I got in an argument with an avid Lord of the Rings fan once. She was trying to persuade me that the films were nothing at all on the book. I read the entire trilogy shortly before the films came out for this reason – I believed that the films could never be as good as the books, and in order to preserve the brilliance of the trilogy I read them before watching it, so my experience could be untainted.
The films were a hell of a lot better.
Now I enjoyed Lord of the Rings, don’t get me wrong. I was about fifteen and at the height of my obsession with all things ‘epic battle between good and evil’ and fantasy. Harry Potter (we’ll come back to him later) had fueled my interest in the fantastical, His Dark Materials (and them) had cemented it. There was a lot of hype about the films and I was ready and willing to enjoy the books.
And I did, in a ready and willing sort of way. I’m sure if the hype about the film hadn’t been about, I’d have given up before the good bits started.
Of course, I recognise Tolkein’s epic acheivement. The guy is the ultimate geek. He invented his own language to lend authenticity to his world. He created an entire mythology and history for Middle Earth (yes, I did try to read the Silmarillion, didn’t make it more than halfway through) and rendered his story with such intense detail that it reads like real history.
But all this shows is Tolkein’s skill as a historian, and in the construction of background. It doesn’t make him a great writer.
There is a good story in the Lord of the Rings, skillfully extracted by Peter Jackson and his crew for the movies, but there is also a lot of rubbish. I mean, who actually reads the chapters about Tom Bombadil? And all the singing? Don’t get me started on the singing.
I tried to persuade the avid fan to my way of thinking, but she had none of it. In her opinion, the films weren’t true enough to the book. I think they were just true enough.
Movies That Are Better Than Their Books
Lord of the Rings is not alone in this movie achievement of being better than the book it was based on. At least, not in my opinion. The fifth Harry Potter film, for instance. The first four films were neither here nor there, really, mediocre at best. But the fifth film was about a mile better than the book. I still don’t entirely understand what happened at the end, but I prefer wasting two hours of my life watching it to the two days or so it takes to read it (if you read it non stop, that is).
I think sometimes the writer’s skill at describing a scene doesn’t quite keep up with the pictures they have in their mind. You need to see them visually. I loved the final battle between Voldemort and Dumbledore – it was beautiful, and so much better than the trading blows between spewing out awkward spell incantations that I had in my mind.
Also, the book is several hundred pages long. While I do like long books, sometimes that level of detail can take a lot to wade through, whereas on screen you can show an entire chapter in a few moments.
Sometimes, it’s a voice/style thing. For instance, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. It’s one of my favourite films. Ever. I must have seen it about 20 times.
I watched it before I even knew there was a book, and was pleased to discover it was a book first. I anticipated enjoying the book even more than the film and was disappointed. I don’t know if it was just Anthony Hopkins mesmerising performance as Hannibal Lecter, or simply that I couldn’t get on with Thomas Harris’ writing style. I’m not saying it was terrible – just that I didn’t get on with it. A taste thing. And I’m probably spoiled by my love for the film. If I’d read the book first I might have enjoyed it more. As it is, it just doesn’t compare.
Books That Are Better than Their Movies
Transversely, and much more commonly, there are those movies that absolutely suck and don’t do the book justice at all. The Golden Compass immediately springs to mind.
I love the His Dark Materials trilogy. I must have wished that someone would make a movie of it a fair few times. I thought my wish had been granted. Unfortunately, the Golden Compass was not a movie, it was an abomination.
There were some good elements about it, yes. Ian McKellen as Iorek worked well, and I didn’t find Dakota Blue Whatever-her-name-was too irritating, which is about as much as you can hope for in a child actor. But they totally destroyed almost everything about the book. Where was the darkness? The danger? And what was with the gratuitous Daniel Craig screen time? Just because he’s James Bond doesn’t mean you change the story to add unnecessary scenes to give him his five minutes. He was a terrible Lord Asriel anyway.
I saw another Bond play Asriel on stage when the trilogy was made into a six hour play. Timothy Dalton. He was awesome. Dominic Cooper, pre-Mamma Mia fame played Will, and Anna Maxwell Martin (who popped up in Doctor Who a few years later) was Lyra. The play was incredible, and with such limited scope. They found really creative ways to get round the issues presenting on a stage presented, and the play was all the better for it. The movie was just too easy. Special effects here, cut out that challenging and emotional scene there – reduce an epic of children’s literature into safe, sanitised family entertainment.
They even knew the second film would never be made – they didn’t end on the cliffhanger as they should have.
Hopefully one day my wish will be answered, and someone will make a proper version of this film.
Movies and Books that are Pretty Much the Same
And then there are those films that are almost identical in quality to their books.
I saw the latest Twilight movie, Eclipse, while I was on holiday in Ireland. We watched Predators the next day. Predators was better.
But, Eclipse was entirely faithful to the book it was based upon. My issue with it is the story, but the story is what Stephenie Meyer wrote. There was no ill-judged directoral interpretation or bad casting. It just was as it was. Pretty naff.
But fun at the same time, I should point out, before some rabid Twihard tries to eat me or something.
The Twilight series is pure escapist fun. Not the best books or the best films ever written/made, but not a bad way of spending time. And pretty bang on even in the quality stakes.
Movies that are Totally Different to their Book
And lastly, the film that started this musing. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I read the short story when I got a free e-book version. I enjoyed it. I watched the film. I enjoyed that. But they were about as different as a film and book can get when dealing with essentially the same story.
Benjamin Button is a short story in its original form. It’s nearly 3 hours long as a movie. Obviously there has been some added detail and interpretation somewhere along the way. And I honestly did really enjoy both versions.
I don’t generally get on with short stories. The idea mostly seems to be that the writer gives you the sort of bare bones of the story and through suggestion and things left unsaid, you as the reader add your own interpretation. Watching the film of Benjamin Button was like having all that interpretation done for you.
I guess there will be some people out there for whom the movie’s interpretation didn’t sit right, but for me it was brilliant. It played with and explored the idea the short story presented – what it would be like to age backwards – in a sensitive, amusing, emotional, heart-warming and heartbreaking way. And the makeup was incredible.
Books vs Their Movies
So, some of the best, and worst films I’ve seen were based on books. Where do you stand on the movies vs books issue? What movies have you seen that really did books justice? What ones can’t you bear to watch?