The Book is Usually Better
You hear it all the time: The book is always better than the movie adaptation. Oddly, I mostly hear it from non-readers. They wearily repeat the mantra they’ve heard from tiresome readers like us. “I know, I know, the book is always better.”
But is it? The source novel of any adaptation is certainly much, much, better in most instances. Nearly all of them, in fact. I shouldn’t even have to name-drop the most grievous offenses like The Keep. And, for me, Manhunter. I still cannot comprehend why people like that movie. Michael Mann desecrated both F. Paul Wilson and Thomas Harris as far as I am concerned.
Still, there are cases where I feel that production teams have equaled, or even surpassed, their literary roots.
This will undoubtedly seem like heresy to Shirley Jackson fans. I count myself in their number, but I don’t consider The Haunting of Hill House to be her masterpiece. For me, We have Always Lived in the Castle is Jackson’s greatest achievement. Not that I do not admire Hill House. On the contrary, I think it is a brilliant piece of writing. But that movie…
Director Robert Wise’s movie version of The Haunting of Hill House succeeds in every way. From the superlative cast to the faithfully literate screenplay, on to the photography and sound editing. While the novel works for me on an intellectual level, the movie kicks me square in the guts. It’s terrifying, heartbreaking, and completely riveting from start to finish. The Haunting is the perfect example of subtle horror. It even had a G-Rating!
My very favorite horror movie, The Haunting, is a more satisfying and effective experience than Shirley Jackson’s breathtaking novel. It’s that good.
I was thirteen years old when Peter Benchley’s novel of a great white shark terrorizing a small Northeastern beach town was published. It was an instant sensation, and a movie was put on the fast track. The adaptation of Jaws was the first big “Summer Movie” by my reckoning, and a whole generation was consumed by shark fever. Everyone was seeing the movie, and many people were reading the novel. It was difficult for me to get to the movies at that age, and my parents weren’t exactly enthused about me seeing this notoriously gory motion picture. I eventually did see Jaws, but I read the novel in the meantime.
Jaws is the perfect beach novel, and not simply because of its subject matter and setting. The typical beach read is considered to be gaudy, sensational, lurid, and chock full of sex and violence. No big thinks, no philosophical discourses, nothing too challenging.
Even at my tender age, I was aware that Jaws is a potboiler. An effective one, to be sure, but hardly high literature. I even put it several notches down from the better science fiction books I was reading at the time.
A hotshot young director was hired to make Jaws, the movie. He had done one feature and some very interesting TV work. That director is, of course, Steven Spielberg. His talent is undeniable, but it is equally undeniable that he has squandered it on inferior projects far too often in his long career. Need I bring up painful memories of Hook, Always, War of the Worlds? On the other hand we have Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Jaws is the movie that really established Spielberg’s larger-than-life ability to capture the imagination, hearts, and brains of his viewers. Jaws deals with a big shark and its effects upon a community, but its underlying themes are infinitely richer than that mere plot description infers. I think it more than fair to compare Jaws to Moby Dick, and I would never consider such a thing from Benchley’s novel. And I still consider Jaws to be one of the scariest movies ever released.
Carrie is the first published book by Stephen King. It’s a good novel, certainly, and it shows the strengths that made King the most beloved writer on earth. Yet it still has the feel of a first book. And, yes, I am aware that he had written several novels prior to the publication of Carrie. It’s a powerful story of physical manifestation of the anguish, rage, and frustration of a very unfortunate young lady. It was the beginning of an unprecedented career for a writer who has become a household name and face.
Yet the movie version of Carrie was done by a director in the very prime of his own career. Brian DePalma made some very good movies before and after Carrie, but it is quite possibly his finest moment as a filmmaker. The cast of Carrie is perfect in every way, and the movie’s cinematography is utterly captivating. Director of Photography Mario Tosi mostly had an undistinguished career (he shot things like Sinderella and the Golden Bra, and Kenny Rogers’ Six Pack), but he also was behind the camera for the cult favorite, Frogs. None of the work I’ve seen him do comes close to what he and DePalma accomplished with Carrie.
The Carrie adaptation may not have all the psychological observations that King’s novel has, but it is a more intimate experience. And that final scene, not in the book, has been copied again and again by far lesser filmmakers.
As usual, I am probably in the minority, but I enjoy the scenarist work by William Peter Blatty more than his prose writing. Some of the movies he has penned – The Exorcist, The Ninth Configuration, and Exorcist 3 – have been stunning.
William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist shocked the world when it was published in 1971. It’s a graphic, gruesome, brutal movie that is all the more effective because it deals in a subject that many devoutly believe.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Exorcist is how it is such a deeply Catholic story, yet the movie was directed by a Jewish man. It brings a different perspective to the material, and broadens the experience.
I think anyone would be hard pressed to name a horror movie with better editing than The Exorcist. Director William Friedkin used subliminal visual and audio imagery, and made the picture what he called a “war zone.” The movie is completely credible and is absolutely terrifying. I hear that young viewers laugh at it today. They probably can’t put their infernal gadgets down long enough to let the film’s magic get to them.
When Richard Matheson is at his best, it is hard to top him in any medium. And Somewhere in Time is one of his very best works of fiction. The movie made from it is a masterpiece in its own right.
Matheson even agreed that the movie’s title beat what he called his novel: Bid Time Return.
I’ve never been a big Christopher Reeve fan, regardless of whether he dons a cape or not. He is, however, perfectly cast as Richard Collier in Somewhere in Time. This movie is one of the most lush, romantic motion picture experiences of all time. The setting, the time period, the sweeping imagination. Plus there is that magical moment that makes us all believe, when Jane Seymour utters the simple line, “Is is you?”
The novel has an ambiguous ending, but the movie gives us a definite happy outcome. Hey, sometimes we need that.
Ira Levin’s novel of modern occultism and urban paranoia is rightly considered a masterpiece. He has been called the “Swiss Watchmaker” of fiction, and he has never been sharper than in Rosemary’s Baby.
Levin’s novel is perfect, but rarely has there been such a perfectly faithful adaptation of a novel than Roman Polanski’s movie of Rosemary’s Baby. And it was produced by William Castle! Polanski strove to get every minute detail right. It’s virtually indistinguishable from the novel.
Mia Farrow’s portrayal of poor Rosemary is so rich. It’s literally painful to behold. I consider it up there with the very best performances of all time. She brings Rosemary to life and that alone edges the movie up to a slightly higher level than the book.
Thomas Harris singlehandedly turned the serial killer subgenre into huge publishing and movie business in the ’90s. He first introduced readers to Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon, but he brought the character back in Grand Guignol style in The Silence of the Lambs. Both are highly entertaining books, but Silence struck a chord in people everywhere.
Jonathan Demme had made quite a few very good movies before he tackled The Silence of the Lambs. In retrospect, he seems an odd choice. Demme had done comedies, he made history with the concert movie of Talking Heads’s groundbreaking Stop Making Sense, but he had never done anything quite like The Silence of the Lambs. If there were naysayers, they were proved dead wrong.
Anthony Hopkins is as recognizable to people as Mickey Mouse or Donald Trump. He has never shied away from tackling difficult roles, and becoming Hannibal Lecter required a delicate balance. Ever so slightly too much would have turned it into camp, and not enough sinister menace would have decreased the movie’s effectiveness. He played it to perfection. Jodie Foster hit every right note as Clarice as well.
Demme and his team gave The Silence of the Lambs the exact look it needed for every moment of the film. When Clarice walks down the corridor to meet Lecter for the first time, the suspense is almost unbearable. He puts us into the ghastly situations of the characters, horrifies us, but also makes us uncomfortably laugh at times.
The Silence adaptation follows the book pretty closely, but it gives the viewers a treat in the final scene that remains one of the most memorable and oft-quoted lines of the movie. All in all, I rate The Silence of the Lambs as one of the best thrillers ever to be made from book-to-screen. I put it even higher than I do Psycho!
Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower got a lot of young people reading in the ’90s. It isn’t as fanciful as the Harry Potter series, nor as stirring an adventure as The Hunger Games. No, this book delves deep into the hell of growing up while struggling with mental illness and deep depression. It’s dark, but not without light, hope, and joy.
Chbosky wrote and directed the movie version himself, thirteen years after its publication.
As good as the book is, the film of The Perks of Being a Wallflower is more effective. Logan Lerman brings forth a bravura performance as Charlie, a socially awkward kid who finds friendship and acceptance with a colorful group of older high school students. The cast is filled out with great roles by Paul Rudd, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller. Extra points for Tom Savini playing a character very close to himself.
The music selected for the movie is exquisite. The dialogue made me swoon. There is unsettling imagery. I felt like I was a part of the oddball group in it. And Chbosky lets his viewers have an uncomfortable peek into an emotional breakdown in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The book is a little cold and sterile to me. The movie resonates with life.
This list isn’t intended to be inclusive. There are more, and you undoubtedly have your own choices. Off the top of my head I can think of a lot of contenders, from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Mosquito Coast and on and on….
Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of Terror, Sir Graves Ghastly Presents, The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon Lover, The Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.