Thursday, May 22, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Books Vs. Movies

Today's Booking Through Thursday question was suggested by: Superfastreader:

Books and films both tell stories, but what we want from a book can be different from what we want from a movie. Is this true for you? If so, what’s the difference between a book and a movie?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I used to read screenplays for a movie studio for a living. It made me look at movies very differently than I had before. A screenplay is essentially a blueprint for a movie, so reading a screenplay is nothing like seeing the film. But the blueprint has to be solid for the film to be good--in the screenplay there has to be a strong three-act structure, characters we care about, and dialogue that is witty or natural, rather than wooden. Then casting, production design, and the director's vision all come into play, hopefully making the film a visual delight that allows you to immerse yourself in a good story.

So for me, enjoying a film means using different muscles than reading a good book. The visual immersion of a film, for me, is slightly more passive, and more of a roller-coaster ride, than the immersion I have in reading. Reading a good book may be just as immersive, but like I said, it involves different mental muscles. For me, reading is slower, and I will sometimes put down a book after reading something I want to ponder further, and savor it. (I can't imagine getting up from my theater seat and going into the lobby to ponder the theme of a film I'm watching, though I might get up to get more popcorn!)

Novels are a word-based medium, and in a good novel, every word counts. Film is word-based, but is more importantly a visual medium. Here's an exercise for you: The next time you rent a movie, watch it with the sound off, and see how much of the story you can follow. My husband (who works with new directors all the time) would say that the mark of a good director is that his or her film will be almost as good with the sound off.

So, I value books and movies for some of the same things--important themes, characters I relate to, vicarious experiences (like travel to exotic locales), witty dialogue, immersion in imaginary worlds, emotional connection to a story--but for me, movies and books achieve these things in vastly different ways.

There's also the question of whether books and movies mix--what makes for a good adaptation from book to film? I'm sure there are theses out there written on this subject, but I will give you my two cents. One thing I've noticed is that short stories and novellas are easier to adapt to film than really long, complicated novels. I'm not sure exactly why this is, other than the obvious two-hour time limit, but some of my favorite movies based on books have come from shorter works: Brokeback Mountain, Rear Window, The Birds, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me. I'm not saying that adaptations of big books aren't always good, but it almost always feels like a bigger compromise to me.

And the other thing I have to say is that it is better not to judge the book by the movie, or the movie by the book. They just aren't the same thing. I have found that there are some books I didn't like that made good movies, and some really bad movies made from books I loved.

Some of the adaptations to film I really like (other than the list above) are: Ordinary People, Adaptation, Sense and Sensibility (the Emma Thompson version--she wrote and stars in it), Dangerous Liaisons, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Year of Living Dangerously, Blade Runner, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Godfather, The English Patient, Schindler's List, The Remains of the Day, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Apocalypse Now.

What are your favorite movie adaptations?


Jaimie said...

I have to agree with the movie list of good adaptations. I've seen almost all of them. I loved Remains of the Day!

Jeane said...

What an interesting idea of judging a film's quality- watching it without sound! I'm a very visual person and really appreciate a film that has good visual flow and aesthetics, so I think I would find that a proper way to measure.

Gentle Reader said...

jaimie--I loved Remains of the Day, too :)

jeane--My husband says it's best to do that with something you haven't seen before, too! After that you have to watch it with sound. Probably not practical except as an experiment, but an interesting test, nevertheless :)

litlove said...

What a wonderful job to have had! You know, if ever you felt like posting about your time assessing movie scripts, I would love to read it. You must have some really good stories.

alex said...

I think short story to film works better because it allows the screen writer to flesh out, build on, deepen the characters and story. Brokeback is a perfect example of this. Editing a long novel is a process of cutting out and often ends up eliminating nuance yet still cramming way too much into the allotted time frame of the film, thereby attmpting to cover too much territory with too broad a brush.

Fay Sheco said...

This made me think of all the books I've read after seeing the films first and that it was her film scripts that first brought Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to my attention as a fiction writer (Heat and Dust. Trying to think of another screenwriter who is also a good fiction writer draws a blank. Well, there's the novelist Robbe-Grillet, but I haven't seen his films and can't compare.

Gentle Reader said...

litlove--There are some good stories! It's been awhile since I've told them, however, and in our family, they pale in comparison to my husband's stories about writing for TV--but I'll try to remember some good ones for you :)

alex--You've hit the nail on the head, and said it better than I could have. So often novel adaptations feel like they've lost all nuance, and even key plot elements have to be glossed over. It's a tough job, and I often feel that the best adaptations of longer material are in the miniseries format (but miniseries now, not years back when most miniseries were cheesy).

fay--I think we don't see much crossover between novelists and screenwriters because film is such a collaborative business, and screenwriters who want to have more control over their work, and make sure the nuance isn't lost, become directors, not novelists. You probably can name many more talented writer-directors than you can novelists/screenwriters.

Not only is the collaborative (read: compromised) nature of the film business difficult for novelists, there are also constrictions in the screenplay form, which is very structured. I like screenplay form, as it's rather like a puzzle, but it's very restrictive, and bound by funny conventions--like, for example, you aren't taken seriously as a screenwriter if you don't use "courier" font.

Off the top of my head, I can only think of two novelist/screenwriters: John Ridley, and Larry McMurtry, who wrote Brokeback with Diana Ossana, and also just wrote an adaptation, with her, of his story Comanche Moon--which, by the way, is a TV miniseries.

trish said...

I think The Cider House Rules (John Irving) was much better as a movie than it was as a novel. In the novel, the main character was so wishy washy and indecisive that it was excruciating to read...but in the movie they made him more decisive; much more of a likable character.

Gentle Reader said...

trish--ooh, good example! I agree completely! And I also really enjoyed the film version of another of Irving's novels, The World According to Garp. Especially John Lithgow as Roberta Muldoon :)

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