Great Books Are Great at Being Books

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Guest post by Darius Tahir

This week's "Talk to Me Like I'm Stupid" winner looks at the problems of moving literature to the big screen.

I got into a friendly argument about one of my least favorite clichés recently. It was this: the book is always better than the movie. First, always beware the use of "always"--it obviously only takes one counterexample (oh, there's this little movie called The Godfather) to prove the assertion wrong. Though the cliché is often stated this way, let's be charitable and relax the statement to something like "the book is usually better than the movie." 


 It's considerably more difficult to prove this wrong because there isn't, to my knowledge, a database of movies that are based on books that we could readily consult and then perhaps use some agreed-upon method--metacritic scores? Rotten Tomatoes scores?--to more-or-less prove the point objectively. But there are a number: The Godfather; most of the good Philip K. Dick adaptations (and there are several: Blade Runner, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and perhaps the upcoming Adjustment Bureau will be good); The Talented Mr. Ripley is, I believe, better than the book it's based on...there are more examples, I'm sure. 

The problem for the adaptations side is that several adaptations aren't recognized as being that. If a movie eclipses the reputation of the book it's based upon, then the book will be forgotten and the movie remembered. Of the Oscar movies this year, I suspect something like this may happen for An Education or Up in the Air. It's already happened: do you realize that classics like The Graduate and Strangers on a Train were originally novels? You didn't, because they're better than what they're based upon. Of the great noir films of the thirties, forties and fifties, many were based on books: The Maltese Falcon, for one, or The Postman Always Rings Twice. Even delayed noir adaptations like Altman's The Long Goodbye can be excellent. Even if the author whose work is adapted is relatively famous, we're still liable to forget: did you realize that the Shawshank Redemption was originally a Stephen King novella? I suspect you didn't.

It's a very rare movie that is good enough and the book that it's based upon well-regarded enough for both to survive. Something like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz or No Country for Old Men are the only examples that come off the top of my head. To my mind, these movies prove the point that the book is not automatically superior, since they certainly aren't inferior. 

At any rate, I hope the sheer breadth and length of the examples I've provided demonstrate my point. If you can disagree with a few of my examples, that's fine. Now, perhaps what you mean by literary adaptations is that great books can't be adapted into good films. There, again, I disagree with you, though less strongly. There are a number of great Shakespeare adaptations, for example. No Country for Old Men, as mentioned above, is regarded very well in both film and dead tree forms. But I agree with you more often than I disagree, if that's your preferred version of the cliché. 

The reason for this is very simple I think. Great books are great books; that is, they're great books because they're great at being books. And many of the qualities that make a book great as a book aren't portable to movies. Any kind of inner voice; psychologizing; stream of consciousness; many kinds of allusion; many kinds of wordplay, and I'm sure there are more examples that I didn't think of. 

That's why it's a pretty bad idea to try your hand at the great books, though people keep on trying (The Great Gatsby, say, or All the King's Men). No, were I a director, I would only choose to adapt mediocre books with promise. Spike Lee, I thought, had one of the best examples of this: Miracle at St. Anna, a solid B+ of a movie with tremendous battle scenes (and some other great scenes) that were helped by having a solid narrative presence behind the camera. That's where all the juice is, guys; don't bother trying to remake the Sistine Chapel. It's pretty nice as is.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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