this question through. Many people dislike the movie for being insufficiently faithful to the book, but the book can’t, in any sense of the word be called “the original.” The first version of Hitchhiker’s Guide was a six-episode radio play on the BBC written by Douglas Adams. He then adapted it into two novels,t he first covering the first four episodes, the second adapting the final two. It was also adapted into a six-episode TV series, also on the BBC. It is important to note that Adams took a personal hand in all these adaptations.

No two of them were identical, and this was intentional. Adams wanted to rework the story each time, developing it further, emphasizing different points, fixing problems here or there. In an interview, he once said, “Moving something from one medium to another is very interesting–it’s a lot like carrying a picture of a piece of clothing from one bit of lighting to another. Suddenly it looks very different. What interests me a bit further down the line is the way in which the different media interrelate–you can hand things off from one to another, you can exploit each other’s strengths and weaknesses.” And he was even open not just to new content or new stories being added, but changes to the characters as well. In the introduction to one of the books, he remarked that the first book “was a substantially expanded version of the first four episodes of the radio series, in which some of the characters behaved in entirely different ways and others behaved int exactly the same ways but for entirely different reasons, which amounts to the same thing but saved rewriting the dialogue.” So essentially, any claims that one version of the story is more authentic than others is a mistake.

Which brings us to the movie in 2005. Many people went into the movie expecting it to be just like the book and were therefore disappointed by the changes. Many assumed that this was due to Adams dying in 2001, at which point they assumed the other screenwriter and the studio executives rewrote and added all the new material. However, Adams wrote the first several drafts himself, adding new material he’d had bouncing in the back of his head. According to Robbie Stamp (and this is confirmed by people who worked at Adams’s company at the time), “The script we shot was very much based on the last draft that Douglas wrote. […] All the substantive new ideas in the movie, Humma, the Point of View Gun and the ‘paddle slapping sequence’ on Vogsphere are brand new Douglas ideas written especially for the movie by him. […] Even the enhanced relationship between Arthur and Trillian (in which people seem to have detected the hand of the Studio) was something that Douglas was working on as well. As you yourself recognise in your question, Douglas was always up for reinventing HHGG in each of its different incarnations and he knew that working harder on some character development and some of the key relationships was an integral part of turning HHGG into a movie.”

It’s all fine and dandy to say you dislike the movie for other reasons, but questioning its authenticity is misguided. The real question, then, is whether this also applies to other adaptations. For example, I think that the additions and changes to Prince Caspian make it a more coherent story than C.S. Lewis’s original, but I do not feel the same about the adptations of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I try not to ask whether an adaptation is legitimated by its authenticity to some original work because each story is a legitimate telling in itself and has narrative authority over itself. Instead I try to ask whether the changes are justified by the improvements they bring to the strength or coherence of the narrative.

I’ve been a mystery lover since I first started reading.  When I’d buzzed through all of the Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys books in my small town library, I turned to Agatha Christie and P. D.James. When I was 10,  we got access to PBS and I was thrilled! Inspectors Morse and Lewis (so then I went to the library for Colin Dexter), Sherlock Holmes and more Dame Agatha… and the BEST: Masterpiece Theatre!  That was the show my folks and I sat down to watch together (no cable, no DVR, no Roku), especially when the sister show, Masterpiece Mystery premiered.

(Did mention small rural town? Just Shut Up! And get off my lawn!)

So no surprise that British Police Dramas are my favored television fare still, as are the books that inspire them:

 – Vera and Shetland (based on series by Ann Cleeves)
Endeavour – a cheat, since this is an Inspector Morse prequel (and I think even better than the original).
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (ok, another cheat, as this is Australian) – the books by Kerry Greenwood are as close as I get to a Cozy Mystery and so very naughty!
– Even the first few of the dozens of Midsomer Murders, which are based on the excellent novels by Caroline Graham.  

Some insights:

  • No, I don’t always read the books (ex: Grantchester, based on short stories by James Runcie )
  • Yes sometimes the show is better (ex: DCI Banks – I just couldn’t get into Peter Robinson’s books, but this series from 2010 has really hit a note.)
  • Or the show can spark new fans (ex: Sherlock)
  • Sometimes, the show comes first!  (ex: Tennison series by Lynda La Plante, who wrote the originals for TV show Prime Suspect starring Helen Mirrem)

I’m not limited to the UK.  David Simon wrote Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets which is the basis for Homicide: Life on the Streets (and if you’ve not watched that, perhaps The Wire or Treme?  He’s pretty darn good.) one of the most engaging police dramas based in the U.S .

Nowadays, thanks to Amazon Prime, Netflix and my favorite, PBS Passport, I can rewatch favorite episodes, binge on an era, count the bodies in Midsomer whenever I like.

But it all harkens back to watching PBS with my folks, my stack of mysteries from the library nearby.


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