Because Reading Is Hard

This might be one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. No, it’s not some Womynpriest ranting about the Vatican, or a sportswriter waxing poetic about a “gritty” but otherwise terrible baseball player, or anything written by Thomas Friedman. It’s a list of “six films that improve the source material.” There’s nothing inherently wrong in suggesting that a movie is better than the book it is based upon. For starters, The Godfather movie is arguably better than the book as it doesn’t cut out any of the good parts but it does excise the superfluous and frankly bizarre sublot from the middle portion of the book. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was much powerful than Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark. And though I haven’t seen and don’t plan to see the latest film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, it’s inconceivable that it could be any worse than the source material.

David R’s list, on the other hand, is a bit different.

The Social Network: Didn’t see the movie, didn’t read the book, and I generally don’t care.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: I never saw the movie. The book does drag in certain parts, but it’s still a classic. I’ll let this one go.

And now this is where he just gets nuts:

Pride and Prejudice (2005): 

I’m probably not the target audience for this particular book, what with being a 21st-century twenty-something male. That said, Pride and Prejudice has always struck me as a pretty good story wrapped up in circuitous, indirect writing. It’s light and frothy, and entertaining to an extent, but ultimately presented in a way that prevents me from really reaching out and connecting with the characters. I’m only passingly familiar with the much-adored BBC miniseries, but am under the impression that it more or less transcribes the book verbatim.

The 2005 version with Keira Knightley, on the other hand, does a much better job streamlining the story into a vibrant, energetic romance. It still retains the story’s amusingly frivolous air, but in a way that, for this viewer at least, renders the story both funnier and more touching than the original novel. Side characters are exaggerated, losing complexity but gaining a more tangible sense of fun — particularly in the case of one Mr. Collins. Director Joe Wright manages to make the dancing and socializing so much fun to watch that you can actually understand why so many people would show up to these parties. And the movie is simply gorgeous in a way that only a movie can be.

Speaking as a fellow 21st Century male, this is heresy. As I wrote on facebook, this isn’t even the best film adaption of this story.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: 

While the Harry Potter books are enjoyable for the most part, there are some notable problems with the series. One of the most obvious is J.K. Rowling’s tendency to veer off on wild tangents that derail the forward momentum of her stories. It looks like her editors were able to keep her on track for the first three books (with the third being the series’ best), but by the fourth she had become too popular for that. The Goblet of Fire— which, at 752 pages, is a whole book longer than any of the first three books — was filled with wandering storylines: S.P.E.W., the Quidditch World Cup, and plenty of other bits nearly cripple the already improbable storyline.

Screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Mike Newell took a scalpel to the book, skillfully extracting the core plot and character threads while leaving behind nearly everything that didn’t matter. Gone are the unnecessary distractions, bringing the characters and growing menace of the story to the forefront. And the movie still retains much of the detail that makes up the world, like Rita Skeeter, the Unforgivable Curses, or the eerie world of the Triwizard Tournament. It just never gets so enamored with any of these ideas that it forgets why we came in the first place.

Kloves and Newell didn’t take a scalpel to the book; they obliterated essential sublots and cut out fun little diversions. I recognize that tastes vary, but Goblet of Fire is the best book in the series in my mind particularly because of the fun little side excursions. Yes, I might be one of the few people who doesn’t hate the S.P.E.W. supblot, but that aside the movie just falls flat. Also, as my wife has pointed out, the climactic maze scene in the race for the Triwizard Cup is completely bland, as though they just ran out of money in their CGI budget. Rowling’s description of that part of the tournament is so much more vivid than what the filmmakers came up with.

It only gets worse.


This is kind of an apples-and-oranges situation. The Iliad (not The Aeneid, like I thoughtlessly wrote earlier) is an ancient epic poem; Troy, a modern action film. They’re going after completely different things, going about their aims in completely different ways, and generally couldn’t be further apart from each other without being entirely unrelated stories.

That said, I don’t get a whole lot out of Homer’s original. The way the gods act in his text is distracting, particularly when they swoop into the middle of a battle to remove key players from the action. Homer’sOdyssey includes gods and fantastical creatures much better. Then again, the main conflict in The Odyssey is between men and gods (or at least men and fate). The Iliad’s conflict is much more between men; two nations are at war. In the film Troy, the gods were taken completely out of the story, allowing the focus to fall squarely on the war waged over petty revenge and hubris. The human element is much more important, allowing the story to resonate more for its human viewers.

This make me weep openly, as Achilles did at the death of Patroclus. Leaving aside Homer’s epic, Troy was one of the most wretched movies ever put on screen. Troy wouldn’t be  an improvement over a Dan Brown novel, let alone freaking Homer.

And for number one:

War of the Worlds (2005):

Before you burn me at the stake, let me clarify. I’m a huge H.G. Wells fan, and if you remove the different versions from their cultural context I don’t know that one is better than the other. However, War of the Worlds is one of those stories that deserves to be retold every now and then, as it can offer a lot of commentary on different periods in history. The first film adaptation was of reasonably high quality; it (like much of that era’s science fiction) pitched the story against the fears and imagery of the Cold War.

In the early 2000s, Spielberg came to a realization, “I thought that this story’s time had come again.” It was a stroke of brilliance to deal with 9/11 through H. G. Wells’s century-old classic. The images in the movie arise very organically out of the story, but the specter of 9/11 hangs over the event. Missing-person posters, victims covered in dust, military trying to keep the peace. This allows Spielberg and writer David Koepp to use the text to examine the paranoia and weaknesses of our current society, and as a member of that society, this is somewhat more compelling and noticeably more relevant today than Wells’s book, while still retaining the lean structure and addictive concept that make up the core of the story.

It’s not as bad as favoring Brad Pitt’s version of Achilles over Homer’s, but it’s still pretty silly. Spielberg is a great director, but his inability to constrain his own innate Spielbergness fails to do Wells justice.

The frustrating thing is that the author doesn’t appear to be some high school kid who really hates books. He seems fairly literate, and he’s a decent writer. Yet his reasoning for most of these selections is that he just can’t deal with the long slog of reading books that have plot points he can’t relate to. Or, as one commenter put it:

This is less a post about movies that improve the source material and more about the author’s inability to enjoy a complex novel.

I can understand, and as I said, tastes vary. That being said, David R should be banned from public commentary for the rest of eternity.

Oh, I do need to address one of the comments to the linked article:

Just wanted to say that the Lord of the Rings movies are worlds better than the books for a number of reasons, but the one most worth mentioning being the total excision of Tom Bombadil from the screen.

Not only should this person be banned from public commentary for all eternity, he should be shunned by polite society and forced to live in seclusion with nothing but the Twilight books to keep him company.

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Dante alighieri


  1. First, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ – THE movie – with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier from the 1940’s managed to develop manners, morals, virtues, character, love and ‘fun’ with a lot left to the imagination. Mind over matter. Contemporary productions aren’t for the mind. So, vehicles that could inspire just feed fashion markets, outre behavior and the viewer’s desires.

    “That said, Pride and Prejudice has always struck me as a pretty good story wrapped up in circuitous, indirect writing. It’s light and frothy, and entertaining to an extent, but ultimately presented in a way that prevents me from really reaching out and connecting with the characters.”

    Skip the character development and go for the action – third millenium culture. Reading Jane Austen prevented connecting with characters ?!

  2. @PM, The BBC P&P miniseries is by far the best version I’ve ever seen, beating out even Lawrence Olivier. However, it being a miniseries (3 hours long, I believe) they had a lot more time to get into the nuance of P&P. That being said, the book is wonderful and none of the movie versions, even my favorite one, do it complete justice.

    @ Paul Zummo, the only quibbles have with you is over S.P.E.W. That was a subplot that annoyed the snot out of me. However, I was disappointed that they didn’t go more into the discrimination themes that S.P.E.W. and the whole subplots involving the house elves brought about. The plight of the magical creatures, especially the house elves, was such a recurring theme that it made it all the more important when Dobby’s big moment came in the last book. And you really miss that when you go five movies without seeing him.

  3. The Lord of the Rings movie left out one of my favorite parts, the setting the shire to rights near the end of the book. A movie couldn’t do the book justice. And the Harry Potter movies cut out way too much. And most of them made me feel like I wanted to take off my sunglasses, but I wasn’t wearing sunglasses. Just because the theme is dark doesn’t mean the film should be dimly lit.

  4. “He seems fairly literate, and he’s a decent writer.”

    How anyone who can confuse the Aeneid with the Iliad can be described as “literate” baffles me.

    Jane Austen should be, of all novelists, the easiest to adapt to the screen, as her technique is so largely dramatic; she develops character principally through dialogue. On the other hand, I have often wondered why anyone thought it a good idea to dramatize “The Portrait of Dorian Gray.” When the leading dramatist of his age decided to tell the story through the medium of a novel, it i a bold person indeed, who decides to second-guess him. One might as well try making a novel out of Hamlet or Phèdre.

  5. Part of me would love to see Tim Powers’ novels Declare or The Stress Of Her Regard made into movies, but a bigger part of me realizes that too much would be compromised for time, and the essences of the stories and complexities of the characters would be sacrificed.

    I can’t comment on On Stranger Tides being adapted for Pirates of the Caribbean 23 or whatever part they ended on, as I haven’t seen the movie, and refuse to do so.

  6. “Just wanted to say that the Lord of the Rings movies are worlds better than the books for a number of reasons, but the one most worth mentioning being the total excision of Tom Bombadil from the screen.”

    “Not only should this person be banned from public commentary for all eternity, he should be shunned by polite society and forced to live in seclusion with nothing but the Twilight books to keep him company.”

    Or The Hunger Games series.

  7. Unfortunately, some books are just not really adaptable to the big screen. Although it seems most modern novels are written with more than half an eye toward their big screen debut (the HP series seemed to exhibit this, particularly with the later books). Just finished reading Father Elijah, and although the book is good, and the basic plat seems it would make for an interesting film, so much occurs in the characters’ psyche that it would be difficult to translate to the screen. If it did, I could see someone thinking the film an improvement undoubtedly because it would have more “action” and less contemplation of big questions than the book. But to me, that would be an unfair assessment because of the differing purposes of the respective media.

  8. I think LoTR could have been adapted to the screen better, but I suspect that the writer / producer / director did not share any of Tolkien’s commitments to a transcendental / hierarchical, universe, among other things. Credo ut intellegam, indeed.

    This becomes especially apparent in a scene from the extended version of RoTK where the King of the Nazgul mystically shatters Gandalf’s staff on the walls of Minas Tirith. The staff – the symbol of Gandalf’s status – shattered by a Nazgul? The staff of Gandalf – Olorin – recently elevated to the head of the enfleshed Maia on earth? What a stunning inversion!

    This article, coincidentally showing up this morning, does a very good job of describing it: http://www.imaginativeconservative.org/2012/07/entrusting-future-of-west-to-our.html

  9. Comparing Troy to The Iliad “is kind of an apples-and-oranges situation”. That “kind of” may be the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time.

  10. I’m surprised Jaws didn’t make the list. The novel was pretty much forgettable.. the movie on the other hand, not so much.

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