“The book was better.”
When struck, this oft-wielded rhetorical gavel renders final judgment on big screen adaptations of popular and/or beloved novels. While accurate the vast majority of the time, I find this default pose maddeningly reductive and often very much beside the point.
This idea has been a popcorn kernel in my shoe recently as I’ve found myself in conversations about the movie Gone Girl, of course adapted from the mega-popular 2012 novel by Gillian Flynn.
I loved the book (as I’ve loved all three of Flynn’s books); it’s one of the twistiest, most darkly fun page-turners I’ve read in a while. I eagerly awaited director David Fincher’s take on it since the project (screenplay by Gillian Flynn!) was announced last year.
(For the benefit of those who want to see Gone Girl fresh, uncluttered by my opinions, I’ll refrain from writing about it here. Scroll down below the “Spoiler” warning for my take on the movie, which I liked quite a lot.)
Was the book better? Of course it was. The book is usually better. In most cases, pitting a movie adaptation against the novel it was adapted from is a wholly unfair fight. Authors have as much space as they need to tell the story they want to. Unlimited pages to flesh out characters, build back story, create compelling supporting characters and villains, and do as much world-building as the story requires.
Movies—certainly those with any hope of commercial success—have roughly 100 to 180 minutes to tell their story. This limit in the medium requires strategic pruning, or entire clear-cutting, of scenes, characters, B-plots and back stories. The best (faithful) adaptations use the unique tools at the filmmaker’s disposal—sound, music, cinematography, props, mise-en-scene, lighting, the actors’ performances, etc.—to quickly shorthand or shortcut story elements that authors spend pages on. Even when every element comprising the language of movies is utilized masterfully, a screenplay must be significantly shorter than most any novel.
As such, a booklover who enters a movie adapted from a favorite book hoping to see in the actual movie exactly what s/he conjured in her/his head movie is going to be disappointed, more often than not.
It’s a fact.
There are exceptions, those movies that improved on the books they were based on, like The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs, Goodfellas, The Shawshank Redemption and Wolf of Wall Street. There are, of course, many others that are up for debate as to which is better, like Fight Club, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or The Shining. The best we can usually hope for is for a good, solid, down-the-middle adaptation that honors and matches in quality the source materials, like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Remains of the Day or Schindler’s List.
But to dismiss movie adaptations out-of-hand with a “the-book-was-better” default attitude is to lose out on what movies do better than books. The written word just can’t compete with seeing Speilberg’s Jurassic Park dinosaurs, or Scorsese’s editing, camera work and use of “Gimme Shelter” during the coke-fueled paranoia of Goodfellas’ third act, or Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams’ swirling, pumping disco release in American Hustle.
Yes. The book is better. Most of the time. But even great books can’t do some things that great movies can. They’re different mediums playing with different tools trying to accomplish similar things. I say love them both for what they are.
GONE GIRL BOOK & MOVIE SPOILERS BELOW
Gone Girl, the movie, is one of the stranger cases of book-to-movie adaptations I can think of. While the plot was very faithful to the source materials (aside from judicious pruning of minor plot points and characters) and hit almost every major story beat from the book, the movie’s story was fundamentally different than the book’s. To me, the book read as a darkly sly, taken-to-logical-extremes story of curdled love between two completely selfish narcissists. Nick and Amy were “normal” people living in the real (hyper-real, but real) world…two horrible people who deserved each other.
The movie, however, plays as another entry in the long tradition of the “Crazy Bitch” thriller. Rosamund Pike, the movie’s Amy Dunne, was only missing Glen Close’s fab 80’s Fatal Attraction perm from topping the most famous of the Crazy Bitch thriller antagonist roles. Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne here is a horn-dog man-child who married a psychopath.
The movie’s plot was exactly the same (in all the important ways) as the book’s, but they were fundamentally different stories. Both darkly comic, twisty fun.
(The book was better.)