Tonight’s Main Attraction…Movie vs. Book

For today, the subject is movie vs. book.  The starring event this season was to be I am Legend, based on Richard Matheson’s novella of the same name.  Will it live up to it’s reader’s expectations?  Probably not.  There will be the nit-pickers, the plot dissected piece by piece, and “crucial” lines of dialogue and/or discussion and detail omitted.

I am Legend

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Movies are not books, and books are not movies.  They should not be judged by the same criteria, and should not even be judged side by side.  Let’s go back to one of the early blockbusters – Gone With the Wind.  Having read the book about 19 times as a teen (my edition had two columns on each page – talk about reading headaches), I can tell you that Scarlet O’Hara’s waist was 19 inches, and she “was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm.”

That opening line sticks in my brain for some unearthly reason.  I have also seen the movie, about a million times.  It won 8 oscars, including best picture and best actress, was nominated for 5 more, and won the People’s Choice Award in 1989 for all-time favorite movie.  It has the AFI’s number one quote – guess which one?  It had more quotes on the AFI list than any other movie.  Adjusting for inflation in 2005, according to IMDB, it was the top grossing movie of all time, with over 3.7 billion.  It was No. 4 on AFI’s all time best films.  It was almost 4 hours in length, and relied heavily on the book for lines and scenes.

But that said, it isn’t the book. Much of the details of Scarlett’s life were left out, including a few marriages, as I recall.  But the book was amazing, or I wouldn’t have read it so many times, sometimes in a single stretch, curled up in a big chair, and a 1929 pot-boiler wouldn’t still be in print.  And if the film wasn’t so fantastic it wouldn’t have won so many awards, be the top grossing, #4 film by AFI, or still be selling out in DVD editions.

A movie needs to be judged with a different set of reference points than it’s companion book.  A screenplay is not a book.  The book uses words to describe surroundings, people, places, small details, personalities, as well as dialogue.  Dialogue moves the plot along, but it’s the descriptors that set the scenes, give you a mental picture of what Scarlett looked like, what Tara looked like, and what Rhett looked like, down to the handkercief in his breast pocket and the wicked gleam in his eyes as he mentally undressed her in the famous Twin Oaks scene.

Such details in a movie must be conveyed by sets, costumes, actors, and dialogue.  Subtle cues that were presented outright in the book must be either fitted into the scene by dialogue, looks, posturing, or forgotten.

No movie can contain the wealth of detail and minutiae as well as the staggering cast of charcters of some books.  But many do manage to bring across the basic theme, or “presense” of the book.  By all acounts, GWTW was a success on that score.  While the characters may not have looked as people imagined them – I don’t know since I saw the movie first – but I do know from other books, the movie should be judged on the way it handled the “essence” of the book.  Did Scarlett come across as the strong woman she was, who worked with the society she was given, to carve out a safe place for herself, while making sure that her self-centered wants were taken care of?  Scarlett is a picture of a woman torn between two worlds – the modern independant woman, and the old southern belle.  The old making way for the new.

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair of Master and of Slave… Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, A civilization gone with the wind.

Those words crawled across the opening of the film, setting the scene and tone for the movie – contrast that with the opening line mentioned above from the book.  One lets you know what is going to happen, and the other merely starts out by describing Scarlett, a tone to be followed by many more descriptions.

So as people judge movies/books like Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter series, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, M*A*S*H, Devil Wears Prada, etc., look for the flavor, the tone, the ultimate goal/outcome of the books before condemning the movie because the plot shifted at times in the movie, or whole sections were dropped.  Remember that the 800 page book must fit into a sittable length, and even then, it must conform to it’s own style: visual rather than verbal.

So when you go the movies this season, enjoy them for what they are, and critique the movie on its own merits, judging the acting, the dialogue, the screenplay, the score, the visuals, the directing.  Not by the book it is based on.  And it’s a hard exercise to do.  Think of it as mental gymnastics, or selective thinking.

But we all have a visualization of what we read in our minds, and no two people will have the same.  They may be loosely alike, based on the quality of the writer’s descriptions, but will not be identical, and no movie can ever capture your own personal visualizations.  How many times have you heard someone say after leaving a movie “but I pictured him so differently?”

And the book can remain what it is, a beloved verbal story, either rich in characterization, plot, witty dialogue, or the questions it raises (my favorite exercise in moral questioning is The Genesis Code by John Case).  Its story line and ending leave you searching for people to talk to about it, to ask them the moral questions posed.  But I doubt a movie of it could do the same.  But it would make a good thriller.

So, good reading and watching, and don’t mix.  That can cause an unsafe reaction.

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One response to “Tonight’s Main Attraction…Movie vs. Book

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