Sunday, February 12, 2012

Movies that were better than their source books

     When people talk about movies made from books, it seems like they always claim that the book was so much better.  For good reason, the books usually are.  Part of this stems from the practical limitations of movies, chiefly, they typically have to cut significant parts of the story so they're not three or four hours long.  Also, of course, books often have us in the character's heads, which is often difficult to do in movies, short of using narration, which is frequently awkward and doesn't really work well.  Alas, in many cases the movie creators deserve to be faulted, since they've changed the story to please fickle preview audiences, or they've watered down controversial issues so it can still get a PG-13 rating, and thus more customers in the form of children.
     However, every so often, the reverse is true, and I'd like to discuss some of these examples.  Bear in mind, these are only my opinions--many readers will disagree with some (or maybe all) of them.  Also, there are spoilers for both the movies and the books, so probably don't read these if you still want to read/watch the example in question.  All these examples are for books written separately and before the movie--novelizations (written using the movie script) don't count.

1)  Misery:  Novel written by Stephen King (1987), movie made in 1990.  This is an example of a book that was very good, but its movie was simply more effective.  A picture being worth a thousand words, as the expression goes.  Nothing wrong with what King wrote, it was just more compelling to see it on the screen.  Kathy Bates owned this role, and it was refreshing that the Academy got it right and gave her the Best Actress Oscar.  Although he's mostly known for his comedies, director Rob Reiner really did an great job here.  The comic relief of the local sheriff and his wife was also a nice tension breaker, and not, if memory serves, in the book.

2)  Any James Bond story:  Books written by Ian Fleming in the 1950's and 60's, movies made in 1962 to present.  I'm maybe cheating a little here, as I read "Dr. No," "The Man With the Golden Gun," and one other ("Thunderball"? I can't remember).  I'm also partially relying on the opinions of my father for the other novels.  But anyway, the movies have certainly had their ups and downs, but overall they're much more entertaining than the books.  I give Fleming credit for creating a great character, and drafting many of the plots, but his writing didn't impress me.  His Bond seemed too grim, and the stories more dull, somehow.  Granted, the movies were often unrealistic, sometimes absurd and cartoony, but sometimes this makes for more enjoyable viewing.  Fleming's racial views (often expressed in the Bond books) were messed up, too, and unsettling.

3)  Fight Club:  Novel written by Chuck Palahnuik in 1996, movie made in 1999.  I didn't expect to enjoy this movie.  Initially I heard only about the fight club itself, and thought it would be kind of a mindless action flick.  However, to my pleasant surprise, I found the movie to be wickedly funny, and the split personality plotline was very interesting, and disturbing.  Like Misery, and many of the examples here, the book wasn't bad.  It just didn't seem to have much more that the movie didn't cover.

4)  Cape Fear:  Novel written by John D. MacDonald (with the original title of "The Executioners"), movies made in 1962 and 1991.  I'm referring to the '91 remake directed by Martin Scorsese.  The book, and the '62 movie version, were decent, but were more run-of-the-mill revenge stories.  Max Cady gets out of prison and goes after the man (and his family) who stopped him and testified against him in his rape case.  The '91 remake is much darker, and the characters more ambiguous.  In the remake, Cady has a legitimate complaint--Sam Bowden was his lawyer, and he unethically buried a file that could have helped Cady avoid prison.  Unlike the book, and the earlier movie version, Bowden and his family are a mess--he has a verging-on-inappropriate relationship with a female colleague, his marriage is extremely shaky (largely due to his previous infidelity), and his daughter is in summer school for being caught smoking pot.  DeNiro's Cady is much more dangerous, too--smart, articulate, even charming at times.  Yet, at the same time, he's violent, vicious, and psychopathic, with an almost slasher movie villian's near supernatural ability to track people and withstand injury.  So, to sum up, it was in my view more sophisticated, nuanced, and yes, fucked-up.  (To be fair, the time period when the book and first movie were made were probably factors in their being less intense and nasty.)

5)  Requiem For a Dream:  Novel written by Hubert Selby, Jr., in 1978, movie made in 2000.  I think it's Selby's writing style that causes this opinion.  I don't tend to like stream-of-consciousness type writing, when you're not always sure what's really happening, what's being said, and what is just character's thoughts.  His story was compelling, but I didn't care for the way he wrote it.  Plus, the movie was so riveting--shot in such an innovative way, had great acting (nice to see Ellen Burstyn again).  All of it was painful and horrifically depressing--it's not a fun movie, it's more a harrowing endurance.  Yet, to me, still definitely worth watching.

6)  Goodfellas:  Book written by Nicholas Pileggi in 1985 (titled "Wiseguy") based on Henry Hill's account, movie made in 1990.  This is a nonfiction book, so I can't fault the author for plot choices, of course.  But, to me, the written account wasn't nearly as entertaining.  Scorsese's movie was top notch, up there with the first two "Godfather"s and "The Sopranos" as the best mob adaptations.  I think the film eliminated some of the slightly tedious detail and concentrated on the more interesting storylines.

7)  Jaws:  Novel written by Peter Benchley in 1974, movie made in 1975.  One of my frequent criticisms is that movies often minimize or eliminate controversial characters or situations to become family friendly.  Here is an example of a time when I thought doing this was better.  The characters in Benchley's book are pretty repellent--Ellen Brody is unhappy and has an affair with Hooper (!), Martin is much less sympathetic, and there's a weird subplot where the mayor is in debt to the mafia.  Despite all of this, the book is still decent reading, but the movie is much more enjoyable.  Even if Mythbusters proved the movie ending is bullshit--I can overlook that considering the rest of the film is so spectacular.

8)  Naked Lunch:  Novel written by William Burroughs in 1959, movie made in 1991.  I hear Burroughs used to write out a manuscript, cut it up with scissors, and rearrange the pieces to make a new story.  I can only assume he did this for Naked Lunch.  I find the book absolutely unreadable.  The words were English, but they were strung together in a way that was incomprehensible.  Meanwhile the movie had its moments.  Bizarre and disgusting images abound (like the lusty, lobster/insectoid shape changing typewriter and the reptillian Mugwumps with their phallic like horns that dripped hallucinagenic drugs) and the plot is weird and dreamlike, but it passes the time in an interesting way.

9)  The Thing:  Short story written in 1938 by John W. Campbell, Jr. (as "Who Goes There?"), movie versions in 1951 and 1982.  Kind of a Cape Fear situation once more.  The short story is good, the '51 film is okay, but the '82 movie is great.  The 50's version doesn't follow the story's plot when it comes to The Thing's attributes--excusable, given the special effects limitations of the time.  But it certainly makes for a less frightening tale--a tough, regenerating vegetable man/giant doesn't compare to a creature which replicates other life forms, so you don't know who your friends are!  Most of the short story's elements are in the movie, but seeing it on the screen is much more powerful.  A lot of this is due to the brilliant special effects by Rob Bottin--seeing The Thing absorb people and dogs, change into other hideous mishmashes of creatures is disturbing, gross and terrifying.

10)  Trainspotting:  Novel written by Irvine Welsh in 1993, movie made in 1996.  Like with Requiem for a Dream, I wasn't crazy about Welsh's stream-of-consciousness type writing style.  Nevertheless it still was a good read, if difficult at times.  I liked the movie better because it was more linear.  Also, I think the film streamlined the story nicely, dropping a lot of the extraneous subplots, and boiling it down to the basic framework.  Both book and film were delightfully dark and disturbing.

11)  The French Connection:  Book written in 1969 by Robin Moore, movie made in 1971.  Another non-fiction book.  In this I found the truth to be more boring than the fiction.  Overall the book's story was interesting, but the writing was tedious.  The movie was anything but tedious.  Fast paced, great acting (Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider especially), and one of the best car chase scenes ever (if you're into that sort of thing.)

12) Soylent Green:  Novel written by Harry Harrison in 1966, movie made in 1973.  The movie only follows the basic setup of the book, then does its own glorious thing.  It makes the story even darker, with its sexism (expensive apartments come with live in female concubines, called "furniture" (really!)), euthanasia centers (perhaps justifiable in the horribly poor, starving, overcrowded America they portray, but still disturbing), and, of course, the movie's secret, the cannibalism.  The book is a decent read, but it's almost another story, and in this case, over-the-top and maybe even absurd wins, to me.  Plus I have a soft spot for Charlton Heston 60's and 70's sci-fi fare, like Planet of the Apes and even The Omega Man.

13)  L.A. Confidential:  Novel written by James Ellroy in 1990, movie made in 1997.  As with Trainspotting, sometimes a shorter, simpler story is more effective.  The book is good, but extremely dense and complicated, and was sometimes difficult to get through.  Ellroy's "telegraphic" prose style isn't my favorite.  The movie concentrated on fewer characters and the more basic plot, to its credit.  Also, the direction and acting were excellent, which is always a benefit.

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