Can A Movie Be Too Close to the Book?

22 Aug

TypeHype6MaltFalc1941TrailerRarely is there a case where a movie actually is close to a book, let alone spot-on perfect. However, I have been surprised to find several examples, usually involving short stories and short novels…usually mysteries.

It all began with The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. I decided to read the book after having watched three different movie adaptations of his book and was a little intrigued to discover how close the book was to the final 1941 movie with Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston. As I wrote previously, at times, it was like the book was the screenplay for the movie.

Of course, I don’t think the movie is too close to the book (though the parts that were close were less interesting to read then the new stuff that didn’t make it into the movie), but it reminded me of a similar experience. I love the 2001-2002 TV series Nero Wolfe with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton, which are based on various short stories and novels by Rex Stout. Like Hammett, Stout writes detective fiction and when I tried to read the book, Over My Dead Body, I was amazed at how close it was to the two-part episode of the same name from season 1. In fact, it was exactly the same. It was so close that I got bored reading the book. There was nothing new, no surprises, no clarification of points or expansion of motives or characters. Once again, it was a bit like reading the screenplay.

Adventures_of_sherlock_holmesAnd another example, only in reverse, involving another sleuth: Sherlock Holmes. When I finished reading Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I found Jeremy Brett’s episode on youtube of one of the short stories “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” It was exactly like the story I had just read – word for word. Nothing new, no surprises. Of course, in this instance I had read the book before seeing the movie, so I prefer the book to the movie as opposed to the other way around.

Perhaps this problem of movies being too close to books can only happen when the movie is based on a book that is a hard-core example of the dictum “show, don’t tell.” If all a book does is show, then the movie can follow it fairly closely. If there are lots of thoughts and emotions given the reader, or facts or the narrative provides information not directly seen, then the book has gone somewhere a movie cannot follow. This is also probably why mystery novels are so often the kinds of stories that are done accurately. Mysteries are not usually that long and cannot afford to betray character’s thoughts too much.

So, my question is: is it possible for a movie or TV show to be too close to the book that one or the other becomes obsolete or is that merely my own pet bugaboo? Are there people who like their movies to be exactly like the book, only on screen? Is it fun to watch something come alive in precisely the manner in which it was told or is it a little boring and you wish the director and writer would bring something new to it? I appeal to my readers. I would love to know what people think.


Posted by on August 22, 2014 in Books, Movies


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7 responses to “Can A Movie Be Too Close to the Book?

  1. D Byford

    August 23, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    I would have to say that in the case of reading books first I would prefer they stick with the book, if not word for word, at least staying faithful to the characters and events. I may not be surprised but I will have the pleasure of seeing what has been in my imagination come to life. As to reading the book after seeing the movie, I do see the difficulty…I had seen the Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle version of “Pride and Prejudice” so many times that reading the book was almost difficult because the lines were almost exactly the same as the words of the book. Whereas Timothy Zahn created a trilogy of “Star Wars” that took place after the original trilogy of movies. The plot was different, but he nailed the characters and added new and interesting ones. Then there was “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” which is one of my all time favorite books, and because the most recent re-making of this was, in my opinion, not accurate and not faithful to the characters, events,or ideas of the book and was a great disappointment to me. They did the same thing with “Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” That was even less recognizable and therefore even more of a failure. It is enough of an adventure in and of itself and did not need added material.
    My conclusion, if the book was good in the first place, at least keep the characters, storyline, and events intact. If the book needs some improvement, say you adapted it from the book and don’t claim that it is the book.


  2. Andrea Lundgren

    August 24, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    But who can decide if a book needs improvement? The author obviously didn’t, and chances are, readers’ opinions will vary. For example, the short story, “The Inheritance,” by Louisa May Alcott, was made into a movie, taking only the very general themes and characters and adding a great deal to the story. I think they did a masterful job, but some purists would object. The same goes for such movies as Scaramouche. The book was delightful, and in my opinion, so was the movie, despite the differences; changes were made to adapt it to the director’s goals without contradicting the feel, mood, and general storyline, but much was otherwise changed.

    I guess my belief is that each creation adds to the “soup” of ideas and themes that subsequent artists have to work from and with. (An idea and term I’m borrowing from Tolkien.) We don’t expect each adaptation of King Arthur or Robin Hood to adhere to the details of its earliest “version,” but we expect a certain mood and themes to be included and explored in the story. Part of the fun, though, is to see what the director and other artists bring to the work, and how they put their own original stamp on it. I think to deny them this in more modern works is to place an imposition on creativity.


    • D Byford

      August 25, 2014 at 5:38 pm

      But then how do you enjoy a movie such as the two Narnia films I mentioned in my first comment? They were so far from the ideas and events in the book that it was painful to watch, and for those who have not read the books they are left with wrong theology and an incorrect idea of the characters and the author’s intentions. I did not even mention “Prince Caspian” because they strayed so far from the book as to create another story entirely. I liked the story they came up with but I can’t even compare the two they were so different. Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit were also victims of the “director and screenwriter knows best” mentality. There are some works that are obviously good and therefore do not need to be added to. Abridged perhaps but not added to to make it “more to taste for modern audiences.” Re-creating characters and events to suit your worldview does not, in my humble opinion, validate director’a choices to throw the author’a intentions to the wind. Especially when speaking of books, short stories are understandably devoid of enough detail that it can be created without censure.


  3. Andrea Lundgren

    August 26, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    First, I don’t think the movie is the right place to look for any author’s intentions or theology. They may have inspired the work, but it is still a spin-off, a different creation than the original book or short story. As you mention, we sometimes like these new creations–and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we can compare them, scene-by-scene, with the original work, and sometimes, as you said, you can hardly compare them.

    But I think we have to first judge these new creations, by themselves, ignoring the work that inspired them. Do we like them, as movies? Are they coherent? Are they enjoyable? Did the scenes make sense? Did it fit in its chosen genre? These days, no one judges Shakespeare by his original sources–by whether he was true to the original story or not. We look at the plays he wrote, the plays that the original works inspired, and judge them in their own right. We look to his sources to see what he did and how he adapted, and sometimes, we may prefer the sources, but his plays are considered separate works of art entirely, and I think that is the best attitude to use.


    • D Byford

      August 28, 2014 at 6:36 am

      I think Christina does a good follow-up on this subject in her new post, The Nature of Disappointment. I suppose I am just one of those people who, if I truly enjoy the book, do not appreciate the screenwriter and director’a choices to drastically change what I enjoyed so much at first. Perhaps she is right, that we should watch a movie first, enjoy it for its merit, and then love the book for its depth and detail, if indeed it should be enjoyed so. I will still remain adamant to my opinion of the Narnia Series so far and Lord of the Rings missing the mark as enjoyable works of film because I disagree with so many of their choices to change something that did not need to be changed in the first place. I also listened to the writers of Lord of the Rings and disagreed with their reasoning on changing, for example, Boromir’s younger brother. In the book he is able to resist the ring because he is an honorable young man, the writers thought they needed to make him struggle and then succumb to temptation because they wanted the ring to be more powerful. I was extraordinarily disappointed with this choice. It is the overcoming of the ring that we admire, the strength of character to refuse evil. They also changed Aragorn and made him weak…dependent on Arwen (who hardly appears in the books) to help him find himself and convince him that he is and should be a king. Perhaps in this instance I should have watched the movie first and then I wouldn’t have been so disappointed.


      • christinawehner

        August 28, 2014 at 12:26 pm

        Hi D, I really have appreciated and enjoyed all you comments! Despite all I said about the nature of expectations, I think I agree with you about the changes made in Peter Jackson’s LOTR, which is funny because I had not read the book until after seeing the movie. I think my opinion must have been strongly shaped by the people I watched it with. 🙂

        I don’t think anything I’ve written will ever make me feel less strongly about movie adaptations. I still find myself saying things like, “David Suchet is a better Hercule Poirot then Albert Finney” and I don’t think we’re wrong to say things like that. David Suchet really is better. My main reason for getting into this debate was to identify why I was reacting so strongly and because I felt there was an inconsistency in how I applied my judgment. I was forgiving some movies that were poor adaptations and condemning others. And I couldn’t seem to shake myself out of my preconceived expectations when approaching a film, no matter how philosophic I was, which made me wonder about the whole disappointment thing.

        Although I don’t think this means we are wrong to have opinions or even that our opinions are wrong. I totally agree with you in disagreeing with Peter Jackson’s reasons for changing Faramir’s reaction to the ring, although I don’t think it invalidates the movie, though it does make it a movie with a different vision. It’s not Tolkien’s LOTR, anymore, but I don’t care for Peter Jackson’s LOTR because I don’t agree with his vision.


    • christinawehner

      August 28, 2014 at 12:35 pm

      Hi Andrea, I think it is interesting how you mentioned Shakespeare. That’s a great example! In some ways, certain books have become like Shakespeare’s source material. The movie Sound of Music has completely eclipsed the real story, written by the real Maria van Trapp, although she is not forgotten. The movie Gone With the Wind will be remember long after the book. I didn’t know for the longest time that Show Boat was based on a book and the author Edna Ferber is largely forgotten today. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know “My Fair Lady” was based on the play by Shaw until later in my life.

      But you’re right: we don’t automatically need to know the original books to judge and appreciate the movies, just like Shakespeare’s plays.



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