Sunday, January 10, 2010

Can a movie ever be better than the book?

People sometimes get frustrated with me for seeming always to prefer books to movies. But there are exceptions, and I thought it might be fun, maybe instructive, to list as many as I could think of. Here goes:

The Bridges of Madison County
this was on TV the other night, and thus my mind. One of the worst books I've ever read turned into a decent movie--quite a feat. Not a great movie, but worth seeing just for Meryl Streep's virtuosic accent (not just Italian, but Italian diluted by half a lifetime in Iowa).

Babette's Feast
Isak Dinesen, who wrote the story, was a master of minimalism, apparently blessed with the rare gift of more plotlines than she had time or patience to develop fully. Thus a fine but extremely short, almost "sketchy" story becomes something approximating a full novel in cinematic form. One of the tip-top movies I've ever seen.

Looking for Richard
Not really a true adaptation, this is a film about a film about Shakespeare's Richard the Second. But Pacino does more with snippets of the story than anyone else I've seen, including Ian McKellan, does with the whole thing.

Men of Respect
A lot of people have tried to translate and transplant Shakespeare, but for my taste it rarely works. This re-casting of Macbeth in the Mafia does. Lady Macbeth obsessively launders tablecloths, and the famous "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" soliloquy gets perfectly condensed to two words. Brilliant.

Hamlet (Mel Gibson)
People remember any number of famous lines from the play--it's a veritable Bartlet's all its own--but they forget that it's Shakespeare's longest by far, and thus notoriously unplayable in full form. Gibson gets a bit anachronistic in dueling with sabers instead of rapiers, but he got things exactly right in "cutting" the script. And for my money, neither Olivier nor Brannagh nor anyone else can touch his embodiment of almost-madness.

The Natural
I have a friend who seethes over this one. Maybe it depends whether you read it or saw it first. Call me sentimental (that'd be a first!), but by the time I got to the book I was fatally hooked on Redford's warmhearted version, buoyed by period costumes and all the visual loveliness that is baseball.

Like Water for Chocolate
Probably not a coincidence that Esquivel wrote both novel and screenplay. Turn-of-the-century Mexican costumes, furnishings, cars, and landscapes just don't reveal themselves well in prose. And then there's the food, and the sex. You don't realize how visual the book is until you see the movie. Nice music too.

No Country for Old Men
The most perfect adapation of a novel I've ever seen. Maybe even better than the original thanks to subtle visual plays (and ploys), and Javier Bardem bringing Shigeur to life in all his cold-blooded consistency. Maybe the most perfect movie I've ever seen--if I had to pick out a flaw, I'm not sure I could.



  1. God, I hate Bridges in any incarnation. It's such a cheap and easy lie. Babette's Feast, on the other hand, is one of my favorite movies. I've read all of Dinesen, and like the winter tales the best. (Besides, she knows how to spell Karin properly.)

    I'd add The Shining, without ever having read the book. But read S. King? I'd rather swallow nails.

    I'm with you on NCFOM.

  2. Having been to Kenya, I'm partial to Out of Africa (of which the movie is prob. worse, but I need to see it again).

    Speaking of Stephen King, Stand By Me is a fine, fully developed movie based on only a short story (as I understand).

  3. Did you know they named the site of Blixen's farm, now engulfed by a suburb of Nairobi, after you and her, but I'm pretty sure they didn't spell it your way?

  4. Out of Africa wasn't a bad movie, just kind of clunky and obvious, with the music welling up everytime we're supposed to be having a "moment."

    But there were good things. The last scene w/Karin and her valet is so touching for it being surprisingly subtle.

    And though Redford is just awful, Michael Kitchen and Klaus Maria Brandauer are fascinating as always.

    (Oops, maybe Karin/Karen didn't spell her name right. Where does a Dane get off using en?)

  5. Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka is up there in my opinion. Burton's remake with Depp playing Wonka made me wince.

  6. Good point. I should prob. do a whole other thread about Can the remake ever be better than the original? I can't think of any other examples right now.

  7. Yeah, do that. There's got to be one, but I can't think it. Trouble is, normally they remake the good and great movies, rarely the ones that were poorly done.

  8. What about sequels? I remember being pleasantly surprised by The Color of Money.

    Also, but very loosely, in this context, Denzel's new one, Book of Eli, is fascinating, laughable, and boring as a re-do of a 1950s cowboy movie. Gary Cooper, Jackie Chan, and the Walker Texas Ranger guy now rolled into one Denzel.

    I couldn't get through The Natural as a book, so the movie was an improvement, but not much.

  9. P.S. Glad to see someone else brave enough to stand up for Gibson's Hamlet. It must be very unfashionable, esp. now that Gibson as human has been somewhat more revealed. Good e.g. of New Critical thinking, separating the artist from the art? I'm afraid I found Olivier's laughable. Haven't seen Brannagh's yet. What about Nicol Williamson's--in the late 1960's? 1970s?

    I still say that the play is an overrated string of great speeches, without a single real human character to respond to, with the possible exception of the under-developed Ophelia. Harrummph.

  10. Good point about Book of Eli. I just saw it, and it seemed simultaneously an all-too-serious remake of I Am Legend (which I never saw) and a silly send-up of The Road. He's good with a knife, but Crocodile Dundee is funnier with one, and Jackie Chan is even cooler with bare hands.

    Hamlet may well prove to have been the apex of Gibson's career--rather sad, considering how rel. young he is.

  11. I think Mel looks like an old shoe, and have never been impressed by anything other than Gallipoli -- and the other guy was better.

    But, Nichol was an excellent Hamlet. Saw the film in an English class once.

  12. You're ruining my joke about What Do Women Want? Mel Gibson.

    I do like him, despite his many crummy movies, creepy religious zeal, and my not being a woman.

  13. I thought the film of A Room with a View was better than the book; on the other hand the film of Howard's End made me not want to read the book at all, even though I've stayed up all night reading other E. M. Forster novels I could not put down.

    I also thought the film Milagro Beanfield War was better than the book, because the author displayed such contempt for his characters that reading it felt like schoolyard bullying, whereas that contemptuous authorial tone was mercifully absent from the film.

    I found The Shipping News to be unreadable, but I loved the film; interestingly, Annie Proulx's only stipulation about adapting it was that it had to be filmed in Newfoundland--she didn't care what happened with the script.

    Cider House Rules is a long book that lost little in translation to film, perhaps because John Irving wrote the screenplay too.

    I think the problem with Hamlet is that the part's never played by a teenager, so it always seems absurd for a grown man to respond as melodramatically to everything as Hamlet does, but that is in fact how teenagers behave. I think Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet is the most unintentionally interesting insofar as Derek Jacobi acts such circles around the rest of the cast that I found myself rooting for Claudius!

  14. You'd better read Howard's End--like other Forster but even more so, there seems no way to convey its jewel-like wonders: ostensibly about nothing, it somehow manages to address everything.