2 March 2013

The Singer Not The Song

The default position is that the original book is better than the film, or movie as we Euromericans call it. But is that true?

While I was digging out the Planet of the Apes novelisation last week, I found it nestling alongside Jaws, The Deep, Boys from Brazil, The Flight of the Phoenix, and The Godfather. Not forgetting The Colditz Story and The Great Escape. There are many more obviously, everything that Stephen King has ever written seems to have been turned into film including a mini-series of his Valentine’s cards to Tabitha.

With many of these books, I can’t remember which is the egg and which is the chicken. I know that I read Jaws before the film was released (giving away my age there), it was the Harry Potter of its day, very popular in the all boys’ Grammar school that I attended. The Godfather is a bit more complicated, the probable truth is that I saw the films first and was led to the novel, but I’m not sure.

Jaws and The Godfather are good examples of a movie surpassing the original material. In fact they are good examples of books that can be read alongside the films. In general a well-loved book will always win the battle over a movie. The creative investment you devote to a story and its characters can never be matched by another person’s view. No matter how talented the director, it will be his vision, the actors will be chosen for their box office appeal rather than their likeness to the author’s description.

When 1984 was released in 1984 with Richard Burton and John Hurt, I was apprehensive, however, in general it passed the test. It wasn’t as good as the book obviously, and for me there was a major problem: O’Brien played by Richard Burton. He was softly spoken with a dangerous, powerful presence, very much as Orwell’s description. Burton was a pretty good facsimile. The problem was with my interpretation. In my head, although he was politically powerful, intelligent and polite, he was physically weak; in my mind he was Goebbels or Himmler. Which is essentially the problem with filmed books. My brain had read Orwell’s words and created a world inside my mind, the chances that my world would have matched Orwell’s were remote and there was little chance that a filmed version produced over 30 years after his death would ever come close to his concept.

J K Rowling managed to overcome the problem of writing sequels knowing that they were going to be turned into screenplays, but I don’t know the books or the films well enough to judge whether she was successful at separating the two. With Stephen King it is a different story. He is so prolific and his later books are so cinematic it’s difficult to know whether he is writing with one eye on future adaptions or whether it’s us, the readers, who are imagining how his prose would look on screen, which part would Tom Hanks play? Would it be a mini-series or a long film? Interestingly, Clive Barker is a film-maker rather than an author nowadays, whereas James Herbert is still writing but is rarely adapted for the screen.

There’s a temptation to view everything as a potential screenplay, I did it myself recently. I was reading Anthony Price’s spy thrillers and wondering to myself why he hadn’t been adapted for television or film as John le Carré had, but why am I thinking that? Do we view writing as a poor second to the visual media? Why can’t a book be a book without having to be validated by the movie industry? 

Fim adaptions, The Godfather, The Deep, Jaws, Rollerball


  1. MASH...movie way better than book.
    I, Robot...book way better than movie.
    The Silence of the Lambs... can't make up my mind!

  2. At one point it was becoming a list:
    The Dogs of War and The Day of the Jackyl are two where I couldn't decide if the book or film are better. Also interesting is what authors think, Stephen King doesn't like The Shining for instance...

  3. Funny about The Shining, but I think King accepts the fact that his book gives you options that a film as a medium cannot give. Excellent film and excellent book. Authors often do not like the films because a committee turns their story into something it is not and slaps the author's name on it anyway. Other authors are luckier... The Lovely Bones comes to mind.

  4. The one thing that stands out from the Shining is the famous door-smashing scene, in the film it's an axe, in the book King makes a point of describing it as type of croquet mallet, which somehow is more sinister.