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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 10, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    From page to screen

    Fiona McCann

    Kevin Power’s debut Bad Day at Blackrock is being made into a film, which frankly only adds to a pile of books (currently topped by Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road) that must be perused before I’ll allow myself the luxury of the big-screen version of events. But am I deluded in believing that in the divine order, book should come before film, at least when it comes to experiencing a story? I’m not one to be repeating the “are better” mantra in general, though am stumped now in my attempt to come up with an example of a film of a book that really outshone its literary predecessor. The Merchant Ivory Room With A View was at least as good as E.M. Forster original, while One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was fabulous on page and scrren, though I’d be hard put to pick one over tother. Are we talking apples and oranges here? Is there even a point to comparing two very different ways to tell a story? I would extol the film versions of The Godfather or Dangerous Liaisons, yet both are predated by books I never read. So I need help: what films are better than the books that inspired them?

    • clom says:

      I find that reading the book first allows for greater imaginitive engagement with the book.
      When you watch a film and then read a book, you create a narrative prism through which you read the story, impeding your imagination (unless you are one of those rare people who are able not to think about certain things)

    • Fiona says:

      Well said Clom – that’s one of the reasons I like to encounter the text version first. I dont’ know anyone who can maintain imaginative independence after the film. . .

    • Quint says:

      I can’t think of any films right now that were better than the book but I can think of two film adaptations that are equal to the novel – ‘The Remains of the day’ and ‘About A Boy’. I liked Neil Jordan’s film of ‘The Butcher Boy’ but the novel had such an impact on me that I would always have a bias towards the original book as with ‘Breakfast on Pluto’. I’m re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ before the film’s release. I have seen some stills and it looks EXACTLY as I had imagined. When I read the book I had envisioned Viggo Mortensen plying the role of ‘The Man’ so it was spooky that he got the actual part. I think you definitely have to read the book first to form your own mental image of the narratives and to interpretit it in your own way, then see the movie. Having said that, I want to read ‘The Reader’ after seeing the movie.

    • Steve K says:

      Godfather book is just a fun and novel (no pun intended) read, the movies based on the book are an exceptional piece of film. This is probably the most notable incidence of a decent book being adapted to a masterpiece.

      Clockwork Orange has certainly more of a legacy than the novel. Fight Club is better than the book (at least in my opinion).

      Some other movies that work just as well or better than the book are LA Confidential, The Maltese Falcon, To Kill a Mockingbird and of course Trainspotting.

      I’m not sure if it counts (as an adaption of a short-story) but Blade Runner is certainly more notable than Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?

      I haven’t seen Revolutionary Road, but have a hard time believing it will work better on screen than in the excellent novel.

    • Clare says:

      I agree. I’m in the middle of Revoluntionary Road at the moment, though have hit that mid book slump. Better hurry though, before it leaves the cinemas.

      Maybe the reason that the book is better than the film, is that they hardly make crap books into films? It’s a hard road from one form to the other, and it’d want to be a pretty good book to make it.

    • Fiona says:

      Quint: The Remains of the Day was a corker of a book and a film, it’s true, though I’d still tip my hat to the book, strangely enough. But now I don’t know whether that’s because I insisted on reading the book first. The order of encounter can prejudice you. Funnily enough, I’ve read the Reader, albeit a while ago, and have no desire to see the film. Should I revise that?

      Steve K: I thought as much about the Godfather, but had never read the original so couldn’t really pass judgment. I would say that though A Clockwork Orange has more of a legacy than then novel, it’s still a better book, despite the fact that I loved the film. Trainspotting was an excellent example, however, as was LA Confidential. Nice work.

      Clare: Ha! Good point, in that the book usually has to at least grab a producer/director’s attention in order to make it to the screen.

    • nerraw says:

      A fine example of a film being better than the book is Slumdog Millionaire. The book which it is based on, Q and A, was mediocre at best and quickly became very repetitive due to the formalaic: Question followed by life story followed by answer, repeat 15 times.

      I don’t think anyone’s imagination can compete with India, a place so magical that you wouldn’t believe such a place exists unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes.

      And that’s why Slumdog Millionaire is superior to the book, it brings that vibrancy to the screen, the epic but beautiful landscape, the horror but friendliness of the slums.

      Unless you’ve been to India, it’s impossible to conjure up such a place. And that’s not to mention the wonderful soundtrack and incredible performance by the young children from the slum

    • Fred says:

      I don’t know how well I, Robot fits in with the above cinematic and literary classics. I saw the film first. At the time I thought it was an above average sci-fi detective story. I picked up Isaac Asimov’s novel a short time later and could not believe the difference. I,Robot the novel is more like a series of very bland short stories that revolve around the hypothetical issues raised by the invention of highly complex thinking machines. Will Smith’s gags aside, the film version turns all of this into a coherent narrative, re-positioning events and characters to great effect. The second time I watched it I could really appreciate the changes. At the end of the day it’s still a film about evil robots so don’t expect much thought provocation, but for what it is I,Robot is a major improvement on the novel.

    • Lar says:

      eh, perhaps No COuntry for Old Men? though I saw the film first and that made it difficult to appreciate the book on its own

    • declan burke says:

      Steve – “Do Androids Dream …” is a novel, and is every bit as good as the film.

      Fight Club is a better movie than the book, definitely.

      “To Kill A Mockingbird” is equally good as a book or a film.

      Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a movie that offers more than the book.

      Ditto The Bridge over the River Kwai.

      And LA Confidential is a great movie, but the novel is a classic.

      Is Apocalypse Now a better movie that “The Heart of Darkness” is a novel(la)?

      The movie Build My Gallows High is superior to the novel, as is The Player, On the Waterfront, Ben Hur, The Last Temptation and The Night of the Hunter – although they’re all good books.

      Cheers, Dec

    • Quint says:

      ”Funnily enough, I’ve read the Reader, albeit a while ago, and have no desire to see the film. Should I revise that?”

      You should definitely go see it. It got a lukewarm reception from the critics which I don’t entirely understand as it’s a compelling, deeply involving film. As usual Winslet gets all the plaudits but as with Revolutionary Road, she’s outshone by the other actors..Fiennes is great as always as is David Kross as the young German, Lena Olin’s performance is quietly devastating, Bruno Ganz etc…great movie.

      Saw ‘Valkyrie’ last night. Not great but not awful either. It’s stifled by the fact that we all know the ending. Another major problem is hearing Nazis speaking in American (Tom Cruise) and plummy English (everyone else) accents. Weird, very confusing and not a good idea. Even a hint of German accent would have helped. It would have been a much better film if it was made BY Germans with GERMAN actors.

    • Aoife says:

      I wonder whether it is helpful to compare the film with the novel.

      To me the two arts employ different and often incomparable languages which deserve to be assessed on their own terms. It is for this reason that a sunset may be rendered exquisite on the page and on screen look like every other sunset seen since or after. Likewise, the irony of a character’s predicament can be made known instantly and subtly by inserting into a scene a prop or a sign.

      But even in using these examples we know the process is not this simple and is often more fun in either medium. The order in which you experience the film of a book or the book of a film is irrelevant if both are enjoyed on their own merits and within their own rules of creation.

      When one is the interpretation of the other, and at the (wonderful) mercy of a director’s vision, it is futile to compare the new with the old. You’ll only get yourself in a twist and lose friends in the process.

      Film, as the great art form of our age, which continues to raise the standard by which animation and CGI are rated, is a means to an ‘experience’ just as the oral stories, the morality dramas, the weekly pamphlets and the first self-conscious novels were to their contemporary consumers.

      Finally, a film and a novel ‘do’ different things. There is a danger of confusing one’s dilemmas or reservations with either when we try to compare them, just as the fictional narrative of a novel may become coloured by the ‘real’ event on which it is based.


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