It’s a truism that the book is better than the movie. And like all truisms, it’s not entirely true. In a few, rare cases, the movie is actually better than the book it is based on. Some films don’t just adequately portray a book. There are times when the film outshines the book.
Let me start by saying that The Hobbit was not improved by being made into a movie. It might have been okay if they had made it into one movie, but three movies? No. I have written about this before. (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-1n) Sleigh-bunnies. ::shudder::
That said, as I see it, there are two factors that can make a movie better than a book: length and depth.
Length. Most books are simply too long to translate exactly into movies. Most of the time this means that excellent – even necessary – material will be left out of the movie. The Lord of the Rings, for example, required three movies and still left out significant parts of the three books. I know there are people who still regret the loss of the Tom Bombadil and Goldberry scenes and I think that the Scouring of the Shire should certainly have been included.
Other books, however, have long stretches of text that do not translate well into evocative visuals or scintillating dialogue. Leaving them out can be a good thing. For example, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, is a long and complex book with lots to say about race, sociology, and economics. The movie (1968) trims out much of that content and focuses on the tender, evolving relationship between the two deaf-mutes and the young girl. The challenging intellectual and political content would pull attention away from the emotional center of the movie.
Gorky Park (1983) is another wonderful movie that has advantages over the book. Martin Cruz Smith’s novel has a long section in which Arkady languishes in a sanatorium, and it drags a bit. While this episode may be relevant to developing Arkady’s character, using it in the film would not improve the tempo of the movie, which after all is a murder mystery/thriller.
Depth. Occasionally a book, although it may have sold well, is emotionally flat. This could happen when a writer is inexperienced, or even too experienced –when he or she simply “phones it in.” The film version – if it has a good director, screenwriter, and/or outstanding actors – can take the story to a much higher level.
Twice I have had the experience of seeing a movie that I liked very much, then getting the book it was based on, only to be profoundly disappointed. One of these was the little-known spy-comedy Hopscotch (1980) which, although it sank without a trace, is a fun little film that has long been a favorite in our household. The novel was nothing special. The writing was uninspired, and the characters not well developed. All it really had was a plot. The movie, on the other hand, was vastly improved by the addition of Glenda Jackson’s character – who did not even appear in the book – and by the comedic range of Walter Matthau’s portrayal of the lead character. Or, as Rotten Tomatoes put it,
As written by Brian Garfield, Hopscotch was a conventionally serious espionage novel. As adapted for the big screen by Garfield and Bryan Forbes, Hopscotch is a lively exercise in cloak-and-dagger comedy, even when the pursuit of Matthau turns deadly towards the end.
The movie dialogue was wittier, the characters far more interesting, and the resolution more satisfying. I wish I had never read the book.
I had the same reaction with the movie and book of Three Days of the Condor (1975). (Actually, the book, written by James Grady, was Six Days of the Condor. That was part of the problem.) The movie compressed the action to heighten the tension and make the chase elements more compelling. At the same time, Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway’s characters had more complex personalities and revealing interactions than the stick figures in the book. I would never recommend the book, but heartily recommend the movie. Sydney Pollack’s efforts as director are certainly a major contributing factor to the film’s superiority.
Admittedly, most of the time it is a mistake to try to translate good literature –or even simply entertaining stories – to film. Even now that CGI makes possible depictions of events and characters that would formerly have been disappointing at best or even impossible, some things are simply better left to the imagination.
Usually books are one of those things.
But not always.