When I was procrastinating today, I came across an article on the MSNBC website called “Five Reasons the Potter Movies Are Better Than Their Books.” Some of the reasons they give are stupid (Robert Pattinson as a whole reason? C’mon, that’s really pushing it unless you’re 13, female, and obsessed) but they do have a point. Even though people (read: book fans) always make a big deal about movie adaptations being pale imitations of the original novels, sometimes they really are technically better than their sources (not that you’ll ever get the book fans to admit it).
A lot of it boils down to: good idea, poor execution on the part of the original writer. With proper application of the screenwriter’s rules of adaptation – you owe nothing to the original, but everything to the intention of the original – you can theoretically produce a better story. It’s rare, but it does happen.
I have a short list (a very short list) of stories I have experienced in movie and book form where I felt the movie version was stronger. I’ll share some of these with you now, along with the reasons why the movies are better. A note to book fans: please don’t firebomb my house.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
I absolutely hated the Lord of the Rings books. Though I am capable of making language and length concessions when reading the work of historical writers (in fact, I quite enjoy the work of Charles Dickens, and he never wrote a word where ten would suffice) I found J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing to be rambling and unfocused. His fantasy world was fantastically detailed, but decidedly lacking in conflict, at least for the 150 or so pages I managed of The Fellowship Of The Ring. I was over a third of the way through the book and the main character hadn’t even reached the elf village where he would START his quest to get rid of an extremely powerful ring. I can see writing a story about two hairy little men eating ten breakfasts and walking through the woods AFTER your series has developed an enormous following, but starting the first book with such uneventful, rambling, unnecessary chapters should be a recipe for rejection by publishers.
In the film version however, screenwriters Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, and Peter Jackson only had two hours in which to depict that entire book. Naturally the first things to go on the chopping block are all those bits where nothing happens, which tightened and strengthened the story. Gone too are the large blocks of text describing elf faces and hobbit breakfasting rituals in minute detail, because they can be slapped up on screen in a split second and still convey the same information. A picture really is worth a thousand words, and for that I am beyond thankful, because it means I can skip reading the rest of Tolkien’s epic.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
This movie, directed by Brad Silberling, is based on the first three books in the Series of Unfortunate Events sequence by Lemony Snicket (which is a pen name, obviously). In each book, three orphaned children with special skills are sent somewhere to live with an aggressively clueless, spineless adult. They almost fall prey to the evil Count Olaf, who wants to steal the fortune their parents left them, and then they escape by forming an ingenious plan that would obviously never work. There’s also a maddeningly opaque overarching mystery plot throughout the series regarding their parents’ deaths that is very dissatisfyingly concluded. The only really charming and redeeming qualities are how devoted the three siblings are to one another and the dark, macabre, depressing, semi-invented world that they inhabit.
In the film version, screenwriter Robert Gordon kept everything that worked (the sibling devotion, their unusual skills, Count Olaf’s disguises, the dark fantasy world) and changed everything that didn’t. He tweaked the children’s escapes until they actually seemed semi-believable, balanced out the adult characters so they didn’t seem like such utter retards, and clarified and resolved the mystery plot. The result was still episodic, charming, and quirky, but also tight and more believable. Even though they left it open for a possible sequel that never happened, they managed to forge a satisfying conclusion – something the books never managed to do despite completing their 13 volume run.
Cormac McCarthy’s book, The Road which is about a father and son trekking across a post-apocalyptic landscape, won the Pulitzer prize, so I realize I’m not making any friends by suggesting that it was anything other than the greatest book ever written by anyone ever in the world. But I’m going to say it anyway: I didn’t think The Road was that good. It was McCarthy’s writing style that really brought it down. He never grounded the reader in a location before starting in on whatever it was his unnamed father and son characters were doing, and he never really described their world at all except to say it was grey. He was also annoyingly vague about how it all started (apparently, it’s not supposed to matter, but that doesn’t stop him from giving his characters flashbacks). The events were harrowing, the circumstances bleak, and the characters endearingly devoted to one another, but McCarthy’s confusing sentence and paragraph structures were frustrating.
In the film version, obviously, you didn’t have to endure McCarthy’s writing to get at the story because it was all displayed right there on screen for you. Likewise since it was visual, it had to have a setting. It couldn’t just look like a formless grey cloud. It had to have roads and bridges and trees and skies and such. The harrowing events transfer easily to the screen and when screenwriter Joe Penhall flashes back to show their lives pre-apocalypse, there’s little doubt as to how the world got that way (nuclear war) and what happened to the boy’s mum. McCarthy was right that we don’t need to know WHY the war started, but we did need more than: “okay, the world is ruined, let’s go for a walk.”
I’ll also tentatively add Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to the list, even though I haven’t seen it and I preferred the books to the other movies, because Harry, Ron, and Hermione spend about a third of it wandering around in the countryside doing nothing, and I’d like to see that part of the cutting room floor.