Of Course There Are Always Exceptions . . .

“And that is why, if I am interested in watching a movie based on a novel, I will always, always read the novel first.”

When I wrote that last sentence of my previous post, “The Book. The Movie,” a part of me knew it was not quite right. Whenever I write in absolutes, I’m traveling down the wrong path.

And sure enough, I soon heard from a few readers. My daughter-in-law, the graphic artist Emily Graham, asked “Even if it’s Forrest Gump?” And she’s right, I would indeed prefer to watch the movie Forrest Gump rather than read the very slight novel by Winston Groom that it’s based upon. Then nonfiction master Miles Harvey weighed in, observing that “a fair number of great films are made from bad fiction. I’m not sure Cornell Woolrich’s short story, “It Had to be Murder,” is worth reading before you watch Rear Window, for instance.” And he’s right too, of course.

I immediately began thinking of further possible exceptions to my own specious rule. For instance, another Alfred Hitchcock film, The Birds, is a movie that certainly left a mark on my twelve-year-old mind back in 1963. I can still recall certain haunting scenes quite clearly.

On the other hand, many years later, I was making my way through a collection of stories by Daphne du Maurier, and was surprised to discover that she was the original source of the Hitchcock movie. Her story, also titled “The Birds,” is set in an isolated farm in the English countryside (and not the movie’s Bodega Bay, California).

Here I think any competition between the book and movie results in a tie score.

Du Maurier’s story begins quietly. The main character, Nat Hocken, a pensioner who works part-time on a farm, has come over the years to observe carefully the passing of the seasons, particularly that of birds and their migrations.

Crying, whistling, calling, they skimmed the placid sea and left the shore. Make haste, make speed, hurry and begone: yet where, and to what purpose? The restless urge of autumn, unsatisfying, sad, had put a spell upon them and they must flock, and wheel, and cry; they must spill themselves of motion before winter came.

But Nat also observes that “The birds had been more restless than ever this fall of the year, the agitation more marked because the days were still.” And soon enough, there are local reports of birds dive-bombing farmers on their tractors.

This long story (almost novella-length) unfolds slowly but always with a certain foreboding and tension. And the writing is beautifully observant of nature and its subsequent unravelling. So now, both movie and story haunt me!

Side note: du Maurier’s creepy, unsettling story, “Don’t Look Now,” is also a tie with the movie of the same name (directed by Nicolas Roeg).

Speaking of tie scores . . .

I’m a huge fan of the Netflix seven-episode series The Queen’s Gambit. An utterly compelling television series about a fictional chess master! By the time the improbable journey of Beth Harmon had taken her to the highest level of chess competition, I needed to read the novel, by a writer whose name I barely recognized, Walter Tevis. Luckily for the Netflix series, it is extremely faithful to Tevis’s novel, finding a way to transfer the inherent tension and drama of a chess match into a visual medium. And so, another tie score! The series wisely concentrates, like Tevis’s novel, on the emotional context behind each of Beth’s games. Because all sports competitions are fueled by the hidden dramas playing out within every athlete (a subject I’ll return to soon in a future craft post).

And now I am an admirer of the work of Walter Tevis, and have read a number of his novels, including The Man Who Fell to Earth (also made into a movie, though Tevis’s novel is far better, I think). Next up will be The Color of Money, which was also made into a movie. In this case, I will indeed read the novel before watching the film.

And for my observation that film can’t adequately express interior states of drama as well as fiction? Well, along comes a stunning short film, Ice Merchants, written and directed by the Portuguese artist, composer and filmmaker João Gonzalez (nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film).

I don’t want to say much about this film (whose 14 minutes is worth every single second of your time), lest I spoil its profoundly unspooling story of loss and recovery. What I will say is that the images, music, even the choice of color create (and without a single spoken word) not a world that is “realistic,” but instead is an uncanny space that serves as a kind of allegory of the interior state of mourning.

So, I still love fictional drama above all else, but I have to admit that, when a film takes a swing at exploring the boundless landscape of interiority, it can hit that ball right out of the park.


Do you have any movie you love that gives the novel or short story it’s based upon a run for its money? Drop me a line, and I’ll add it to this post . . .

Ah! Three readers have weighed in on this burning question.

The writer Yuhan Su writes, “It’s The Lord of the Rings for me!”
Writer Michaela Anchan writes: A few years back the brilliant dystopian novel Station Eleven was made into a TV series. The novel has so many different threads and points of time that so cleverly come together towards the end – I wasn’t sure how the tv series would translate, but the screenwriters have done an excellent job of creating something slightly different but also excellent. They have slightly altered some threads, and cut a couple of others entirely, but the end result has just the emotional pull as the novel.

(Michaela’s recommendation arrived just in time for me, as I had recently picked up a copy of Station Eleven at a Little Free Library. I will read the book first!)
The writer and editor John Blades give us a number of recommendations:

“Books are almost always superior to the movies that are made from them. There are many exceptions, naturally, three that come most immediately to mind are Paths of Glory, Woman in the Dunes, and Kiss Me Deadly, though a case could be made that these are not exceptions, that the books are better than and/or preferable to. I can’t remember many instances in which a movie version of a book I’d read and admired didn’t disappoint, especially true of those we read during our impressionable teens, a long list that includes From Here to Eternity, The Naked and the Dead, Battle Cry, Knock on Any Door, Tap Roots, and most disappointing, The Iron Mistress, a fictionalized and rousing biography of Jim Bowie, made into a feeble replica with Alan Ladd, plus tons of pulp fiction. I’ll bet you could compile a similar list, though probably made up of books in a more elevated category.

(I’d never heard of Knock on Any Door, so I looked it up and discovered that the movie–based on the novel by the African-American writer Willard Motley–stars Humphrey Bogart. And now I want to read Motley’s work.)
Fiction writer and journalist Antony Dapiran weighs in:

Death in Venice springs to mind, although maybe it’s Mahler rather than Visconti that pushes that one past Mann.

(I have no opinion on Antony’s comparison, having never read the book or seen the movie (I’m ashamed to say!). Though I do think that film too often uses music to depict emotion that might otherwise be too difficult to convey. It’s a little like pressing your finger on the scale . . . ).
Playwright, memoirist and film maker Kerry Muir writes:

One of my favorite movie adaptations was the movie (starring Christine Lahti) of Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping… I saw the movie before I read the book, and I think it made me love the book even more when I did finally read it. I think that had a lot to do with Christine Lahti’s pitch-perfect performance, which is unforgettable. But that’s definitely one of those exceptions!

(Housekeeping is one of my favorite novels, I’ve read it, taught it several times. And yet I’ve never seen the movie, as good as I’ve heard it is, because I already have my own visual/emotional template for the novel and I’ve been wary of letting someone else’s interpretation interfere with that.)

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May 29th, 2023 by admin

The Book. The Movie.

During my long teaching career at the University of Illinois, and my occasional teaching for the Vermont College of Fine Arts, the subject of Film vs. Fiction Writing would inevitably arise in class.

My undergraduate students, especially, often seemed to begin the writing of their stories as a form of translation, from film storytelling conventions to typed words on a page: plot-driven narratives, with physical action taking precedence over internal drama and character insight.

I remember my students—even those ardently supporting the power of film—being shocked when I made this simple observation: that movies are only able to present third-person narratives, whereas the narrative arsenal available to writers of fiction (and nonfiction) include first-, second-, and third-person narratives. “Film,” I might say to their skeptical faces if I felt a little feisty, “is an inferior narrative genre.”

I’d go on to say that film, because it is so relentlessly visual, relies on the actor’s physical gestures and expressions to give a hint of what a character might be thinking. But those hints are never able to go as deep as the fiction writer’s simple “He thinks,” or “She imagines,” which efficiently open the vast interior spaces of a character’s emotional world.

When it comes to revealing characters’ deepest inner thoughts, movies try to work around the limitations of the practiced mobile facial features of even the most accomplished of actors by manipulating lighting to set an emotional tone; taking extra care on costuming; and the use of insinuating background music. Orchestral soundtracks, especially, provide stirring, ominous, or joyous emotional cues for the audience. Movies sometimes rely so much on musical saturation that you might say film is a form of opera, but without the singing.

And what about first-person narration, where the story is told from the point-of-view of one of the characters? For an example, the narrator of the novel Billy Bathgate, by E. L. Doctorow,

looks back at a distant moment in his life when he made a decision to join a crime boss’s gang:

Nobody said not to so I jumped aboard and stood at the rail, frightened as you might expect, but a capable boy, he had said that himself, a capable boy capable of learning, and I see now capable of adoring worshipping that rudeness of power of which he was a greater student than anybody, oh and that menace of him where it might all be over for anyone in his sight from one instant to the next, that was what it all turned on, it was why I was there, it was why I was thrilled to be judged so by him as a capable boy, the danger he was really a maniac.

Billy’s jumping aboard that boat is certainly film-able, but his calculating internal decision is not. And neither is Billy’s particular perspective: that of his somewhat wiser and older present self regarding his younger and reckless self.

A movie version of Billy Bathgate was made and it was a big flop, despite having stars like Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, Stanley Tucci and Bruce Willis. Why this fate? Because Billy’s singular narrative voice–poetic and yet awkward, rough edged yet also self-critical and regretful–the voice that made Doctorow’s novel so memorable, was lost in the physical medium of film. Without the first-person narrative richness of that voice, the movie had a hollow center.

As far as I know, only one movie boasts having a first-person point-of-view, 1947’s film noir Lady in the Lake (based on the novel by Raymond Chandler).

And I do mean boast. The movie’s trailer declares Lady in the Lake to be “a startling and daring new method of storytelling,” as if no one in Hollywood had ever read a novel before.

This movie, too, was a flop, despite all its claims of revolutionizing the movie industry.


A misunderstanding of what constitutes first-person narration.

In the film, we follow the main character viewpoint of the detective Phillip Marlowe. The only time we catch a glimpse of Marlowe himself is when he’s speaking to some other character who stands before a mirror:

We see through Marlowe’s eyes, literally. And awkwardly: the camera slowly turns when Marlowe looks to the left or right, as if his eyes’ gaze was dependent on the turning of his head. But this is not how people look at the world: our eyes flit about in their sockets with speed and ease. Also, the camera moves too smoothly. Here’s Walter Murch, in his excellent book on the art of film editing, In the Blink of an Eye, quoting the director John Huston:

“Look at the lamp across the room. Now look back at me. Do you see what you did? You blinked. Those are cuts. After the first look, you know there’s no reason to pan continuously from me to the lamp because you know what’s in between. Your mind cut the scene. First you behold the lamp. Cut. Then you behold me.”

Also, in the movie when there’s a knock on a door we see that door getting closer as Marlowe approaches, his hand reaching out to turn the doorknob. Who looks at the doorknob when opening a door? More likely we’re trying to visualize in our minds who this visitor might be. First-person narration is more than a mere visual perspective, it’s also the unveiling of the narrator’s complex and conflicted thoughts.

You can see some of the awkwardness that I’ve mentioned above in the trailer for the movie:

Perhaps the worst failed-first-person-moment in Lady in the Lake is also one of the film’s (potentially) most dramatic scenes. The disgruntled cop we saw Marlowe slug in the trailer has run Marlowe’s car into a ditch on an isolated stretch of roadway. Marlowe is knocked unconscious from the crash, and the cop pours alcohol all over him, then makes a call complaining about a drunk driver. When Marlowe wakes up, he hears the sirens of an approaching police squad. Realizing he’s been set up, he’s unable to do more than try to crawl across the dirt road, where scrub brush might hide him. We see, from his perspective, his hands grasping at the gravel road, making slow progress as the sirens grow louder and louder.

And that’s it, merely his visual perspective of his grasping hands and the road. But a true first-person perspective would be roiling with thoughts: concern about his injuries and anger about the crooked cop while calculating the possible consequences of getting arrested by that approaching police squad, for starters. It’s as if Marlowe’s mind is frighteningly hollow, empty of the thoughts and emotions we all would have if in his circumstances.

Sometimes, the medium of film can wrestle with its inherent limitations and attempt to alert the audience to a deeper understanding of the invisible. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman (him again!) immediately spring to mind. Both films move seamlessly from the exterior world to a stylized version of the mind and back again. Spotless Mind has a particularly thrilling extended sequence when Joel resists and hides inside his mind to fight against his memories of his former lover Clementine being erased by a creepy medical procedure.

On the other hand, a skilled director can set up a scene without direct access to interiority so that we can understand what the other characters in the film cannot. Lingui, the Sacred Bonds, written and directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun, is set in N’Djamena, the capital of the Central African nation of Chad.

Haroun has so skillfully woven the plot and the slow drip of the story’s revelations that when we come to the last scene, a celebratory gauntlet of dancing, singing women, we know what the women are secretly celebrating, while none of the men in the scene has a clue. The entire movie seems to have been moving toward this brief exhilarating window into the hidden inner lives of these women living in and quietly resisting a patriarchal culture.

And yet, even when movies do rise above the mechanics of plot to limn the outlines of their characters’ inner worlds, they too often fall far short of what fiction can so easily achieve. I have to agree with Zia Haider Rahman when she recently wrote, in The New York Review of Books:

If our reading experience of a first-person novel is substantially conditioned by the particular perspective of the character telling the story—when is it not?—then recreating that reading experience through the third person of film is impossible. There’s a basic difference between fiction grounded in the interiority of characters, on the one hand, and film and TV, on the other. Novels do interiority and the drama of the mind infinitely better than TV and film do.

And that is why, if I am interested in watching a movie based on a novel, I will always, always read the novel first.


Like this? Try also “The Hidden Face,” a craft essay about the fluidity of facial expressions, and how they still pale compared to our hidden thoughts.

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May 17th, 2023 by admin