Monday 10 March 2014

Movies are always worse than (good) books - yet movies usurp books. Therefore beware!


Movies are an interesting artform. They are probably the most emotionally-engaging or intense form- they produce perhaps stronger emotional responses than anything else; but seem limited in their depth and resonance.

The very best movies therefore are not much more than themselves - they create an image, a memory - but this residue of the movie experience does not become a symbol: that is, the movie experience does not resonate with the rest of life but remains detached and un-integrated.

Movies are hyper-real - their details and edges are hard and fixed. Great books, by contrast, are fluid, diffuse: a movie is like a fast and narrow river, a book is a tidal estuary.  


In this sense, I do not think there can truly be 'a great movie' - but only a powerful movie.

For art to be 'great' requires that it has the capacity to become part of life, to flow-into life - as does a great book or piece of music or drama.

Movies are so definitely and intensely themselves that they do not seem to do this. 


There is also a problem that movies usurp imagery - and this is particularly a problem when movies are 'based-on' great books; because on the one hand the movie may permanently distort the metal imagery of reading, while on the other hand the movie experience simply cannot be as important as that of a great book.

For this reason it would be better if movies stayed-away-from great books - and if people who like a particular great book would stay away from movies 'based-on' it.

In this instance, there is only one possible direction of result, and that is the movie will firstly be inferior to the great book (which perhaps does not matter much); but secondly that the movie will tend to damage the future experience of the great book in positive proportion as it is a 'good movie' - the better the movie, the more the damage (which does matter).



Thursday said...

I'm having a really hard time coming up with any movies that even compete with the great novels they are based on. Griffith's Tess of the Durbervilles, David Lean's Dickens films, Richardson's Tom Jones, the Disney Jungle Book. Even there the books are so strong that on rereading they simply overwhelm the film versions, except maybe the very different Disney Jungle Book.

If the film overwhelms the book, that's usually because it was a somewhat weak book, in which case the stronger film just takes the place of the novel or story as the definitive version.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Th - My prime example is the Lord of the Rings. Despite their flaws, the Jackson movies are among the best movies ever made. Of course, the book is for me the greatest of books.

So they are (for me) both top-notch.

But after long reflection I feel that the movies damage the experience of the books by the narrow intensity and concreteness of interpretation - simply by virtue of being *movies* - and it is the *best* parts of the movies which seem to do this most indelibly.

This just seems to be a fact: what we do with that fact will vary between individuals, and is a matter of judgement. As usual in life, things are never good-all-round- but it is a matter of benefits bound up with unavoidable costs.

Ian said...

I'd probably say I like the 1959 movie Ben-Hur better than the novel. That's the only example I can think of off the top of my head.

I bet there are a number of movies made before the mid-60's that I would like better than the books: mainly because movies made during the Code years would have had to remove the most sordid elements from the books. However, most of these novels were probably never 'great' in the first place.

Bruce Charlton said...

There are plenty of movies I prefer to the books - but only when I don't think much of the books. Disney's old Peter Pan cartoon, for example, I think is wonderful (my favourite of all the Disney cartoons, perhaps)- but then I find the JM Barrie book/ play excruciatingly un-readable...

The Continental Op said...

I listened to the BBC Radio version of Lord of the Rings to detox from the movies. Hearing character more robustly done, particularly Frodo, improves matters.

I seem to recall someone once saying that the good movies that are based on books are really improvements on not-so-great books.

Ugh said...

I recently saw Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game brought to the big screen after a long wait. It was an OK movie, they did a good job on the big things, touched most of the bases. Visually they nailed the "battle school" exactly as I pictured it in my mind reading the book 25 years ago. That's just it, I have never forgotten the book, one of my favorites, but until I read this post I hadn't given the movie another thought. It just didn't compare.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CoOp - Yes, it's good. It was by Brian Sibley who has a deep appreciation of the original.

But it is interesting that a Radio Dramatization is fine. It isn't as great as the book, obviously - but doesn't harm future appreciation.

Thursday said...

There are plenty of movies I prefer to the books - but only when I don't think much of the books.

There are also plenty of books, where the book is really good but not really necessary. A lot of H.G. Wells books, like The Time Machine, would meet this criterion. Many of the fairy tales adapted by Disney also meet this criterion.

Thursday said...

I also find interesting certain adaptations that are bad, but are unforgettable in other ways. The James Whale Frankenstein movies, for example, are clunky as storytelling, but have lots of unforgettable iconic imagery. Fortunately, for those who enjoy the book the quicker moving, hyperarticulate monster in the original is so different from the one in the movie that it is almost impossible to confuse them.

Imnobody said...

Yes, if the book is not that good, the movie can be better ("The Godfather" comes to mind).

I think one of the reasons is why the book was conceived FIRST and, if it is a great book, it makes the most of the literary form, so a movie can't reproduce this greatness.

(No book written as a movie script can be great)

When the movie is done first and the book is written afterward ("2001. A Space Odissey" comes to mind), the movie is much better than the book.

Jasper said...

The Hunt for Red October was equally good as both a book and a movie.

The Princess Bride was also equally good as both a book and a movie. (The book was "abridged" by a successful screenwriter.)