By Margaret Lucke
A friend recently posed this question about a popular novel that was the basis of a popular film: I want to read the book and I want to see the movie. Which should I do first?
At one time I would have recommended seeing the film first. After reading the book, the movie would be bound to disappoint. There's no way a film can replicate the scope and nuance of a novel. The film leaves out what you thought were the best parts and the actors playing the roles don't look anything like the way you've pictured the characters. Tom Cruise as six-foot-five, two-hundred-fifty-pound Jack Reacher? Get serious.
But seeing the film first rarely spoils the book. Sure, you might know the ending and the bones of the plot going in, but the story unfolds on the page in a richer, more multidimensional way than it does on the screen.
Lately, though, I've become less sure about that. I love books and I love movies, and I've come to think it's not really fair to compare them. All they really have in common is that they are ways to tell a story. Beyond that, they're apples and oranges. Their techniques for presenting plot, characters, and settings are dissimilar in many ways, so that even when a movie is based on a novel, the story they're telling may not be quite the same. The factors that make books and films succeed or fail are very different, and each form is best judged, and enjoyed, on its own terms.
In a film based on a book, in addition to what I hope for with any movie -- good writing, good acting, good directing, good film editing -- I look for two things. First, does the movie look right, based on what I've visualized? I grant you that this is a highly subjective standard. Second, does it capture, not so much the specifics of the story, but its spirit?
Gone with the Wind succeeds on both counts. I fell in love with the book when I first read it at age thirteen. I fell in love with the movie when I first saw it many years later. So what if the film left out one of Scarlett O'Hara's husbands, two of her kids, and quite a few subplots? It looks right, it feels right, and it is an enduring classic.
But it's easy for filmmakers to get a book wrong. Sometimes they do it willfully, as in the case of Burglar, supposedly based on Lawrence Block's novel The Burglar in the Closet. They brought in Whoopi Goldberg to play Block's protagonist Bernie (now Bernice) Rhodenbarr, gave the role of Bernie's sidekick Carolyn (now Carl) to comic Bobcat Goldthwait, and transplanted the whole thing from New York to San Francisco. While the film was enjoyable enough if accompanied by a large tub of popcorn, the look and spirit of the story were completely stripped away. A film can't be truly successful when the changes are so fundamental that they dishonor the book.
I can think of two instances of films that I liked even better than the books they were based on, one years ago and one very recent. In college I saw The Collector, starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar. Taut, suspenseful, and creepy, it's a psychological study of the evolving relationship between a kidnapper and his captive, and it drew me totally into its world. Fascinated by the story, I sought out the John Fowles novel, but found it far less intriguing.
The recent example is Gone Girl, which I saw on screen after reading the book. For me, the spirit of the story was maintained, the look of the film was even more right than my own visualization, and as a bonus the twists and turns seemed clearer. Aspects of the plot and the characters were problematic in both versions, but as I watched the movie I found it easier to suspend my disbelief. Gillian Flynn wrote the novel and the screenplay; both the book and the movie have been wildly popular. Maybe she has a career ahead of her. ;)
Now I'm going to go read a book. Or maybe I'll check out the movie listings.