Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Book Was Better

Stolen from http://themovieblog.com 
There is a lot of anticipation surrounding the movie The Great Gatsby, which is due to hit the silver screen for the fourth time on May 10th, and within hours of its first viewing we are certain to hear a chorus of reviews.

Like this:

  • "What a great movie!" 
    - People Who Think Leonardo DiCaprio is Cute

Or maybe this:

  • "It wasn't as good as the TV movie in 2000 with Mira Sorvino and Paul Rudd."
    - People Who Like to Watch TV Movies

Or possibly this:

  • "It wasn't as good as the movie in 1974 with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford."
    - People Older Than 50 / People Who Don't Like Leonardo DiCaprio

Probably not this, but you never know:

  • "It wasn't as good as the movie in 1949 /1926."
    - People Who Like Old Movies

I am going out on a limb here and predicting that the most common review you're going to hear is this:


I have to (shamefully) admit that I have not read the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but in general terms I'm okay with the assessment that movie versions of books aren't as good as the books themselves. I also don't think it's a fair comparison to make because movies are working with a handicap.

A handicap you say? How do you figure? With all the money and star power and marketing and technology at their disposal, how is it possible that they could be at a disadvantage? It's actually quite simple: for all the things movies have going for them, when you get right down to it the advantages are finite. There's only so much money, so many special effects, and only a couple hours to work with to tell the story...

Movies have limitations, imagination does not. 

At the end of the day, the reader constructs their own set of images and all the subtleties and nuances that make the characters and their environment real are (for the most part) in control of the reader. This holds especially true for books where the writer does a particularly good job of showing the reader what's happening without forcing them what to see.

I have never considered myself to be an avid reader (hell, I haven't read The Great Gatsby), but before I traded Homer and Shakespeare for Newton and Einstein I enjoyed it quite a lot. I was, however, absolutely fascinated with movies. I worked in a movie store for several years, took a film class in high school, and at last count (two decades ago) had watched over 5,000 full-length feature films. After all that film watching there is one that, for me, shows that behind every great movie is a great writer. That movie is Pulp Fiction.

Stolen from http://wallsave.com 
The screenplay for Pulp Fiction is an absolute pleasure to read and I'm certain that had it been a book it would have been a great one. Maybe not an all time classic but a spectacular work of writing nonetheless. Even still, I can't help but think that Pulp Fiction is at its absolute best as a movie. It's one example I can think of that showed me the limitations of my imagination.

As it turns out, Pulp Fiction was up for Best Picture with two movies that the Huffington Post lists as being better than their literary originals: Shawshank Redemption and Forrest Gump (the latter getting the Oscar nod). So while it seems possible for a film to rise to the occasion, I would assert that it's an uphill climb that gets even steeper for books that history has deemed "great". Would you put Shawshank Redemption or Forrest Gump in this category? I can't say for sure because I haven't read those books either(!) - but Modern Library doesn't - and neither do the readers they polled. This according to their 100 Best Novels list.

It's worth noting that those readers have 7 of their top 10 books written by either Ayn Rand (4) or L. Ron Hubbard (3), and neither of those two names appear in Modern Library's Top 100, so clearly there's a difference between what the "experts" think and the general public thinks. One thing these two groups can agree on is that The Great Gatsby is a really good book (ML's board ranking it at #2 and their readers ranking it at #13). So, will the latest edition of the movie hold up?

I doubt it.

What I do know is that I should read the book and I'm definitely going to see the movie - and I'll probably enjoy both to a certain degree - but for very different reasons.

~ Andrew

2 comments:

  1. ***DISCLAIMER*** I haven't read Gatsby either.

    I watched an interview with an actor a long time ago where they said theater was a writer's medium and film was a director's medium. Borrowing from that I think the reason many think that BOOKS are better is because they are more personal to us. Books allow us to live vicariously, we can connect emotionally and flex our own imaginations. Movies are a director's canvas. They can take words and replace them with a look. They can paint a mood with a color palette and they can direct your attention where they want without allowing you to see the extra detail an author might. You don't get to use your imagination but instead you are free to explore someone else's.

    I also think the length of a book means that the movie version has to cut out twists, turns and characters that might not squeeze comfortably into 120 minutes. Of course, The Lord of the Rings skewed that trend but its rare to find movies that people want to spend three arse-numbing hours watching. Especially, if there's a good book to read back home.

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    Replies
    1. I had a couple friends say something similar, Gareth, and that's a good way of looking at it - exploring someone else's imagination. I will admit though, that sometimes the stripped down spoon fed shiny people versions of things are just what I need.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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