An Antidote to Bookworms: You Should’ve Seen the Movie

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Oh, you should read the book.”

From Life of Pi to Harry Potter to Jane Austen, your bookworm pals take up the cry before you can pitch what’s left of your greasy bag of $8.50 popcorn into the movie theater trashcan.  I know, I’m one of them.  “Have you read the book? It’s so much better.”

It may be anathema to book lovers who judge movies by how closely they hew to the plots of the books that inspired them, but books and movies are two completely different mediums of storytelling, and it’s probably not fair to compare them.

That said, maybe we need an antidote to all people who ride home saying the book was so much better. You don’t usually hear this, but sometimes you just gotta admit that you enjoyed the movie more. Here, in my opinion, are four prime examples. (Spoilers ahead.)

The Devil Wears Prada

The 2003 novel by Lauren Weisburger is a fun read about an ambitious young woman’s first job in the jungles of Manhattan’s fashion world, thought to be inspired by the author’s own experience working for the infamous Anna Wintour. But there’s so much more to enjoy about the 2006 film starring Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep.

In the novel, Andrea’s plight as Miranda Priestly’s assistant escalates in a series of incidents that don’t achieve any real depth, either as a cultural commentary or a character study. A friend’s crisis finally intervenes.

But in the film, a script by Aline Brosh McKenna is what really brings Miranda Priestly to life, with the help of Meryl Streep. The remote and glamorous harridan of the novel becomes a real person with her own vulnerabilities. Without making Miranda any less maddening, Streep fleshes out the story of Andrea’s conflicted loyalty to her boss. And by eliminating the plot point that throws Andrea’s best friend into a car crash, the movie demands that the protagonist make her choice to leave Miranda on her own terms. This emphasizes the heroine’s own agency rather than leaving her at the mercy of her circumstances.

The Hobbit

Yes, I’ll admit right up front that I’m America’s biggest Tolkien philistine. I’ve sampled his books a couple times over the years (currently plodding through the Lord of the Rings trilogy on my iPad) and I always come away annoyed and exhausted with Tolkien’s heavy, almost biblical prose.

One friend told me the problem is that Tolkien treats everything with the same descriptive attention, whether the hobbits are having breakfast or battling a foe. I would add, enough with all the bloody songs. I also remember a critic of Peter Jackson’s 2012 film adaptation complaining that the thirteen dwarves in the film were mostly indistinguishable. I agree, but that’s not Jackson’s fault. You can’t really tell the dwarves apart in the book any more than you can in the new film.

I’m not saying the recent Hobbit film (which, Lord give us strength, is the first of a trilogy based on the relatively slim novel) is a masterpiece, but I did enjoy it more than the book, which I’ve read twice (once as a teenager, and again after seeing the movie last year). Bilbo Baggins is shaping up to be less of an observer in this telling. For example, instead of leaving the hungry trolls to Gandalf’s guile as in the novel, the film’s Bilbo (Martin Freeman) delays the trolls with his own wits. In the end of the book, if I recall correctly, Bilbo gets a bump on the head and misses the climactic battle entirely. I doubt the coming film will give its protagonist such a passive role.

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption

I wrestled with this one. In my experience, a lot of people don’t even know that Frank Darabont’s 1994 The Shawshank Redemption is based on a 1982 Stephen King novella called Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (published in a quartet of deeply absorbing and troubling stories called Different Seasons).

Darabont’s Stephen King adaptations, which also include The Green Mile, starring Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan, are that rare breed of film that can condense plot and character while still feeling true to the author’s story and tone. While The Shawshank Redemption wasn’t an immediate hit, it’s one of my favorite films, and in terms of setting, plot and character, marches with the novella. The film also sharpens and streamlines a central conflict of the story, as Andy Defresne faces the Warden Norton throughout his incarceration, instead of a series of minor characters that come and go as Warden in the novella.

I love the ending of Darabont’s film because it edges past a hopeful but uncertain conclusion for Andy and Red. Some may argue that a bittersweet farewell to Red, as he rides away in his attempt to reunite with his friend, is a more fitting literary finish. But to me, the emotional payoff of seeing the friends embrace by the ocean makes my favorite ending.

Orange is the New Black

Ok, maybe this one is cheating, because Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir of her stint in a minimum security women’s prison was adapted into a Netflix TV series, not a movie. But the fact remains: I enjoyed “Orange is the New Black” much more on screen than I did on the page.

Ask any twenty or thirty-something woman with a Netflix account about “Orange is the New Black,” and she will respond that she’s obsessed with it. For good reason. A knockout ensemble cast gives multi-faceted, multi-cultural life to each of the vignettes in the arc of the TV story (already renewed for another season).  Sharp, poignant and often hilarious dialogue is paired with glue-you-to-the-screen stakes in every episode.

Kerman’s memoir is kind of wan in comparison.

That is not to say that it isn’t a good read, or that it doesn’t have the occasional touching and trenchant insight. But through most of the memoir, Kerman’s earnest, cultivated voice fails to build much dramatic steam.

Piper spends half the book getting teary with gratitude over reams of letters and books from her family, friends and admirers and giving odes to her perfect, preternaturally supportive fiancé. She expects the reader to believe she’s an “outcast” and a “freak” while she gives thanks for a plum job waiting for her on the outside, and the prison’s most powerful and popular denizens befriend her almost immediately.

While the TV series is ripe with perils, whenever Kerman hits a little drama in the book, she seems determined to skip away from it in the next sentence. For example, one of the only altercations she alludes to with another inmate turns out to be when they both wanted the same spinach leaves on the salad bar.  Another time, she worries that a contentious game between the Yankees and the Red Sox could lead to a race riot. But then she says, “I’m not sure what kind of a brawl we could have come up with, though. The most hard-core Sox fans in the joint were a clique of middle-aged, middle-class white ladies, whose ringleader was nicknamed Bunny.”

OK, then.

p.s. Online or at the end of the book, check out Kerman’s resources for criminal justice reform.

Sling some mud, if you want.

Literary folk usually have strong opinions and I don’t doubt there are many people who disagree, perhaps violently, with my book/film judgments here. In my defense, I’m not trying to say which is “better,” the book or the film. I just enjoyed these film adaptations more than I enjoyed the original books.

What do you think? Are books always better than the movie? Which one of your favorite movies is better than the book?

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11 Comments

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  1. One book series that comes to mind is The Little House on the Prairie. I think the books fed the imagination so much better than the TV series plots and characters.
    At the very least movie goers can become somewhat culturally literate by seeing classic stories even if they don’t read the book.

    • Yes, I think many people agree that the Little House TV series bears little resemblance to the books. And that’s ok. It’s true that movies based on classic books can at least acquaint non-reading folks with these stories.

  2. Well, at the start of your article I was firmly in the “the book is always better” camp, but by the end, you have me convinced to open my mind a bit, as I agreed with several of your points – thanks Alaina!

  3. Mary Poppins the book and Mary Poppins the movie were both terrific, although radically different.

  4. For me, the classic example of the book and the movie are both great but quite different is To Kill a Mockingbird.

  5. Interesting piece. Thanks!

  6. The movie “Stardust” outstrips the book, and I love Neil Gaiman! The story is less convoluted and the ending is sweeter.

    I have always loved the the case of “The Cider House Rules”; John Irving wrote the novel AND the screenplay and both are great but very different.

    • I think I’ve seen that Stardust movie, but I’ve never read the book. I also recall watching The Cider House Rules a number of years ago, but I don’t think I enjoyed it very much. Isn’t that the film where Tobey Maguire burns a piece of paper in some kind of wood stove while everyone stands around tense and pretentious-like? Maybe I should try the book!

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