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To Read or Not To Read?

Every year hundreds of books are adapted into movies. The adaptation process is (if Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are to be believed) hell for the writer – but it’s also somewhat of a complex question for the film reviewer. Unlike the few films these days that have started their life as a script and have never before been offered to the public, the ideas, themes, characters and contents of the work now being produced as a blockbuster have all been let loose years ago. If reviewers should aspire to be educated in what they review, should they read the books before they see the films in order to properly judge them, or should the film itself stand on its own two feet to be judged as a success or failure on its own merits? On a more superficial level, is a reviewer better able to access what the audience expects from the film if they’ve read the book or should they act on the presumption that few moviegoers read the original work? Should they even care – is an attitude towards literary adaptations necessary for consistency in a film reviewer?

Book him, Leo...

Book him, Leo...

I am not consistent. I have read several books that were turned into films I had never heard of and then sought out those films, I’ve read several books that were scheduled for release in months and weeks to come, I’ve read several books of films I’ve already seen. And each of those influences how I viewed the film, whether in retrospect or proactively. For example, I doubt I would have been so forgiving of Watchmen‘s glaring flaws had I not read the original Alan Moore novel and seen the core themes dripping slowly through the very confused direction. David Lynch’s Dune makes slightly more sense since I read the book and Steven Speilberg’s Jaws seems far more original than a movie based on a novel by Peter Benchley (because all it borrows is the shark, ignoring a complicated sexual subplot).

These are aspects of the film which only make sense to someone who has read the novel that inspired the work. To take two recent examples, the response of those who read Revolutionary Road was staunchly different from the reaction of the general viewing public. The general public (including myself) saw a depressing and soul-destroying exploration of the numbing effect of suburbia, whereas those who read the book (including my girlfriend) saw the softened edges and the sapped potential. Our roles were reversed for Watchmen, where she saw a sodding mess of an overly-complex and self-absorbed film and I saw a flawed but noble attempt to pay homage to one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. Admittedly there were really three camps when it came to Watchmen: those who hadn’t read the book and were confused, those who read the book and appreciated the attempt to transfer it screen, and those who read the book and believed it should have stayed on the printed page. But I’ve already aired my views on that.

It’s also possible for reading a book to spoil the ending of a film. I hear there’s a doozy of a twist at the end of the unfortunately-delayed Shutter Island for example, which I could glean by reading the book. If I read the book, the ending won’t surprise me – but should it? Arguably a twist in an adaptation isn’t really a twist, since we know it’s coming, right? It isn’t a twist that Tom Cruise fails to kill Hitler, becase history taught us how it ends, right? And it isn’t a twist if we’ve already seen an early version of a movie being remade, is it?

Which brings me to a good point, is it more reasonable to expect a critic to watch the original version of a movie being remade? Should I watch the original movie that inspired Inglourious Basterds in order to fully appreciate Tarantino’s mindset for his own take on the tale? Or should I view 8 1/2 in order to construct a valuable opinion on the upcoming Nine? What about prequels and sequels? Need I watch Raiders of the Lost Ark in order to offer a valid criticism of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Or should I view each movie on its own merits? Or is it possible to do so? Is it more valid to compare a movie to what came before or treat it as its own self-contained entity?

The event that inspires this post happened a good few years ago now. I was reviewing films for the campus radio station and I had the gaul to review The Chronicles of Narnia having never read the book. My girlfriend was shocked. In fairness, she has a slightly more legitimate case than usual – the books are childhood classics and the film isn’t. The odds of the average person buying a ticket from Narnia having read the C.S. Lewis books is significantly higher than the chances of the average viewer of The Dark Knight having read The Long Halloween, for example. Did I owe the film enough to treat it as a companion piece, on the basis that a large portion of the audience would treat it as such anyway? Or do I owe any duty to my audience at all? That’s a bigger question, I suppose, and one I find myself frequently dancing around.

I tend not to worry about such things, though – to be honest. I’ve read some of the bigger film works. For example, I’ve read The Godfather, and I tried to read The Lord of the Rings (I loved The Hobbit, before the angry masses descend upon me), and I have read Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Mist. And what I’ve found, by and by, is that truly great films can stand on their own two feet. You’d be hardpressed to find anyone who deems The Godfather and The Godfather Part II inferior to the original books, or anyone who doesn’t accept that Peter Jackson’s trilogy succeeded on its own count, or even that those Steven King adaptations surpase the source material. The really solid films work with or without the original material. Sure, you might get an original insight or character motivation from the book, but the film and actor hinted at it. Or you might notice a minor technical or pacing difference, but the film got there in the end.

Books and films are separate mediums and – while it’s fun to watch them interact – it’s generally of secondary concern. I’ve read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but when it hits cinemas I shan’t grade it on fidelity to the source material, but on whether it works as a film. Sure, if it ends up being a good or even a very good film, I may prop it up by reference to the outstanding original work, but if it is great it will stand on its own two feet. Maybe I’ll acknowledge the novel that stands beside it, maybe I won’t notice it at all. All I know is that the film itself is standing tall.

Still, it is fun to talk about and to consider.

One Response

  1. Though I’m a reader as much as a movie watcher, I have a policy of not dismissing movies based on books out of hand. And I always read the book before I see the movie. The films, for the most part, always end up surprising me — either by how bad they are or by how adeptly the directors captured the spirit of the characters, the beauty of the setting (particularly true in “Gone, Baby, Gone” and “Mystic River”), etc.

    Some first-rate films based on books:
    * “To Kill a Mockingbird”
    * “Notes on a Scandal”
    * “Thank You for Smoking”
    * “The Princess Bride”
    * “Harold and Maude”

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