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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    1. Thank you for your post. I didn’t know Queen’s Gambit was a Walter Tevis book, and it is now on the way to me. I don’t know if your post addresses this bizarre phenomenon: books written after the movie (to create a tie-in product presumably), that end up better than the movie. My parents would not take me to see R-rated movies, so I experienced Alien, Blade Runner, Outland, and many other 1980s sci-fi film classics as books or comics years before I could get to see them (by which point I had them memorized so it was a let-down). Yes, in the revolving mass market sci fi racks at the Champaign Public Library, I read everything Siskel and Ebert were giving two thumbs up. One author who got a lot of work doing this was Alan Dean Foster, and I would put his novelization of Dark Star over the movie (it’s been 40 years, but I still remember the novel’s wonderful ending) (and the movie is a silly, low-budget thing for John Carpenter completists). George Lucas penned the novel Star Wars, probably his only book, probably for the best. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001 I believe in coordination with Kubrick as they wrote the screenplay, and the novel is excellent – needless to say it is more detailed than the wonderful, stunning, epically slow and confusing movie. It provides very useful backstory and stands on its own (though it would be unfair to pit it against its cinematic twin I think – they pair really well – which could be yet another post – books and movies that actually work together rather than compete for your imagination). Cheers!

    2. admin says:

      Yes, I know about that phenomenon, but I don’t think I ever actually read any of those types of books. The Arthur C. Clarke example is even more complicated: the screenplay and movie is based on Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel.” Oddly enough, The Byrds independently released a song (on their album The Notorious Byrd Brothers), “Space Odyssey,” also inspired by that short story, a few months before the movie was released.

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