February 17, 2009
The Book Is Better
Willing Davidson, “Great Book, Bad Movie: How Hollywood Ruins Novels”:
This isn’t an original complaint: Liking the book better than the movie is a middlebrow rite of passage. And novels are a constant, renewable source of stories for Hollywood, with ready-built brand appeal—from the kiddie franchises (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia) to the airport bangers (Da Vinci Code, the Bourne etceteras). Nor are these always bad movies. It turns out that good plots and an epic dimension translate well from page to screen. But the attempt to scale this model by making midsize movies from literary novels has been an ugly disaster. In our post-The Reader world, I can safely say that I’d rather personally digitize back issues of Talk magazine than see another movie based on Harvey Weinstein’s favorite book. Scott Rudin can fuck off, too.
I once interviewed to be a literary scout for a respected producer. The job, as described, was this: find the best novels before anyone else does so they can be bought and made into great movies. This sounds admirable. But it rests on the idea that what makes a literary novel good can be translated with any reliability into what makes a movie good. Three of the films that will be feted come Oscar night are based on recognizable literature. And while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader are definitely terrible movies, Revolutionary Road is both the worst movie I saw this year and one of the best novels I’ve read.
Davidson has an intriguing theory: the movie industry is both too deferential to novels and clueless about how they work. “There’s so much plot to get in that there’s no time to tell the story.”
Some movies that are better than the books they’re based on: The Godfather, The Birth Of A Nation/The Klansman, The Shawshank Redemption, The Magnificent Ambersons, Goodfellas, The Bridge on the River Kwai, many of Stanley Kubrick’s movies. Others equal to the task: Malcolm X, Blade Runner, Fight Club, Kurosawa’s adaptations of Shakespeare.