Book vs Film

The AV Club’s fun little inventory of literary works that should never be adapted to film again got us to thinking about that age old question — book vs. film. Common wisdom holds that “the book is always better than the film,” with any number of examples as evidence. Some of the works cited on the AV Club’s list are novels that can’t really be translated to film, at least not in philosophical essence (Moby-Dick, for example, and Nabokov’s Lolita, a film that for reasons social and legal, can never be made properly).

Our own observation, or rule of thumb, is that, while canonical “high” literature rarely makes for masterpiece filmmaking, genre fare–done right–can make classic films. In Francis Ford Coppola’s hands, Mario Puzo’s airport bookstore pickup The Godfather became two of the greatest films of all time. Look at what Stephen Spielberg did for Peter Benchley’s beach read Jaws, or what Kubrick did for Stephen King’s pulp horror The Shining. In more recent times, Alfonso Cuarón turned P.D. James’s capable thriller Children of Men into cinematic gold, but, tellingly, stumbled in adapting the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations. Terrence Malick turned James Jones’s war novel The Thin Red Line into cinematic art and Martin Scorsese spun Goodfellas from Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy–hardly Shakespeare. Danny Boyle has made a career of turning lesser works by writers like Alex Garland and Irvine Welsh into fantastic films.

Very few films present a tough choice, really–we’re still not sure if the Coens’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is better than the book, but it might be. Gary Sinise’s measured take on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men gets just about everything right. Heck, Harold Bloom has even argued quite publicly that John Huston’s version of The Grapes of Wrath is superior to Steinbeck’s. We’re not sure about that one either. Suffice to say that they’re different; that watching a film is not the same as reading a book, nor should it be. We close by saying that we’d love to see Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital adapted to film, preferably by someone awesome like David Lynch or Cuarón, and that, as Sam Peckinpah is long dead, no one should try to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

6 thoughts on “Book vs Film”

  1. My heart breaks every time I see that Malick isn’t directing the long-promised/threatened theatrical version of Blood Meridian.

    As for the The Grapes of Wrath — you have to have the turtle on the road. Winner: book.


  2. Was Malick attached to Blood Meridian at some point? Wow…that would be amazing. I hadn’t thought about the turtle chapter(‘s absence from the movie), but it does tell the whole book in perfect miniature. also, the film omits the dead child/old man breastfeeding scene also, so…


  3. No, as far as I’m aware, Malick was never associated w/ the movie. Just saying, whenever I see a director’s name associated w/ the project and it is not his, I tear up just a little. He seems just the perfect fit for it — just as the Coens were the perfect fit for No Country. Sticking w/ McCarthy … I would say that The Road was a decent enough movie; but certainly did not need to be made. In many ways, it is the kind of literature that could very easily be filmed, but probably shouldn’t. I meant to write a blog post along this lines at some point, soon after seeing the movie, but holidays being what they are, it never materialized. By now, I would say that most people have forgotten it was even ever out.

    Good call on the omission of the breastfeeding scene, too. I did not consider that.


  4. In the September 09 issue of The Believer, there’s an interview with Nick Cave (who wrote the screenplay for John Hillcoat’s amazing pre-The Road, The Proposition), in which he says, “Ridley Scott offered me a rewrite; he owns Blood Meridian. He owns the script for that and he sent it for me to read. And it wasn’t working, the rewrite, so I just sent it back and said, ‘I don’t want to be the guy who fucked it up. You can be the director who fucks up Blood Meridian, but I don’t want to be the writer.'”



    1. I actually just read that interview a few weeks ago (I have a subscription but it usually takes me two months to get through a whole issue; I’m just finishing up the Dec. art issue now). A rare moment of restraint on Cave’s part. I loved The Proposition, but I thought Hillcoat’s take on The Road was weak — even though Viggo and the kid were great, it looked great, was relatively true to the script, etc. The only thing I can pinpoint that was specifically wrong with it is Cave’s score, which I thought was way too melodramatic.


      1. Even though I really enjoyed Hillcoat’s version of The Road, I still agree that it was lacking. Like you, I can’t quite pinpoint the issue. It looked beautiful, the performances (even Guy Pierce and Robert Duval) were great, I didn’t even mind the score as much as many others did. Maybe it’s a story that can’t quite be translated, who knows? It certainly was intense, though.


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