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Can A Movie Be Too Close to the Book?

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.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2014 in Books, Movies

 

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Movie Adaptations of Books

"Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned 
into bouillon cubes" - John Le Carre
"Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy"

“Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy”

Ever since reading about Mary Poppins the movie and Mary Poppins the book and how there are a certain group of people who considers what Disney did to P.L. Travers’ book to be nothing short of artistic rape – that is the very phrase used – I have been curious. Being a person who likes both the book and the movie and who came to the book through the movie, it got me thinking. I used to be quite a snob about how movies absolutely had to follow the book exactly or else you would hear about it, but then I realized that I was only applying that standard to books I liked. Books I didn’t like or hadn’t read didn’t matter. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it and here are some of by observations that I’d like to offer up and see what people think.

Observation OneA movie is not a book. Complaining that a movie does not stay true to the book is like complaining that a painting does not stay true to a character in a book. It can’t. A movie needs to make sense by itself and not assume that the audience has read the book. A movie is a different medium and often what reads well does not look good on screen. At the end of the book Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain, they are going to commit a double suicide by leaping into the water with sharks. This would have looked silly on screen and the ending they came up with for the movie was simply amazing. Even the author liked it.

Observation Two – When people say that they don’t like a movie because it is not like the book, this is mere dissimulation. When we like the movie, we forgive. Not staying true to a book does not mean the movie is bad. I recently watched two versions of Anna Karenina. The first version was with Greta Garbo from 1935 and the second is with Vivien Leigh in 1948. The one with Vivien Leigh is quite a bit more accurate, but somehow the direction is uninspired; it’s dull. The one with Greta Garbo takes quite a different interpretation of the book, but it is a more internally consistent movie and is more interesting to watch.

And I’ve finally had to come to grips with the fact that it is not because Peter Jackson is unfaithful to The Hobbit that I dislike his movies so much. It is because I really dislike how he directs. To me, his movies are bloated. That is not an issue of inaccuracy, it is an issue of editing.

Observation Three – A bad movie or inaccurate movie cannot really hurt a book. The book remains, no matter what, especially if it is a good book. If it’s a bad book or just a popular book, it will fade away no matter how good or bad the movie. But a movie can keep a book alive long after it has ceased to be popular. This has always been the case. How many people have heard of Olive Higgins Prouty or Edna Ferber, both very popular in their day. But I have discovered these authors through the movies. I’ve discovered many good authors like Sinclair Lewis, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler.

Besides, a book should be able to stand on its own and I don’t think it’s fair to blame a movie for the memory or lack of memory of a book. Nor do I feel that it is fair to say that because of a movie, no one is reading the book. People who watch the movie might not watch it if it were more accurate, so you haven’t necessarily lost anything, anyway.

Observation FourThe best books, the classics, the books that endure, can handle multiple movie remakes. In fact, the best books do have multiple movie remakes: Pride and Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes, Anna Karenina, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Moby Dick. Even classic comic books have multiple remakes. Some books, like Jane Eyre, have over ten remakes. The Maltese Falcon was made three times in ten years. Spider Man has been made into two series and five movies in the last twelve years. The books and characters are so vast and so vital that no movie can encompass them. There are two television series about Sherlock Holmes running right now: Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch, and Elementary, with Johnny Lee Miller. Some versions are more accurate than others, but that’s okay. There’s so much richness in books, they can handle multiple interpretations.

Observation Five – Unless a book is a great classic, the further away the movie is made from its publication date, the less the movie has to try and follow the book. If a book is turned into a movie in order to capitalize on a book’s popularity, generally the filmmakers try to follow the book to a certain degree in order to please the fans. This was true even during the silent era. Scaramouche and The Sea Hawk, both adaptations of popular books written by Rafael Sabatini, were turned into movies only a few years after the books were published. They are also quite faithful. However, the remakes of The Sea Hawk and Scaramouche, made in 1940 and 1952 are not nearly as close. In fact, The Sea Hawk retains only the title and the time period. 

Sometimes, I’ve even watched old movies that were based on contemporary, popular novels and wished they had departed more from the books than they did. Examples of this are two Bette Davis movies, The Great Lie and Now, Voyager. I could so see the possibilities that these movies had, but they were oddly hampered by having to stay faithful to the story. This is what happens when a popular but flawed book is turned into a movie with excellent actors. The book is forgotten and the movie is remembered, but the movie could have been even better if they had departed more. Ironic.

None of this is to say that I think directors and producers shouldn’t try to follow the book. It is a wonderful thing when somebody who truly values the book makes an effort to capture what it is about the book that is so good and transfer it to the screen. I love those kinds of movies and they can enrich my appreciation of the book. I guess I’m really just saying that a movie isn’t bad just because it isn’t faithful.

Books and stories have always provided the inspiration of movies, operas, plays, musicals, poetry, paintings, songs. This is partially how stories are transmitted down the ages. I think the real question is not whether it is accurate, but whether it is well done.

 
 

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The Maltese Falcon (1929) – Dashiell Hammett, book review and comparison with the 1941 movie

Maltese_Falcon_film_prop_created_by_Fred_Sexton_for_John_HustonThis book was made to be a movie. It’s so close it’s like watching the movie in slow motion in my head. There are occasional flashes of something new, a new scene, a new twist or interpretation, but for the most part it reads like a screenplay. Sam Spade does this, he says that, his eyes burn yellow (they do that a lot), he grinds his teeth, some description about a room, what Brigid O’Shaughnessy is wearing, how Joel Cairo walks, the tone of Gutman’s voice – stage direction.

The book opens with Miss Wonderly (really Brigid O’Shaughnessy) coming into the office of Spade and Archer, two detectives in business together. She spins them a story about needing to find her sister and hires them to tail a man named Floyd Thursby. Miles Archer tails him, is murdered, and the story is off. Like the movie, it begins right off the bat with no other preamble other than a paragraph describing what Spade looks like. He sets out to uncover what is going on and meets the memorable Joel Cairo, Caspar Gutman and Gutman’s gunman, young Wilmer.

The book is noted for its colorful cast of characters even more than its story, and deservedly so. It’s the same with the movie. And they did such a fantastic job casting – or else I’ve seen the movie way too many times – that when I read I literally hear Humphrey Bogart’s voice saying the lines that I’m reading. I can see Mary Astor move her hands as described, or pause exactly where the pause is written in the book, I can hear Sydney Greenstreet laugh, see Peter Lorre walk and hold his hat with both hands, in front of his stomach. It’s very distracting, at times.

The opening description of Sam Spade, I absolutely could not see. He is described as looking “rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan,” but all I could see was Humphrey Bogart. It wasn’t until the second half of the book began to have more scenes and dialogue that I didn’t recognize that my imagination was able to kick in and Hammett’s description of Spade began to compete with the insistent image of Bogart.

Sam Spade in the book is actually a bit different from Spade in the movie. He is far less appealing than Bogart makes him. In the movie, Bogart is the moral center, which is not to be confused with being a moral person, but he does have a certain code he lives by, unlike any of the other people in the story. In the book, his moral code is far murkier.

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

And he’s a bit like a spoiled child – always “beefing” about the police’s treatment of him, grinding his teeth when frustrated, needling Wilmer, treating his secretary like a bit of a plaything, is ridiculously arrogant and self-assured and, amazingly enough, he gets away with it. Bogart presents a slightly more mature Spade. He keeps his cool better, has no tantrums and doesn’t seem quite so childishly pleased with himself.

If it comes to that, Mary Astor is also a more mature Brigid O’Shaughnessy. In the book, she is quite young – early twenties – and comes off even more helplessly than in the movie, even though she is anything but helpless. There’s lots of hand wringing and buckets of tears and large, frightened eyes. I would argue, however, that Astor’s Brigid is a slightly more complicated Brigid. She shifts character more than Brigid in the book and comes off as more intelligent. Brigid in the book is a liar, but Brigid in the movie is a mega-liar.

It’s not a particularly subtle book. People just come out and say stuff: “he’s queer” (about Joel Cairo) or “can I buy you with my body?” (Brigid O’Shaughnessy to Sam Spade). It’s stuff the movie had to skirt around to pass censorship. It makes the movie far more coy, though still explicit, about what is going on.

Like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett seems to be very interested in the process of detection. Details, even if they are not important, are described. For example, Spade is sent off on a red-herring. The house he is sent to is not important, merely being a place chosen at random, but we still get a description of his interview with the owner and of his search of the place. The important details are contained within other, non-important details. But there are no descriptions of people’s thoughts, their emotions; it’s the ultimate example of show, don’t tell. Spade speaks, his jaw clenches and we are left to infer what he is feeling.

Reading The Maltese Falcon reminded me of when I tried to read a book by Rex Stout called Over My Dead Body, about the detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. The book was so exactly like the TV series episode, with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton, that there was literally nothing new to glean from reading the book. It’s an odd occurrence, because most movies don’t even begin to do justice to the books they are based on. The Maltese Falcon isn’t quite that bad, there really are some new things to learn and it is definitely worth a read – it’s just not as many new aspects as I thought.

Dashiell Hammett also wrote The Thin Man, which was turned into the 1934 movie with William Powell and Myrna Loy. However, unlike The Maltese Falcon, the book is quite different and I couldn’t even begin to see William Powell or Myrna Loy as I was reading. It is rare for me to ever see the actors from a movie while I am reading the book, no matter how good the movie.. Even movies that I adore, that I consider to be fairly faithful to the book they are based on (1995 Pride and Prejudice, with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle) cannot begin to capture the essence of the book I see in my mind. I still don’t see Colin Firth when I read about Mr. Darcy or hear Jennifer Ehle speak the lines…even though many are quite similar. The book is simply to much for a movie. Not so with The Maltese Falcon. It’s hard to imagine a movie doing it better. If it was any better, then the book would be obsolete…which is not something I would ever wish for a book.

 
7 Comments

Posted by on July 18, 2014 in Fiction

 

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