Last week I wrote a post noting the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I took the opportunity of mentioning that I found Austen boring and noted fairly vituperative criticisms of her by Twain and Emerson. The reaction on this blog was restrained and got sidetracked into a debate about the Reformation in England and Protestantism and Catholicism. So far, so normal.
I also put the post up at the American history blog Almost Chosen People that Paul Zummo and I run. Almost Chosen People is a fairly sedate blog, unlike the raucous The American Catholic, where controversy rarely occurs and on the rare occasions when it does, it is usually about the Civil War. I was therefore shocked when my light-hearted post aroused what for Almost Chosen People was a firestorm. Here are the comments: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
Two centuries today since the publication of Pride and Prejudice. I confess that I have generally found Jane Austen to be a snore fest unless her text is enlivened, if that is the proper word when Zombies are involved, as in the above video. Austen’s books began to be published in America in 1832, although they made little impact with the general public until the latter part of the Nineteenth Century when the novelist William Dean Howells wrote several essays celebrating Austen as an author.
One of her most biting critics was Mark Twain. A sample of his Austen tirades:
Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.
I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
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.