Monday, August 22, 2011

Better than the book

A rather oft quoted and irritating cliche is the belief that the "book is always better than the film." There have, in fact, been numerous films based on literary material that have been rather awful adaptations but there are also countless instances when the medium of film is able to touch on beautiful nuances and poetic moments in ways that the written word did not convey. 


A corollary complaint is when people claim that the adaptation of a work must stick as close as possible to the original, a sentiment often expressed when it comes to material that has an ardent fanbase, such as the recent comic book adaptations as well as works such as the Harry Potter novels and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. This seems like an awfully misguided view of art. The best adaptations and "covers" are usually those that offer something completely new and innovative while treating the original material with a sense of respect. Yet this respect in no way needs to limit the artist. The original is a blueprint, nothing more and nothing less, and much can be discarded or added as the new work emerges. It is for exactly this reason that most of the adaptations in question, i.e. the comic book films of late and the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises, are in many ways lacking as independent works of art. 

Here are a few instances, in no specific order, of films that in my view offer something over and beyond what was on the written page. 

The Godfather - Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, based on the novel by Puzo

Director Francis Ford Coppola with the cast of The Godfather in the famous opening sequence

The Godfather was a wonderful crime novel that was a great mixture of an epic family saga as well as the pulpiest elements of sordid mafia stories. In the hands of director Coppola, cinematographer Gordon Willis and a cast that stands as one of the greatest in the history of American cinema, the story becomes a poetic meditation on family, tradition, religion, honor, compromise and the way in which all these elements somehow encapsulate the strange, awful and wonderful place that we call America. From the opening words ("I believe in America") to the shot of a person getting assassinated with nothing in the background of the frame except the towering presence of the statue of liberty, The Godfather remains one of the most potent and incisive examinations of the relationship between capitalism, crime and the human thirst for power. In Michael Corleone we have a character of Shakesperean proportions. Through the juxtaposition of light and shadow, the carefully structured plot and seamless directing we literally witness a person losing his soul. Even though Puzo's original remains an entertaining and sometimes artful read, it nonetheless pales in comparison to the film which it inspired, a work that will forever remain a pillar of the American cinematic tradition.  

Jackie Brown - Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, based on the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard


Elmore Leonard is among America's most talented writers of genre fiction, which means he is among the best writers living today, period. His novels will often seem shallow and superficial to those who have been brought up on nothing but endless variations of the bildungsroman yet underneath the jazzy dialogue and superbly crafted suspense are insights into human nature that are on par with anything the classical tradition of "dramatic" (i.e. non-genre) storytelling has to offer. 

Leonard's Rum Punch is a classic of the neo-noir tradition with Leonard's trademark dialogue and characters that somehow manage to be both tragic and hilarious at the same time. Yet it is also a rare case of Leonard not having stayed as true to his usual economy of style. There is, frankly, a lot of fat that could have been cut out of the book, including way too much detail about the past relationships of the main character, Jackie Burke. 

Tarantino's adaptation cuts everything superfluous from the proceedings and in the process highlights and emboldens everything that is deep and profound in the story. Tarantino's film, easily his best work, is a moving and contemplative meditation on race, greed and that most frightening of prospects: growing old. In changing Jackie Burke from a white woman in her thirties to a black woman in her forties (and joyfully christening her with a much groovier Jackie Brown in the process) he somehow makes the drama of the story all that more compelling. The sad fact of the matter is that a black woman of that age would rightfully see the prospect of losing her job as nothing less than catastrophic. Pam Grier is able to imbue the character with subtleties that are nowhere apparent in the book, a woman who is self-confident, funny and cool but who has also been through the ringer enough times to know that this time around she has to play her cards right. The rest of the cast is superb and similarly bring new shades to Leonard's characters. Even minor figures, such as the ill-fated lackey Beaumont Livingston (Christ Tucker) become astoundingly memorable in the hands of Tarantino and the gifted cast. 

It is rare to see a Hollywood film that is actually much more sparse and toned down than the original source material (the book includes a drawn out firefight) but Tarantino's Jackie Brown is a perfect example of less being more, a deep study of character that is also hilarious, groovy and a wonderful homage to the great tradition of American blaxploitation cinema. 

The Big Sleep & To Have and Have Not - The Big Sleep: Screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.  To Have and Have Not: Screenplay by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, based on the novel by Ernest Hemmingway

Humphrey Bogart having a good time with the missus and another lady friend

These two films are both improvements on the source material. In the case of The Big Sleep we have a wonderful novel that somehow becomes much more resonant and alive with the jazzy and light touch of director Howard Hawks and the two stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, as well as a trio of excellent screenwriters. In the case of To Have and Have not we have a rather awful novel (so proclaimed by Hemmingway himself who - according to legend - made a bet with Hawks that he could not make a good film out of it) that is turned into a minor masterpiece, this time primarily due to the on-screen chemistry of (again) Bogey and Bacall. Both films are also interesting for being representative of William Faulkner's very fruitful foray in to screenwriting, necessitated by his growing number of dependents at the time. 

The Big Sleep is a classic of the mystery genre in literature and an example of the great American novelist Raymond Chandler at his prime. It includes many of the existential motifs that made the genre not only entertaining but also profound in the hands of masters such as Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Yet Hawks is somehow able to retain many of the great themes presented by Chandler while offering a much lighter air for the proceedings while also giving us one of the great screen romances between Phillip Marlowe (Bogart) and Vivian Rutledge (Bacall). This is in no small part due to the fact that the Rutledge character was expanded and given some of the film's best lines after actress Lauren Bacall tested through the roof with audiences, especially service members in the US Army. Hawks famously re-edited the film after test screenings and for once the process turned out beautifully. Hawks' second cut is by far the superior one and the rapport between Bogart and Bacall remains among the screen's greatest.


To Have and Have Not is Ernest Hemmingway at his most indulgent. There are flashes of greatness, as in a wonderful sequence where Hemmingway lithely takes us from the mind of one character to another, showing the anguish and confusion of both the "haves" and "have nots." Yet the main story of sailor Harry Morgan and his involvement with black market activity because of economic pressure gets lost in rambling accounts of social injustice and lost souls. The novel is famously modernistic in its dancing around from one viewpoint to another, changing from first-person to a third-person omniscient narration (and back again), yet the novel must be counted as something of a failure (though it certainly does have its champions). Hawks' film is perhaps not quite on par with his all-time best work (such as the aforementioned Big Sleep) yet it is a wonderful example of Hollywood filmmaking with a great cast and a riveting story (in which Harry is convinced to help out the French Resistance). Bogart and Bacall are again essential ingredients. This was the film where they famously fell in love and it is immediately apparent that Bogart was not "acting" in many of the scenes where his character first encounters Bacall. The man is obviously smitten. 

Naked Lunch - Screenplay by David Cronenberg, based on the "novel"(?) by William S. Burroughs

William Seward Burroughs shaking hands with the dispenser of the infamous Mugwump Juice

Most aesthetes in their adventurous teenage years will come across Burroughs' infamous Naked Lunch at some time or another. The book was famously involved in one of the most influential censorship cases of American publishing history as well as representing a seminal period in American literature. It is a very avant-garde work, in the best sense of the term, offering several vignettes (or "routines" as Burroughs' called them) representing moments of illumination and despair, mostly through drugs, which echo Burroughs' own experiences at the time of writing the book. There are many brilliant passages in the work and it can rightfully be considered something of a minor classic. Yet the book is also astoundingly indulgent, rambling and incoherent and often a complete mess, owing to Burroughs' fascination with the non-linear (resulting in his developing the infamous cut-up technique for later works) at the expense of saying something either beautiful or profound. The book can perhaps more rightly be considered a classic due to its influence rather than Burroughs' literary talents. 

Cronenberg's adaptation is not faithful to the source material in the least, using only certain segments from the original while also mixing in various elements of Burroughs' biography as well as material from his other books. It is a strangely compelling and fascinating portrayal of universal, political and cultural themes grounded in an individual person (something that Burrough's had little interest in portraying). It manages to humanize Burroughs' bleak vision while retaining much of its force. The visuals are giddy and repellent and kind of hilarious, my favorites being the Mugwumps and (of course) the bug-typewriter with the talking asshole. The performances by Judy Davis and Peter Weller are very constrained and strange but totally fitting to the source material. 

Cronenberg's film is obviously not as groundbreaking or revolutionary as Burroughs' novel but it is a very lovingly crafted work, one which resonates on several levels, some of which I feel that Burroughs was not even interested in touching on. It is perhaps not correct to say that I think that the film is a "better" work but it does improve on the book in some very interesting ways and is a very groovy and interesting work of art in its own right. 
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There are, of course, countless other examples and it would be great to hear some of your opinions, whether you're disagreeing with my assessment of the above works or have your own to contribute. In any case, I hope all of us can agree that the ridiculous idea that the book is always superior to the film should be laid to rest as soon as possible. 

2 comments:

Jeffy said...

I'm sorry i can only think of examples of films that have suffered following to closely to the book. Catch-22 for instance could be an excellent film, but the way it was filmed left it rushing to get through too much material rather than focusing on the main ideas of the story.

agust symeon said...

You know, I've never actually seen that film. Love the book, though. I should check it out, if only for the fact that it hails from such a great era of American cinema.