Booklab: Book vs. Movie

It’s a cherished notion among book lovers that the book is always better than the movie  — always. But is this just snobbishness perpetrated by people who prefer one art form over another? After all, movies have things that books don’t have. Soundtracks, for example. And Robert Redford. But we’ll get to him in a minute.

Our most recent Booklab experiment investigated the theory that books are better than movies by comparing six books and their film interpretations. To make it fair, the movies we chose had to boast some kind of artistic merit. That is, they had to have won some kind of award or have been directed by a notable director or simply to have a longstanding place in the pantheon of classic films.

The list was actually quite long.

The six we settled on were: Out of Africa, The Virgin Suicides, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Speak, and Papillon.

But how does one make an honest comparison between two inherently different art forms? It’s not enough to consider whether or not the movie included all of the book’s elements — usually that just isn’t possible. And then there’s the Robert Redford factor: sometimes the sheer beauty of a film (or its lead actors) is enough to sway preference.

Let’s all just take a moment to appreciate.

In the end, the most important thing was how well each medium conveyed the “aboutness” of the story.

Anna chose Papillon by Henri Charrière (film directed by directed by Franklin J. Schaffner), and had this to say about it: “I liked both. The movie conveys — but the book really, really conveys —  Charrière‘s mind and how he was able to triumph over his circumstances. In the book, there are glimpses into the futures of other characters, which I really enjoyed, and which the movie doesn’t have. The movie ends with his Devil’s Island escape, which was a nice ending, but the book goes on to include his arrest in Venezuela and eventual pardon. Also, Steven McQueen did NOT look twenty-five.”

The Verdict: “I liked the book better because of all the background info, and because it was a true story whereas the film was a fictionalized version. But I appreciated its ultra-Technicolor.”

Tecla chose The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (film directed by Sofia Coppola), and offered this analysis: “The movie and the book were very close, and some of the lines in the movie came directly from the book. The book was darker, and in the movie, everything was prettier than I imagined while reading it. This made the boys’ obsession with the girls more understandable, because in the movie they go outside more. The book is quirkier, and you get a sense of time passing and the Lisbon family’s deterioration. The movie skips a lot of things, and the story feels like it takes place over a few weeks, which ultimately makes less sense.”

The Verdict: “I liked the book better. If I’d seen the movie first, I wouldn’t have wanted to read the book.”

Deb chose Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (film directed by Sydney Pollack) and had this to say: “The book and the movie are totally different. The book is a memoir and is more about her interactions with the Africans on her farm. It felt very journal-like and episodic. The movie, on the other hand, is a Meryl Streep/Robert Redford love story, and I wasn’t very enthused about watching it because that’s not really my thing. I kept putting it off, but when I did finally watch it, I was like, THIS IS AWESOME! It really conveyed the spaciousness of Africa. And Robert Redford! STILL SEXY AT FORTY-NINE!”

The Verdict: “I liked the movie better because it had more of an overall arc.”

And now, another picture of Mr. Redford, just because.

Yes, please.

Nedra chose One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (film directed by Miloš Forman) and offered this comparison: “The book was amazing, and in general, the movie was true to the book. Because of Jack Nicholson’s facial expressions, the movie was funnier than the book, and in the book, the animosity between the patients and Nurse Ratched is more intense. The narrator in the book is the Native American character, and I liked that; he was the ‘camera’ through which we saw the story unfolding.”

The Verdict: “I liked the book better. They were both great, but the book is just more in-depth.”

Jennifer chose Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (film directed by Jessica Sharzer) and had this to say: “The movie version was energetically lighter. The setting was changed from New York to the Midwest. I thought I would hate it because I’m not a fan of Kristen Stewart, but in the end I thought it was very well cast. The book is narrated in first-person, and so it feels very intimate. But through the use of voiceover, the director did a very good job conveying that intimacy. The movie presented Melinda’s rape in a more explicit way. The story itself is not unique but the way that Anderson wrote it was. Because of the novel’s format, it felt natural and very easy to get into the head of a teenage girl.”

The Verdict: “I liked both of them exactly the same amount.”

hepburnI chose Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (film directed by Blake Edwards). My take on it: “I watched the movie first, and loved it. But then I read the book, and the book was so good — and so different — that the movie lost some of its luster. Capote’s Holly Golightly is a beautiful but restless woman who inspires myriad loves to which she can never really lay claim. It ends more sadly, and the story itself is a mystery, centering around Holly’s unknown fate. The movie is really fun to watch for the fashions and the happy ending, and because Audrey Hepburn is adorable. But when I read the book I pictured someone who was less aware of her effect on others than Hepburn’s Holly seems to be.”

The Verdict: “I liked the book better. The movie is a classic, but after reading the book I don’t know why it isn’t the more famous version.”

The score — books 4, movies 1, with one tie — is hardly surprising considering that we’re a book club and not a film enthusiasts’ club. Books make us do this:


But then, so does Robert Redford.

9 thoughts on “Booklab: Book vs. Movie

  1. After reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I don’t think Hepburn was the best choice for Holly. I know I’m *way* in the minority with this opinion. But even Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part. That said, I can’t really see Monroe as Holly either. Hepburn was reportedly insecure throughout filming knowing wasn’t the author’s vision for Holly. Side note: Capote writes some of the most beautiful sentences I’ve ever read.

    1. I agree 100%. Capote’s narrator describes Holly as someone with a fresh-scrubbed, breakfast cereal air of good health, and also talks a great deal about her self-styled, multicolored hair. Hepburn had a few well-placed highlights. I pictured someone petite and bright-eyed as she was, but with a choppy, messy pixie that was about 15 colors of blonde/brown. More ingenue and less sophisticated. I don’t think Monroe could have pulled it off either, if only because she was too womanly and too sexy. Although she possessed a certain carelessness that I think the character called for.

  2. Fortuitously Robert Redford embodies the objections I have to film versions, in that I’ve never seen a film where, according to my perception, Robert Redford wasn’t playing Robert Redford. To be fair, that’s the way a lot of leading screen performance works, projecting a compelling on screen persona but it throws up a few problems when interpreting a literary work. Acting is a tricky game to make a living at, the overwhelming temptation for performers in leading roles, is to play up their role in way that makes their performance the key factor of the screen experience. The reason that’s a problems when interpreting literary works, is that reading experience is one that explores character motivation in detail, in preference to focusing on how impressive a particular character’s dentistry is.

    There are ways round the problem, give the actors something to do other than act and it should be no surprise that the director key in that regard. No prizes for guessing that Kubrick is the director who is the notable exemplar of that principle.

    Both film and literary narrative are stylized mediums, in that they adopt conventions over realism. Successful film adaptations of books are either those that negotiate a compromise between those stylistic conventions or displace literary conventions with cinematic ones. The pitfall with the latter approach is there’s a danger of making a film that is remote from the source material and I think that’s where objections originate from. Respect for the source is not an attitude I would say is prevalent amongst film makers in general.

    One of the reasons that historical, film makers defaulted to in-copyright literary adaptations,was as a hedge against US film copyright registration. The consequence being, that a lot of film of the book type films, only had the title and few character names in common with their source material. The other motivation for diverging from a literary source is to extend property rights, films with original screenplays generate their own rights and if those films become intrinsically identified with a particular title, the rights effectively transfer to the studio when the original rights lapse.

    1. Well, you have made some very excellent points, and I can’t really argue with you except to say that I’m perfectly okay with Robert Redford playing Robert Redford in Out of Africa. That one scene where he washes her hair? That’s just hot. There is no straight woman alive who doesn’t want to be Meryl Streep in that moment.

      Also, that movie really is “better” than the book, even if most of it has nothing whatsoever to do with the book, even if the filmmaker fictionalized a real woman’s life to an appalling and probably insulting degree. The book is interesting, but it isn’t particularly well-crafted as far as memoirs go. There is an art to telling a story, even if the story is true. If the book had been shaped better, then perhaps there would have been less need to invent a love story in the movie.

      But then we would have missed out on that hair-washing scene, and that would have been a real loss.

      1. I appreciate journals more than the sanitized musings over days past that make up autobiography and memoir. You get -something- of the reality a person’s experience; so I was quite interested to see you mention it wasn’t a particularly well crafted work. Narrative, or rather the prevalent narrative conventions, seem to permeated cultural life to such a degree that now even newspaper articles seem as though they should commence with, ‘Once upon a time’. I daren’t open a Haynes manual for fear of what narrative ambitions the author might harbour.

        I caught the hair scene on YT, yeah it is quite nice and it suppose it’s a good example of a cinematic sensual tableaux. Since I haven’t read the book, I’m not aware of how it conveys sensuality but don’t you think that sensuality is one of the main failings in theatrical interpretation? Dramatic mediums have this merciless metre that dictates their expression: no time to smell the roses, we have to tell you what happens next. That is of course, unless they use one of those awful montage scenes. I recall a friend of mine who waxed at length about the film version of Far from the Madding Crowd, read the book I told her, once you enter the Malthouse you’ll never watch the film again.

        There are exceptions of course, some film makes have explored the value of space and timing to excellent effect but it’s an approach I think that struggles against the ascendant method of theatrical narrative technique.

  3. Someone should do a movie based on music versus the music it is based on competition. Very few contenders come to mind, but I remember anyway from my youth how some musicians detested Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Some just despised Leopold Stokowski, while others thought it was simply perverse to translate such great music into cartoons. I myself always thought very highly of the film. I do think it was fair enough of such folk as Stravinsky (whose work was in the movie) to object to alterations to the scores (not, as it happens, unlike the elisions and other changes that invariably happen when a book is made into a movie), but the objections that classical music should not be made into animated feature films always struck me as foolish. History is replete with examples of one source being translated into another source anyway.

    (And I’ve only seen three of the films you’ve discussed here, and I haven’t read any of their respective books, so that’s the best I can offer.)

    1. Anyone who doesn’t like Fantasia is too much up their own butt to be any fun. I fell in love with classical music as a child BECAUSE of Fantasia. And even now whenever I hear the Rite of Spring, I see in my mind those poor, doomed dinosaurs, plodding across the parched earth with their tongues lolling, nudging miserably at sticky pools of mud.

      I’m sure that isn’t what Stravinsky had in mind when he wrote the ROS, but that’s art. You can’t control how it affects and/or inspires others. Film is an interesting medium precisely because of its collaborative nature.

      Out of Africa, by the way, has a wonderful soundtrack by film composer John Barry. Very sweeping and sunlit; it makes you feel just how you’d imagine flying over an African plain in a small aircraft might make a person feel. Especially if that person were in a plane with Robert Redford. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

      1. Come to think of it, I seem to have known my share of those folk with their heads in the nether regions. Back when Fantasia came out in a wonderful LaserDisc box back in the early ’90s, I showed it to some friends, and nobody liked it: one chap even fell asleep. Odd. I’m reminded too just now in reflecting further upon classical music and movies about some I knew in my youth who thought ill of Stanley Kubrick’s use of classical music in his films, such as his synthesized renditions of Beethoven. Unfortunate.

        Well, I’ve seen The Rite of Spring in concert two or three times, including one recent performance with the Joffrey Ballet and the Cleveland Orchestra, and the nature of the work does require some level of interpretation. Every choreographed performance will have its own idiosyncrasies (not unlike those of an animated film). Nevertheless, I do sympathize with Stravinsky’s concerns, to the extent he had such concerns, about the editing of the score that was done to fit the animation. I suspect, though, that the stories of his displeasure (even indeed if he was quoted about it late in life) are at least a bit exaggerated.

        And permit me to agree completely about John Barry’s Out of Africa score, even though (and this is a terrible omission in my cinematic viewing) I have never seen the film. I have long enjoyed a good many of his film scores, many to films I have never seen. I recommend his score to Somewhere in Time as well, if you ever have the chance.

        And thank you for permitting me this digression from the primary substance of your post. E.D.

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