Films Which Are Better Than Their Books

As you might guess I in general vastly prefer most books to their films, but there are a few great exceptions. I am only going to comment when I have actually read the book. There are some that I suspect are better films, such as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but I have not read the full novel.

The Godfather

Mario Puzo’s novel is pulpy, a bit of a potboiler of a crime novel. It relentlessly focuses on conflict to the detriment of all other aspects, such as characterisation (rudimentary but solid enough), setting (rarely elucidated) and prose style (functional at best). The film on the other hand is marvellously elegant, almost elegaic. The cast is magnificent, bringing depths to characters barely more than stock cliches, such as the mean and moody Sonny and the ruthless maverick Sollozzo. I actually have a theory about why The Godfather resonates so: on the one hand, it is a Stockholm-syndrome elegy for the days when crime was owned by the (white) mafioso, who like the Krays might have had moments of excess but were felt to keep things in order – in contrast to black gangs like the Crips and the Bloods who were coming to control the drug trade in particular. The grand high meeting where the heads of the family agree to the drug trade, therefore, is where they sign their death warrant, leaving them helpless  before more ruthless gangs who will sell around schools etc. On the other hand, Michael’s claim of moral equivalence between Don Corleone and any Senator is absolutely pertinent for the times of Richard Nixon. Similarly, Puzo’s citation of the Balzac idea that “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime” seems to express the mood of the 1974 electorate, who at last knew that they had been taken for a ride. (Rosemary’s Baby seems to express a similar theme, albeit paranoically: they really are in league against you). These themes are at best latent in the novel, and are signified in the film by the direction, which is stately and elegant. The cast too are outstanding, and the sets/design, with their dark wood and sartorial style, are pure eye-candy. Many people say that The Godfather II is the better – not sure I’d agree there: the original film with its narrative arc of Michael becoming drawn in and then taking over is one hell of a ride.

Carrie

Again, the good thing about this film is the way it expresses the novel’s themes more forcefully. The novel is a bit of a weird stramash, drawing it out with various “quotations” from textbooks, news reports, police tickers and letters, and the trick of conveying Carrie’s telekinesis/telepathy through the incessant (interludes) gets very tiresome. The central idea, of the girl discovering her powers and pulling down the temple upon everyone, is a great, ferocious one, though, and the savagery and ruthlessness of high school social stratification had rarely (if ever?) been seen before.

What distinguishes the film is its slyness – it brings the social manipulation out front. The “good guy” is in the book is shown to be as egregious as the rest, and a catspaw of his girlfriend, while Billy (John Travolta’s first film role) does some unspeakable things after his girlfriend, the vile Chris, gives him a blowjob. (Didya know the actor who plays her, Nancy Allen, is the police sidekick in Robocop?). The direction has its now-ridiculous campy 1970s moments – particularly the guys getting their prom tuxedos – but numerous moments linger in the memory – the look of Chris as she prepares to tip the bucket of blood, the shower scene, the idealistic gym teacher encouraging Carrie (superbly played by Sissie Spacek) to make herself up a bit, Carrie arriving home to “Momma”, and of course that shit-your-pants ending.

The Exorcist

Most people won’t have read William Peter Blatty’s book – I have, and it’s really quite dull. But oh my god, the film – it’s not just a horror film aiming to scare you. It’s an examination of the limits of science, of rationality, as shown by the flailing efforts of the medical profession. The flat, neutral tone of the direction is great as a counterpoint to the demonic forces – no need for histrionics, fast cuts and snappy camera angles. Then of course there’s the numerous unsettling half-images which unnerve you – a trick redoubled in the Director’s Cut, which really is half as scary again. That bloody spider walk is spooky as fuck too. This isn’t just a Good vs Evil film, or the typical Big Monster – Kill Monster setup of most horrors. This is one of the times when you look at the abyss. It remains absolutely terrifying. Kudos to everyone involved, from Friedkin’s extreme direction (randomly shooting guns, slapping someone in the face before doing a take, really hurting actor’s in the special effects setups), the cast (Ellen Burstyn delivers a magnificent performance), and the special effects, most of which remains effective. (Apart from when Regan’s head does the 360 spin – looks naff now). I don’t watch this film alone.

The Shining

I’m actually quite a Stephen King fan, but I think he rather dried up about twenty-five years ago, or after Misery. The books of his I’ve read since then – Cell, Bag of Bones, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Gerald’s Game, Needful Things, Dolores Claibourne – have varied between decent (Dolores Claibourne) to adequate (Needful Things) to tedious (the rest). And what is it with so many of his protagonists being goddamn writers? Even on his hot early streak he was a bit hit and miss – I never liked The Tommyknockers, or Cujo, or Salem’s Lot. But The Shining does seem to me to be one of his best books – not as good as IT or The Stand, say, but better than Pet Semetary or Christine. Its examination of the character of Jack  Torrance is excellent – the poor bastard is a real tragic hero, blindly staggering his way to his inevitable doom – and the background on the Torrance’s marriage and life together is insightful and moving. Still, like most Stephen King’s, it moves towards melodrama: the ending is really hackneyed. He also loves to bludgeon his SYMBOLISM to death, huh?

Kubrick’s film is, unusually, far more literary than the novel. It has a wealth of symbolism and signifiers, the meaning of which are still being discussed and fought over. (There are absurd conspiracy theories about The Shining, saying it’s an apologia for Kubrick’s part in the faked moon landings (!) – see here). This simply suggests that the film is rich in meaning and connotation, and is open-ended. For example – what’s with the ending? Why has Jack always been the caretaker? Why do conversations often seem staged? And of course it is a deeply unsettling film, one which perhaps is more an examination of madness/psychosis than evil. Is it the hotel, or is it Jack? Who knows?

Goodfellas

The book by Nicholas Pileggi is called “Wiseguy” and is a tell-all of the ins-and-outs of the smalltime gangster life. The book is of course highly informative, but it’s functional. About the most interesting fact is that several details later pop up in Casino – for example the talking with hands over their mouths, or the bets which Ace places (bribing college basketball players, etc). The book is definitely one of the time when you realise the merit and artistic benefit of the direction – Scorsese’s highly kinetic camera movement, and numerous artful touches (the reflected red lights from the back of the car, suggestive of blood, death and hell; the incredible tracking shot through the restaurant interior conveying Karen’s disorientation; the knocking on the door for “Stacks” Edwards reminiscent of the knocking on the gate in Macbeth – a detail which gave De Quinceya peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity“) are all outstanding. The performance, too, are uniformly outstanding, from Ray Liotta all the way down to minor characters, like Samuel L Jackson (!). All of which elevate it far beyond the book.

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6 thoughts on “Films Which Are Better Than Their Books

  1. I agree with you on most of your reviews. I did like Cujo. The book, better than the movie. In the book the it is hinted several times that Cujo’s bat bite on the nose gave him more than rabies but also the spirit of serial strangler. Frank Dodd. Frank Dodd is mentioned several times in the book. We were able to follow the thoughts Cujo/Frank Dodd was having as he killed off the men and sat by the car with the woman and her son in it. Which made it much more interesting than just watching a rabbid dog kill people. I found this Stephen King story much better in book form. However, in interviews, he admits he was drinking heavily when this book was written and had he not been, he would have written the book differently probably with a different ending. Perhaps the little boy would not have died. Those types of tragedy’s that we don’t want to happen are what keeps his reader’s coming back for more even when they know they shouldn’t.

  2. I suspect that almost any Stephen King film surpasses the book – Shawshank Redemption, Running Man, Christine, Salem’s Lot, Misery, you name it – because he’s just AWFUL at plot construction. He has some great story ideas, but then just rambles on and on without knowing where he’s going with them – he’s particularly bad at endings.

    There might be a point here about genre novels – perhaps especially crime and horror, and maybe also war films – very often being transcended by their film versions. Get Carter and Bridge On The River Kwai, for example, are both much better than the books on which they were based.

    My rather more ‘out there’ nomination would be Catch-22. I think Buck Henry’s screenplay is a stunning adaptation an “unfilmable” (and hugely long, undisciplined) book, one which actually manages to refine many of the book’s themes and capture the circularity of its structures while avoiding its occasional lapses into tedium and confusion.

  3. Think you may be right on King! He is so awful at endings. Maybe one of the reasons I like “Misery” so much is that it doesn’t have (or need) any real plot – see how the film shovels in more of it (the police hunt, etc). Interesting point about genre novels… I knew that “Get Carter” was based on a novel (which sounded pleasantly pulpy, in a post-war council-estate kinda way) but not “Bridge on the River Kwai”. Maybe the same is true of horror!

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