Saturday, September 1, 2018

Is the Book Always Better?

With the release of the film "Crazy Rich Asians" the old chestnut is coming back for debate- is the book always better than the movie?

As an inveterate bibliophile you might expect me to say "yes, the book is always superior!" So it may surprise you to learn that I am not a the-book-is-always-better snob. I am a book snob of a different color, and I would even go so far as to say that some movie adaptations are- gasp!- better than the books on which they were based.

I attended a talk once by book critic and librarian superhero Nancy Pearl at which she talked about the four "appeal factors" that just about every book evinces in varying degrees. These are

  • plot,
  • voice/style
  • setting, and
  • character.
Different books are stronger in some than others. Some books, like mysteries, can be very strong on plot and have a distinctive style but fall short on characterizations. A book that is very character-driven can be weak on plot, lingering perhaps in its characters' thoughts, daydreams and musings. Books that are very setting-driven can make you feel like an armchair traveller- you're right there, in that exotic locale, but maybe the plot is sluggish. Good books hit on more than one appeal factor, and outstanding books hit three or even all four- something for everyone.

So books can work on different levels but still work. Movies are a visual medium and successful movies are those that tend to be stronger on plot than other factors. Something has to happen, and keep happening, to keep your eyes on the screen. Watching a character think forever, or lingering too long and too often on vistas can just lead to a nap on the part of the viewer.

Therefore, when a book comes up for adaptation, if it's not suited to the screen straight out of the box, or even if it is, directors, writers and actors are going to make choices to bring it to that different medium and serve its different needs. A character might be pushed aside, or emphasized, or a plot might be highlighted or attenuated, depending on what the artists involved think works better. A book with lots of characters and perspectives might be shaved to something more manageable for a film limited in time and scope. Lots of characters can work well in the hands of a skilled novelist, but the viewer, with two or so hours to spend, might need something more economical to hold their attention (and don't let's talk about limited series television adaptations that have all the time in the world to tell their stories and linger over every detail of a novel. That's for another post.)

Examples? Election, by Tom Perotta, is a fine book that was nonetheless improved onscreen by a snappy adaptation and charismatic actors. The film "Gone Girl" was in my opinion an adaptation both faithful and successful of a novel with strong characters, plot and setting (and voice).  The list goes on. My point is just that we shouldn't assume an adaptation will be bad, or insufficient. We just shouldn't judge a film by its book- or expect the sensory experience of watching a film to be the same as the emotional experience we had reading the book.

A good director and cast can take a novel thin on character and setting and build it up around a strong plot. Or take a premise that is handled clumsily in a novel and find something magical or inspiring. Movies can show us aspects of the book we love that we never saw when they're done well.  Likewise a bad adaptation can destroy the movie we created in our imagination and disappoint us irrevocably. (Don't get me started on the wretched film adaptation of Sergey Lukyanenko's delightful urban fantasy Night Watch). But that then offers us the opportunity to tell our own stories.

And as far as "Crazy Rich Asians" the movie vs. Crazy Rich Asians the book? I enjoyed the movie, and I'm currently reading the book, and yes there are some differences here and there. The book is enjoyable, fluffy and fun. The movie is the same, maybe a little tightened up from its source- a solid if not completely faithful adaptation- and as enjoyable in its way as the book is in its.

What do you think?

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