Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Book Is Better Than The Movie

For starters, I'll go off on a tangent and talk about novelizations. The general rule that "the book is better than the movie" is untrue when you're talking about novelizations. I haven't read too many, but most seem kind of pointless. (If you're reading this and are a publisher and thinking of asking me to write one or several, I'd be happy to change my opinion without shame, of course.)

Novelizations might offer some deeper insight into what the characters of a film were thinking, and in some cases, that actually makes the characters' motivations more plausible and consistent. But from what I've gathered, the ironclad rules of a novelization are to remain faithful to the screenplay, flesh out the story but only a little bit, and make sure the style doesn't get in the way of the story.

And there's also another strange phenomenon I've observed with novelizations. Whenever I discover that a book I've read is being made into a movie, 99% of the time, I'm interested to see how the story will play out on the big screen. With novelizations, again, the rule is reversed. I'm usually never interested in seeing how a movie is translated into a novel. Maybe if novelizations were given more leeway and were more adaptation, less paint-by-numbers, then that wouldn't be the case. That would be an interesting experiment, though, adapting a movie into a novel.

So let's put novelizations aside, unless of course you want to comment about them below ;)

Most people say (I know this is very scientific) that "the book is better than the movie."

Of course, there are always exceptions. The first one that springs to anyone's mind is The Godfather, with which I'd agree. The only other example I can think of is Lawrence of Arabia. It source material, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is one of the few books I've never been able to get through. But with the case of Lawrence, the comparison of book to movie is unfair (see my apples to oranges disclaimer at the bottom of this post).

Aside from those two stories and a few other obvious ones I'm probably missing, it's been my experience that the general rule holds true. The book is better than the movie.

Why is that?

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. So then shouldn't the movie be better? A movie is a collection of carefully-chosen pictures. And after all, a movie is not just pictures, it is also language, sound, music, movement, and probably most importantly, it is acted. Unlike a novel, a film doesn't have to rely solely on language to tell its story.

A four second establishing shot is much more vivid than a paragraph describing a house. Or at least, it should be, if a picture really is worth a thousand words. A film wraps itself up, on average, anywhere between 80 and 180 minutes. If you're not blessed as a natural speed-reader (like my wife), then chances are a movie is going to tell its story much more quickly, more pointedly, than a novel. So it should be much more powerful.

A lot of people say that books are better because you're forced to imagine things for yourself. You have to create the characters and the setting as much as the author does, essentially filling in the gaps, or the gaps as you perceive them. I've never understood why that would make a book better than a movie. If you have to do more work to understand a novel, then surely it's not as powerful a medium as film.

So...why then?

Perhaps the statistics are skewed. Only the people that have read the books which are being made into movies are the ones saying that the books are better, after all. The people who enjoy going to the movies but don't like to read will never say, "The movie was better than the book," because they haven't read the book. And let's face it, there are probably a lot more people that enjoy going to the movies but not reading than there are people that enjoy going to the movies and reading.

For those of us that do read a lot, we usually read the book before we see the movie. So chances are we're naturally inclined to like the book more because that's what we encountered first. There has to be a fancy psychological concept for that.

So...why? There must be a good, scientific reason for this.

My theory is three-fold.

1) A film can only sustain itself for so long. In some rare cases, a four hour movie works, but usually, an audience can only sit for close to two hours. No matter how sweeping or epic the story might be, a film is constrained by simple logistics. But not so with a novel. Some books require a week's worth of reading, or more, to finish. You can take a break when you need to. You enter the story when you can. A novel is more of an escape, a full immersion. You become friends with the characters; their journeys become your journey. You see a movie, but you grow with a novel. A book paces itself, you play along at the same beat. A novel, while it must have a major story arc, is permitted to have several minor arcs as well that can reinforce, subvert, or add complexity to, the bigger picture. They're not as "simple," for lack of a better term, than movies.

2) Novels are better at psychologically penetrating characters. You understand the players better in a book. In that way, novels become much more personal adventures than movies are or can be, even if the story being told is grand in scale, big in scope. You know what a character's hopes and dreams and quirks and faults and good qualities are--they are fully-realized, fully human. They are you, or some part of you, or who you used to be, or who you want to be.

3) Novels are better means for discussing, challenging, and revealing universal truths. This is really an off-shoot of points 1) and 2). When done right, a novel can be longer and more complex, and is peopled by more fully-rounded characters than a film. So naturally it follows that a book is better suited to exploring the age old questions of what it means to be human, the nature of good and evil, our place in the universe, etc.

Of course, there is always the apples to oranges argument to make. The two media shouldn't be compared, because different rules apply and different tools are used. Who knows. Probably someone smarter than me.

What does everybody think?


Nate Green said...

My one example of the movie actually being better than the book is Last of the Mohicans.

Brian O'Rourke said...

That's a good one. I haven't read the book yet, but is that a case of the two stories being completely different?

That reminds me of Rob Roy. The novel is told from a first person POV by a character not even in the film, and the plots don't resemble each other in the least.

Rita Vetere said...

Okay, I confess I visited your blog because I wanted to see pictures of your doggies--they are incredibly sweet, BTW.

However, once here, I so enjoyed your posts that I read them all. ;-) Great blog.

Regarding Books v. Movies. I tend to agree with your last statement that it's comparing apples to oranges. Reading a book is like falling in love (deeply satisfying and never forgotten). Going to the movies is like having an affair (exciting, but when it's over, it's over).

Brian O'Rourke said...

Thanks for stopping by. That's a great way to explain the differences between the two media.

I love your website by the way. Congrats on the new release too. For anyone who hasn't, go check out Ancient Inheritance.