If you ever find yourself making small talk at a party, and you happen to mention that you are an English teacher, you will find yourself suddenly and involuntarily entered into a strange ritual I like to call the Book Game. It goes something like this:
Person One: I just finished [obscure book].
Person Two: If you like [obscure book], you should read [even more obscure book].
Sometimes this can be a fun way to meet people and simultaneously get some good reading recommendations, and other times it can devolve into a strange and uncomfortable social competition wherein points are scored by shaming your opponent into admitting they haven’t a read particularly well-regarded author.
The game always ends with the following exchange:
Person One: I haven’t read it, but I saw the film.
Person Two: The book is so much better.
This is a nice place to end because it gives both players something to agree on: books good, movies less good (more or less). Which brings me to today’s topic: what does it mean to say that a book is better than a movie?
In general, I think what we mean (and I say “we,” because this is something that I am guilty of myself) is that we prefer the experience of reading a book - any book - to that of watching a movie. We prefer the pacing of novels, which are allowed to be exactly as long as they need to be (though they are often just a smidge longer) to that of films, which usually have to clock in at 90-120 minutes. We prefer the emotional investment that comes from several weeks (or one long, rainy day) of reading a book to the two-hour stopover at the crowded multiplex. We prefer the perfectly rendered characters and settings of our imaginations to the nagging inner voice that says Scarlet Johansen’s wig looks really terrible. We prefer the focused artistic vision of a single author to the often muddled results of multiple screenwriters, meddling producers, and focus-group happy executives.
But these are not the points that people bring up when they complain about the inferiority of movies. Usually, when someone declares a film adaptation to be a failure, they immediately begin to ramble off a list of subplots and ancillary characters that didn’t make it to the screen. They left out Tom Bombadil. They left out the Avoxes. They left out Anna Karenina’s Russian accent. As if the artistic success of a film is determined by the exactitude of its translation.
The funny thing is, we’re pretty tolerant of narrative elisions when it comes to other forms of visual adaptation. No one ever criticizes a Greek urn for cutting their favorite scene between Orpheus and Eurydice, or looks at the Pietà and says “oh, but the book was better.” We recognize that, in going from the verbal to the visual, a certain amount of abridgement is required, and the resulting work will depend largely (or in the case of sculpture, almost entirely) on metonymy and the viewer’s preexisting knowledge of the story. The story is represented, not told, and we’re okay with that because we are given new, visual dimensions in which to appreciate the art. More to the point, we recognize that a direct comparison would make no sense.
So what makes film different? Well for one thing, it is the visual medium that most closely resembles literature, in ways both superficial (use of dialogue, the construction of discrete scenes) and fundamental (the imposition of a point of view, the unfolding of events in a given order and pace). Film presents us with a more clearly defined narrative arc than other visual media, so we are more sensitive to the disruptions of that arc’s shape. All of this leaves us with an icky, uncanny valley feeling when we see a book adapted to film. It's almost the story we know, but not quite. And that's a little unsettling.
This is not to say that a film adaptation can’t be successful. Look at The Godfather. Or The Shining. Or even Clueless. These are successful adaptations, but not because they were completely faithful to the source material, or completely irreverent with the source material. They are successful because they are so good at what movies are good at that we don’t compare them to the source material at all.