As a reader, I always knew I preferred the book to the movie. Don’t you? There’s always a feeling that something you loved in the book got left out, distorted, blown out of proportion. There’s the character who comes out nothing like you imagined. And, beyond all that, there’s this vague quality that you lose, the texture of the narrative. I’ve never seen a movie capture that. The mood, sometimes (though I can’t think of an example); the feel of the story unfolding–never.
Some of it’s the genre, no doubt. Not only the shift from the written word to a visual, enacted production, and not only the problem that novels are a genre to themselves, with their own peculiar conventions and pacing. It’s also sometimes about the kind of story it is. Some stories, like fantasy and science fiction, are better left to the imagination.
Some of it’s the loss of the writer’s voice, too. Maybe that’s what I mean by the “texture of the narrative.” It’s that I no longer have Tolkien’s patient, wise voice guiding me through Middle Earth; or I no longer get Jane Austen’s witty, genteel sentences catching me up in a world foreign to me. All I get in their place are costumes, close-ups, panoramas, CGI.
But it wasn’t until I started doing the hard work of editing my writing that I started to understand the real trouble with movie adaptations, and it includes all the above. A well-written story has been crafted to perfection. It has been honed in such a way that its length, its style of writing, the voice of the narrator, the parts you see and the parts you don’t–all of it is precisely, exactingly crafted. What might seem a small expansion here or trimming there changes the balance of the story. It destroys, even in a small way, the author’s vision of the whole. And in the process, it interpolates into Tolkien’s or Austen’s story the unearned vision of the film’s director.
Let me explain “unearned” for a moment. I think the most obvious case, recently, would be the Narnia adaptations. C. S. Lewis “earned” enduring fame for his stories by inventing something new, capturing the story in lucid prose, and honing each element in the series in light of his own vision. Then, piggybacking on Lewis’s success, along comes the film director and changes the story to suit his own designs. Anyone who was wooed by Lewis’s vision will be disappointed by the Narnia adaptations. They transgress one of the fundamental tenets of the series: that becoming a king or queen in Narnia makes you a better human being back here in the mundane, everyday world.
Don’t get me wrong: Movie adaptations are fun. I like to revisit a story through another person’s eyes, see what someone has made of it. I especially like it when the film director actually tries to respect the vision of the author. But until you can make a movie that captures the narrative voice, its texture, the subtleties and nuances of its language, its precise balance of elements and scenes and dialogue, … the book will always be better than the movie.
Except, of course, when the book isn’t that good. Sometimes that happens, too. Sometimes the story’s author just didn’t get to the gist of the story well, didn’t hone it quite right, and a film director somehow manages to do something better with it. I think that’s rare. But it does happen, or so I’ve been told.
What about you? Can you think of films that were better than the books? Do you have your own theory on why one is better than the other?