Thursday, June 26, 2008

Books Versus Movies

Stewart Sternberg had a good post today about movies versus the books that were the basis for them. I thought I’d riff off of it. First let me share my bias. Books are almost always better than movies. And I mean almost always. Stewart mentioned how good the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies were, and how good Silence of the Lambs was with Anthony Hopkins, and he’s absolutely right. They were good, but they still couldn’t touch the books. For me.

I may lose some folks here but this is the way I honestly feel. A good book always beats a good movie. There are no exceptions to this rule. In fact, a decent book generally beats a good movie. Movies have only one advantage over books that I can see. They provide the visuals rather than requiring the viewer to generate them. Personally, I often find this actually to be a weakness. For example, the movie Ghost Story was disappointing because I’d read the book first and the visuals of the movie were so weak in comparison to what I saw in my head. I probably would have liked that movie better if I hadn’t read the book first.

On the other hand, books have the advantage with characterization, mood, emotional involvement, and pretty much everything else. As an analogy, movies are a sugary snack. They temporarily distract your hunger but they don’t satisfy like an actual meal.

Here’s some of my judgments. Who disagrees?

Books that are better than movies:

Silence of the Lambs: Good as a movie, great as a book.
Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Good as movies, tremendous as books.
Dracula: Great as a book, adequate as a movie (the most recent one).
Frankenstein: Wonderful as a book, terrible as a movie.
Congo: Good as a book, very weak as a movie.
Sphere: Good as a book, weak as a movie.
Salem’s Lot: Book is tremendous, movie is decent.
Misery: Tremendous book, good movie.
The Dark Half: Very strong book, adequate movie.
The Mist: Great novella, strong movie.
The Andromeda Strain: Great book, adequate movie (the original)
The Shining: Great book, decent movie.
Pet Semetary: Great book, very weak movie.
Ghost Story: Tremendous book, barely adequate movie.
Red Dragon: Tremendous book, decent movie.
Dune: Tremendous book, bad movie.
2001: Great book, boring movie (except for the ape part at the start)
The Hunt for Red October: The book is better but the movie is good.
First Blood: Much, much better as a book, although the movie was OK.
Marathon Man: Better as a book but not by much.
Watchers: Tremendously better as a book.
Phantoms: So much better as a book that there’s no comparison.
War of the Worlds: Book is much better; movie is pretty decent.
Journey to the Center of the Earth: Book is so much better.
20,000 Leagues under the Sea: Book better.
Treasure Island: Book is much better but the movie is pretty good.
The Man in the Iron Mask: Far better as a book.
The Three Musketeers: This one is a toss up. I liked both.
Robinson Crusoe: Much better as a book.
Swiss Family Robinson: Better as a book but the movie was fun.
The Land that Time Forgot: Book is wonderful, movie is OK.
Fight Club: Better as a book but very good as a movie too.
The Old Man and the Sea: Tremendously better as a book.
Cannery Row: Better as a book but pretty damn close as a movie.
Ice Station Zebra: Extremely good book, almost as good a movie.
The Wolfen: So much better as a book.
The Dark: A much better book but interesting as a movie.
Black Sunday: Much better as a book. Pretty bad movie.
The Black Stallion: Much better as a book.
In the Name of the Rose: Very good book, pretty good movie.
The Haunting of Hill House: So, so, much better book. Movie sucks.
Deliverance: Better as a book but pretty good as a movie.
Prophecy: Bad as a book and a movie, but slightly better as a book.
Day of the Triffids: Much, much better as a book.
Lord of the Flies: Much better as a book but decent as a movie.
Fahrenheit 451: Good as a book and a movie but a better book.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Good movie, great book.
Eaters of the Dead: Better as a book but only slightly. As The 13th Warrior it was an extremely good film, one of my favorites of all time.

Movies that are better than books:

The Exorcist: Very good as a movie and only decent as a book.
Jaws: Pretty decent as a book but better as a movie.

Blade Runner: This is a close decision but I think the movie was slightly better than the book, which is entitled “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” I actually go back and forth on this one. It's very close.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Slightly better as a movie, and I mean the original and first remake.

The Handmaid’s Tale: I didn’t care for either that much but maybe the movie was a touch better.

The Dead Zone: Both book and movie were weak but I’d say it was somewhat better as a movie. There were fewer boring parts.

The Stand: Not terribly good as a book or as a movie. Better as a movie because it’s shorter.

Jurassic Park: I thought the movie was actually better than the book although I enjoyed both.

The Wizard of Oz: The movie is tremendously better than the book, which is horribly written.

The Outlaw Josey Wales: The movie is so, so much better than the book.

So what do you think? Tell me where I’m all wet. Are there advantages of movies over books that I've missed?


Barrie said...

Sorry, I can't disagree. I prefer the book. Too much detail gets left out in movies, so I end up sitting in the theatre or on my couch, wondering what parts are missing. Plus, I prefer reading over going to the movies.

the walking man said...

I actually have read most of the books on your list and agree with the assessments.

In the navy the only book I took to sea with me was The Godfather...I've watched the movie several times but it was the book that enabled the movie.

Steve Malley said...

I actually preferred the movie Fight Club to the book: they wonderfully plundered all the best bits of narrative in (mostly) voiceover, then added layer on layer of storytelling. I found the cinema result wittier, more ironic and, oddly, deeper in characterization.

I say oddly, because these are the areas you'd expect a novel to succeed.

Usually, the movies you'd expect to see trump the novels are the most purely visual in their impact:

Matrix, the novel...
Star Wars, the novel...
Bullitt, the chapter with the chase scene...
Once Upon a Time in the West, chapters 1-9, the train comes...

Greg said...

I agree with pretty much everything on your list, except Fight Club... I think it's the one movie I've seen that didn't have anything taken away in the transition from paper to film. They did a great job making that one.

A couple other movies that couldn't hold a flame to the book:

- Shooter (the book was Point of Impact)
- Dreamcatcher
- It

There are some movies I've seen that I couldn't imagine reading as a book, like 300, The Departed, and Die Hard.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Sometimes we're disappointed in the movie based on who plays the lead role. If you're not a Clint Eastwood fan, maybe you preferred the book on The Outlaw Josey Wales instead.

I'd like to see "A Confederacy of Dunces" made into a movie. However, I had visualized John Candy playing the lead role; unfortunately, he's dead. Does this mean I would be disappointed in the movie version (if it's ever made)? Probably.

...and don't get me started on the latest Ayn Rand book to movie scenario.

Bernita said...

I did like LOR better than the book.
Otherwise usually the book is better.

Paul R. McNamee said...

I disagree with your choice of Eaters of the Dead. I believe the movie is better. I thought the book was dry when it came to the characters. The movie really brought them to life.

I agree with Jaws but I didn't think the novel was good - I thought it was poor, in fact. The movie is better storytelling because Spielberg was smart enough to move the heroes into the world (the ocean) and keep them there. Compare that to the novel which was too realistic - the boat kept coming home every night until the job was done.

One you missed - Planet of the Apes. The movie (1968) was far more exciting, interesting, and again - better storytelling - than the original novel.

Just my opinions.

Heff said...

I must disagree on ONE front.

Porn MOVIE ALWAYS beats Porn book.

Sorry, I HAD to go there.

laughingwolf said...

i concur with your observations

i have not read many of the books you list, nor seen all the flicks

more to do... in my dotage ;) lol

Randy Johnson said...

You get no argument from me. Always like books better.
The Shawshank Redemption: slightly better than the novella
The Green Mile: much prefer the movie.

Other thoughts:
Hannibal: hated the book, never watched the movie. Friends have told me the movie actually improved the story.
I agree with The Outlaw Josey Wales. Probably my favorite Clint Eastwood film, with the possible exception of Unforgiven.

BernardL said...

I prefer books, and am frequently disappointed in movie versions. The Outlaw Josie Wales is the best illustration you gave as an exception. Eaters Of The Dead vs Thirteenth Warrior. That's a close one. I've watched Thirteenth Warrior so many times, my wife destroyed the DVD. :) The Stand, Exorcist, and Dead Zone are three of my favorite books, so I'll disagree on those. :)

Randy Johnson said...

More thoughts:
When you add The Mist to my two selections, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, they all have one thing in common. Frank Darabont wrote the scripts and directed the movies.
Didn't much care for The Eaters of The Dead. Therefor, I've never watched The Thirteenth Warrior.
Loved Bladerunner, but never understood the title. They took it from an Alan E. Nourse novel, buying the rights just to use the title. I guess the original might be a little too much for the average moviegoer.

Charles Gramlich said...

Barrie, me too, Reading is both more relaxing and more stimulating at the same time.

Mark, I've actually never been able to sit all the way through the movie The Godfather but I should try the book. I bet I would like it better.

Steve Malley, I didn't know "once upon a time in the west" was a book. I'll have to get it. I love that movie, though. I did think Fight Club was an excellent movie. Very enjoyable. And yes, the more visual the story the more difficult the transition to print. I'd have a hard time reading The Matrix as a book I think.

Greg Schwartz, yes, Fight Club was well done but I really did like that book. I've seen the movies of those three books you mention but haven't read the books. I didn't actually care much for any of those movies so I'm reluctant to read the books.

JR, the book "The outlaw Josey Wales" was so badly written I'd have preferred the movie with Ben Stiller even.

Bernita, I enjoyed those movies a lot but still like the books better.

Paul, I do remember the book Jaws as barely adequate. I really enjoyed Eaters of the Dead but yes, I loved the movie. That's one of only about 5 movies I've ever actually bought a copy of to have. It was still a different and less detailed experience for me than the book. You're right about the movie version of "Planet of the Apes." I need to add that one to my list.

Heff, trust you to find the loophole in my logic.

Charles Gramlich said...

My comments are in two parts because breakfast intervened. Lol. If you don't see a response to your comments here, I'll post them in a bit after I eat.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

Fascinating list. I spent a good deal of time alternating between nodding and shaking my head.

You know, one thought I've been mulling over is how people who are held captive by a book should take a step back and try to totally divorce themselves from that experience when enjoying a film. It's hard. Very hard. Expectations from the book tend to overwhelm someone. I mean, when I consider how I tittered at the thought of "Something Wicked This Way Comes" being brought to film, there was no way any motion picture was going to meet that expectation.

So, I tend to argue that each medium should be approached as a separate entity. IUt's hard though. Very hard.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, I was actually surprised when I started making the list how many movies I've seen.

Randy, I didn't like the movie Hannibal or care much for the book but would rate the book slightly higher. I did like Shawshank redemption as a movie but haven't read the story. I also haven't read The Green Mile and I didn't like it nearly as much as a movie as "Redemption" or "Mist." Unforgiven is a great movie. It's a hard choice between that one and Josey Wales but maybe I like Wales a bit better. I didn't know that about the title of Bladerunner. It didn't make much sense for sure.

Bernardl, I really though the Stand went on and on. The opening part was dynamite. But I didn't care for the mystical part in the middle much. The 13th warrior is one of my favorite movies as well.

Stewart Sternberg, I think you're absolutely right, and is one reason why I prefer, if possible, to see movies first. That usually doesn't detract from my enjoyment of the book while reading the book first can easily "ruin" a movie for me.

laughingwolf said...

i could sit all day and not recall half of those i saw...

Anonymous said...

Re: Steve's comment "Once Upon a Time in the West, chapters 1-9, the train comes..."

That had me laughing out loud. Charles - I think you missed his point ;-)

tykobrie said...

Hi Charles, I'm a complete novice at blogging but I read your post and liked it very much. One film that's so much worse that the book (to me anyway) is Captain Correlli's Mandoline.

Sam said...

I agree with the whole list except for Jurassic Park - the science was weak in the book, and nonexistant in the movie. Ugh.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

First, Heff, I disagree. Well written erotica is - er- heads and shoulders above a porn movie.

Now, some of these movies have more than one version. You have to take that into account as well.

I want to add some to the list:

Lion Witch and the Wardrobe: Movie excellent, book better in some parts, however movie leaves out preaching tone of author.

Prince Caspian: See above

Harriet the Spy: Oh, that's close. Too close. They're both really good.

Bridget Jones Diary: Book great, movie good.

Bridget Jones Diary the sequel: Not as good. Movie bordered on a bad.

Le Divorce: I actually preferred the movie because they made the narrator much more likable. In the book she's extremely selfish and self-involved.

Little Woman: Better book, still good movie, whichever one you see.

Stardust: Superb book. Excellent movie (and a happier ending).

Christmas Carol: Any version, written, played on stage, or made into a movie is great, IMHO. They all have their weaknesses, but they all have their strengths as well. The only exception is the musical from the 70s. Stay away from that one.

I'm with Stewart. I see the movie and book as two entirely separate entities. In fact, though I used to like to read the book before I saw the movie, I now either read it months before hand or after the movie. So that neither interferes with the other.

X. Dell said...

Hmm. There are a lot of movies I've seen here without reading the book, and a lot of the books I've read without seeing the movie. Have to agree with Wizard of Oz.

One thing about Phil Dick was that the movies so thoroughly changed the tone of his work that I really couldn't care for the films as much as I did his original stories--including Bladerunner. For once, I'd like to see a director really go for the whimsical and sarcastic side of a Dick story.

X. Dell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
X. Dell said...

Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single movie I liked better than a book except for The Wizard of Oz.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, I had to have Lana's help. She came up with half the list.

Jon, oh I figured teh chapters 1-9 thing was a joke on how long it took for the train to arrive, but I thought it might actually have been turned into a book. Joe Millard wrote novelizations of all the Clint Eastwood Spaghettie westerns and even did some original ones based upon the "Man with No Name" character.

Tykobrie, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Good luck with your blogging. I'll check it out.

Rachel, good point about the erotica. I didn't think of that. I haven't seen most of these but "A Christmas Carol" is a good example. What a great book but there have been some good movies.

X-Dell, I actually hesitated about putting "Blade Runner" on here for that reason. And that's why I didn't consider Conan the Barbarian or the Kull movie.

Cath said...

I cannot disagree except for LOTR trilogy - absolutely fantastic writing, BUT very heavy going in places and takes some dedication. Many who love LOTR would never have known the fantastic story if it were not for the movie. I thought the movie btw was very close to the book, and consequently very successful (all three of them.)

Great review.

Cath said...

PS - Books beat movies most of the time for me. Watership Down (Richard Adams) was much better as a book. And that was my opinion at 12 year old. ;0)

I rarely watch a movie of a book until AFTER I have read the book. I rarely need to watch the film now as I generally would not enjoy it, constantly comparing it to the book.

If I happen to see a film, I rarely read the book of the film because I often find the characters have been already immortalised in the actors/actresses, and this spoils a good read.
Consequently, there are few movies I go to see. I'd much rather have a book. Good movies to me are those not based on books. There are some exceptions of course...

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, most of the time the book is better than the movie. I haven't read most of these books, so I can't comment on them. I did read the Stand. I have mixed feelings about the Stand. I like it better than the movie because there is more detail. But, that's also the reason I have mixed feelings, because the book has so much detail. I love the movie Josey Wales, but I haven't read the book.

writtenwyrdd said...

I have to agree with you at least 80% of the time, Charles.

I did like Handmade Tale a lot, though, and thought the Oz books were wonderful, with the exception of the first one. The movie was good, but not as good as the book.

I have to agree that usually books are far better than the movies made from them. The visual media forces the story to be what can be told visually or verbally. No thinking, no nuances, no expository writing or gorgeous language to deepen my involvement.

And I loved teh original version of The Stand. King's rerelease sucked, especially the changed ending.

Have you read Fire Starter? Good book, horrible movie.

Charles Gramlich said...

Crazycath, I don't watch a lot of movies. In fact, I probably watch only a dozen or so a year via PPV, and typically none at the theater. I typically watch movies after they've been on TV. I just typically don't care much for them. I did really enjoy the LOTR movies.

Jack, you're not missing anything by not reading the book about Josey Wales. The Stand had a horribly sagging middle to me, but it started out gangbusters.

Writtenwyrd, I haven't read Firestart, although I saw the bad movie. I probably would have liked the Wizard of Oz as a book if I'd read it as a kid but I read it as an adult and thought it was godawful where the action scenes were concnered.

ivan said...


Like Ringo Starr might say, I am neither a Mod, nor a Rocker. Just a mocker.

Clear the track! Hand car coming!

Travis Cody said...

This is a great discussion topic. I'll have to come back this weekend and read through the comments.

For me, I think I can love a book and the movie...just in different ways. I think I am more often disappointed in a movie when I have read the book, than disappointed in book I'm reading after I see a movie.

I do get annoyed sometimes when a movie strays too far from the basic character or plot that is intrisic to the book. I have that problem with Interview with the Vampire. It's a good book, but the movie changes Louis' basic motivations, which ruins the movie.

Lisa said...

Great post! I agree with a couple of people that the "Fight Club" film adaptation was actually an improvement on the book, even though I liked the book.

I'm surprised that you didn't like "The Stand". I always thought it was one of King's best, and I thought the book was much better than the movie. Ditto for "The Shining" -- the book was much better than either movie.

I'd also add "The Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden". Both movies were very popular, but didn't touch the books.

I think what we're seeing less of is books and movies that both really take advantage of the things unique to each medium. For example, there's something great about a novel that really can't be adapted to film, and there's something great about film makers who do things with film that are only possible on film.

Erik Donald France said...

Hey Charles,

food for thought, certainly. I did a post on movies better than books a little ways back and came up with maybe five -- I'd include Wonder Boys for now. The book was fun, but they made cuts in the right places.

Anyway, it's all fascinating.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis, I should learn to love movies and books differently, but I always find myself comparing the two and movies come up so badly lacking. After I watch a movie I feel like, hey, I coulda been reading.

Lisa, I very much enjoyed The Stand's opening as a post apocalyptic kind of tale, until the mumbo jumbo started and the middle sagged for three hundred pages. After that I just went away.
Your point about movies focusing on what they are good at is a good one. I tend to like a movie where they blow shit up because you can do that better in a movie than a book.

Erik, I haven't seen Wonder boys although I thought I'd probably enjoy that one.

Leon said...

I agree! In fact, I generally will not go to see a movie if I've read the book on which it is based. I just got tired of being disappointed1 The same also tends to hold true of movies based on plays; I've seen cases where major characters disappeared in the screenplays.

laughingwolf said...

i see google continues to eat some of my posts :(

Donnetta said...

I think you're pretty much "right on" Charles. Makes me want to go back and reread some books--and go out and pick up a couple of DVDs as well! Clever post.

Charles Gramlich said...

Leon, I'm the same, unless I read the book long before. I've seen that done with plays as well. Troubling, even if I understand that the limits of the medium require it.

Laughingwolf, sorry about that.

Donnetta, thankee. It was a kind of fun post.

cs harris said...

Books can tell such a richer tale, with subplots that amplify the main theme and throw new light on the characters, that I find it amazing when someone produces a great screenplay from a book. I wouldn't want to try it.

The times I've seen movies that far surpassed the books--Absolute Power comes to mind--it's usually a "bestseller" that shot to stardom on the strength of a high concept that was executed badly by the author. In the hands of an experienced screenwriter, the mess can be sorted out so that the concept shines.

Lisa said...

Chiming back in to agree with "The Wonder Boys" -- loved the movie!

Shauna Roberts said...

I too prefer the book. I even usually prefer novelizations of movies to the movies themselves.

laughingwolf said...

np charles... seems to be a habit with the site at times

Travis Erwin said...

Forrest Gump was better as a movie.

Mimi Lenox said...

Wizard of Oz was terribly written. The movie is magic and I never tire of it.

Michelle's Spell said...

One book that stands up as both movie and book is Last Picture Show. Both terribly brilliant! But Larry M. wrote the book and script which I think makes a big difference. I agree with your lists -- Wizard Of Oz especially.

Leon said...

One exception: I found the film version of Kite Runner to be as good as the book; different in a few places but still an outstanding, moving film.

Charles Gramlich said...

Candice, I haven't seen Absolute Power. But yes, I could see a high concept that was poorly executed might be improved by a good screenwriter.

Lisa, I'll have to see that one.

Shauna, you know, I've had that experience as well. I've liked quite a few novelizations better than the movies.

Laughingwolf, yep. For sure.

Travis Erwin, I didn't know it was a book.

Mimi, I agree about "The Wizard of OZ" as a book. Awful. But I do like the movie.

Michelle, I can see how having the author of the book involved in the movie might improve it. I haven't read the book to "the Last picture show." Yes, indeed on OZ.

Leon, I haven't see that movie or read the book yet. I probably will read the book at some point. I'm often way behind on my new releases.

Sarai said...

I agree I have always preferred the books to the movies. In fact we had a rule at my house growing up. I had to read the book first then and only then would my parents rent or take me to the movies. To this day I stick with that rule and I haven't regretted it!