What's better, the book or the movie? Can the movie ever be as good as the book? The debate is an age-old one, probably existing since the very first screenplay was derived from a popular work, because when we fall in love with books we typically fall hard. That means we're especially attuned to any changes from book to movie with regard to plot points, characterizations, details cut or altered for the purposes of streamlining, and so on. It happened with The Hunger Games movie: the story of how Katniss gets the Mockingjay pin, for instance, is different, and some key characters in the book are cut out completely in the film. A lot of people were not too happy about it. But regardless of any grousing over the nitty-gritty, there's value in having a favorite book made into a movie. It means we get to see those beloved stories in a different way, to learn something new, or at the very least, to experience those plots and characters a bit longer.
Some books are remade into movies over and over again, like Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby (the Baz Luhrmann version now postponed until summer 2013). And then there are books we've not yet gotten to see made into movies, even though we'd love to, like The Confederacy of Dunces, or Catcher in the Rye.
As Richard Brody wrote in the New Yorker earlier this month, reflecting on the pros and cons of books-as-movies, "Anything I might say about or against the derivation of movies from great works of literature is gainsaid by what’s at the top of my all-time-top-ten list, the adaptation of 'King Lear,' by Jean-Luc Godard (and, high on the list that follows it, of younger filmmakers’ greats, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 'Berlin Alexanderplatz'). And, of course, some of the very best filmmakers, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, have made a lifetime’s work of literary adaptation." The point is, sometimes a movie should be made of a book. Sometimes, it's really, really good. And isn't a great book made into a great or even decent movie better than, say, yet another remake of The Brady Bunch or something that's foolish crap? People spend a lot of time and energy writing books. To have their work made into a film that then presents their story and characters to a larger audience (and ideally gets them paid a bit more), well, that's exactly how it should work.
Brody adds, though, of our expectations of exactness from page to screen, that he recently told a novelist, "I hope that [the screenwriter and director] dare to betray the book in a way that will surprise (if not dismay) the author." The movie is a movie; the book is a book, and so they should be somehow different, is the implication. Also, he writes, "There is a rule of thumb that’s worth noting: a director is likely to stumble when taking on the work of a writer who is a greater artist." Writer Jeff Wilser responded to my request for a book-to-movie wish-list with a supporting theory about books versus movies, saying, "Unless it's a classic or literary, the movie is usually better than the book. Why? Mainstream poppy writers like Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, or [John] Grisham are superb story tellers, and they have a knack for creating interesting premises with compelling characters... but the prose is often unreadable. I can't flip the pages without blanching at the cliched and awkward writing, but I'm thrilled to see those same ideas executed in the hands of a capable filmmaker."
There's also a difference, sometimes, between the books we want to see adapted and the books that actually are. Greg Zimmerman writes today on the book blog Book Riot of 12 fall movies based on books. The list mentions, along with release dates and what they're about, Twilight: Breaking Dawn (when we last saw Bella, she was waking up as a vampire for the very first time!), Les Mis, The Hobbit (Peter Jackson's prequel!), Atlas Shrugged (Paul Ryan's likely fave), and a new Alex Cross movie. There's yet another Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, Lincoln, and the much anticipated The Perks of Being a Wallflower, as well as On the Road, which should be interesting. Also, finally, the Life of Pi movie and Cloud Atlas. It's a good showing for a season of books-as-movies, not least because filmmakers have been trying to make Pi for a while, and Perks has the potential to be pretty great.
But what about the books for which we're still breathlessly waiting for cinematic adaptations? Here are a few:
Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I know, I know, bring this book up constantly, but why was the film version only made once, back in 1945, and why is it impossible to find? I'd love to see Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, or even better, a post-Altman-esque 9 Stories (Paging Wes Anderson). From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (big screen, not just TV) would be phenomenal. Suzanne Collins' Gregor the Overlander series would be excellent in a dark, Rats of NIMH sort of way. It's high time in this environment of Y.A. dystopia for a movie version of The Giver. As for adult stuff, I'd love to see a movie made from Sue Grafton's A is for Alibi series of mystery novels featuring Kinsey Millhone, and one based on Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel. And I'm looking forward to the long-promised-hope-it-actually-happens film adaptation of Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children as well as the film version of Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists.
Other suggestions from The Atlantic Wire:
P.G. Wodehouse's Leave it to Psmith. "I would love to see that made into a movie staring David Tennant (of Vile Bodies/Bright Young Things fame, as well as Doctor Who) as Psmith. Although, if they were going to make a Wodehouse movie, they'd probably more likely do Code of the Woosters, which I'd like too. Hugh Laurie used to play Bertie Wooster on the old show, and Stephen Fry Jeeves, but they both may be too old for the roles now. Anyway, both of these are epic country house mystery/farces set in 1920s Britain, so as long as everybody dresses in period gear and delivers their lines in a convincing accent, you pretty much can't lose." Also, "more of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman books made into movies." —Adam Martin
Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School. "If there were ever such a thing as an 'unfilmable' novel, that would be it, so it would be interesting to see how a director would translate it for the screen." —David Wagner
Douglas Coupland's novels. "I would love to see some of Douglas Coupland's novels get the film treatment. His most cinematic work, All Families Are Psychotic, was in development at DreamWorks about six years ago, but nothing's happened with it since. So many of his other books would make great movies too. There's the sorta post-apocalypti
Other requests from book lovers of the Internet include sci-fi favorites Ender's Game and Hyperion (they're in the works!) and Stranger in a Strange Land; Robert Caro's The Power Broker (HBO!); and Donna Tartt's The Secret History, as well as We Have Always Lived in the Castle and "every book about orphans ever." Also, a "really good film version of Macbeth."
There are a few book-to-movie adaptations that future screenwriters might look to for inspiration. The Atlantic Wire's Rebecca Greenfield cites Harry Potter—"I don't care what anyone says. I saw the second to last one by myself and loved every minute of it. I love the darkness of the later movies," she explains, as well as Roald Dahl adaptations James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and "movies that are just as weird as their book version, like Slaughterhouse 5 and A Clockwork Orange." She also mentioned that movie-of-a-certain-age, Baz Luhrmann's version of Romeo + Juliet, which, though perhaps gimmicky, does have a certain fantastic '90s quality to it. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson enjoyed Silence of the Lambs more than he did the book, even: "[It's] a great book, but an exceptional movie, almost entirely because the two leading actors give performances that are even stronger than the book's characters," he says. Others liked Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the book and movie). Don't take a cue from The Golden Compass, though—our readers hated the movie but loved the book. Gone With the Wind, on the other hand, is amazing whether you read or watch, at least in this writer's humble opinion.
Perhaps the best thing a good book-to-movie adaptation can do for a person, though, is to make him or her want to read the book yet again. Thankfully, we don't even have to wait for the film in order to do that.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.