A few years ago I was talking with some people about books and their film adaptations. Of course someone said, “Well, the book is always better.” And I politely disagreed. Some people were shocked when I said that. I asked everyone about The Godfather and The Exorcist and Jaws. A few other people spoke up and said they thought The Exorcist and Jaws were both scarier than their cinematic adaptations. And I had to admit it… I had never read those books. I had always just assumed the films were better. Recently I came across some used paperbacks of these novels, and I decided to pick them up and read them so I could see for myself.
And I was right.
Both Jaws and The Exorcist work better on film than on the page. But why? I think it has to do with format, and by that I mean essentially the power of language and the power of imagery. Both Blatty and Benchley are pretty flat with their descriptions. There is nothing I want to read aloud. It is all cardboard description, plot, and exposition. Both books could have easily become B-movie stuff. I mean they’re just monster stories when you get down to it. But William Friedkin and Steven Spielberg just happen to be great directors. I think Friedkin’s use of pseudo-subliminal imagery makes the film creepier than the book could ever be. Spielberg’s mechanical shark, Bruce, didn’t work half of the time so he was forced to get creative, and by NOT showing the shark he created incredible suspense and tension. In the book you get the fish’s POV. In the book you also get pages and pages of subplot that doesn’t go anywhere.
This summer is the fortieth anniversary of Spielberg’s Jaws. I went and saw it again on the big screen last week with my father. The movie is near perfect. I admit a lot of it is lightening in a bottle. But there are also shots that are near Bergman-esque. Quint sitting up in his crow’s nest, backlit by a fading sun. The machete reflecting off the ocean’s surface. And there is the famous Vertigo rip off of Brody witnessing a shark attack. These are all wonderful pieces of a great film. But those are wonderful visuals.
I think books that have wonderful language—which consists of most great novels—can never be truly adapted for the screen. How do you make a visual representation of Hemingway’s short terse sentences? Maybe if you used lots of voiceover. But even then, I don’t think it would work. The Coen brothers managed to make a superb film out of a mediocre book by a great novelist when they made No Country for Old Men, but that book had none of the wonderful sprawling sentences of Blood Meridian. The novel felt like a screenplay. Actually, it started out as a screenplay. Maybe that’s why.
But then you have those weird cases where the film becomes its own thing. James Ellroy raised the bar of the mystery when he published L.A. Confidential. There was no way that mammoth novel could be a feature film. It is the War and Peace of hard boiled crime. The filmmakers were smart and didn’t try, instead they condensed the book down to the essential plot points and themes. I think both novel and film are great. I admit I hope to someday see a sprawling HBO mini-series of the book.
Yes, most of the time the book IS better. But not always. What films do you think are improvements over their source material?
Writer living in the hill country of Texas