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Allan Emerson's Blog

You read the book; did you see the movie?

I’ve seen lots of movies based on books I’ve read, and often was disappointed in the film version. Other times, I found the film version an excellent realization of the book.

A movie that falls into the latter category for me is Gone Girl. I thought the book was brilliant—an impressive show of technique with two alternating first-person points of view—and it had a story that kept me guessing right to the end. I thought the movie was equally good. Even though I knew the outcome, the script, acting, and direction were so compelling the picture held my interest from start to finish.

Sometimes, it’s the way a movie is presented that turns me off. Yann Martel’s terrific novel, The Life of Pi, was spoiled for me as a movie by the 3-D format in which it was presented. I hated the special glasses I had to wear, and when I tried watching without them the screen became one big blur. Even with the glasses on, the film images wobbled like a drunk on a treadmill. The 3-D gimmick may be great for films about Godzilla, but I came out of the theater agreeing with one critic who said it was like watching a movie projected on blocks of Jello.

Occasionally, there’s a “novelization” of a movie—a book based on a film. Gladiator, and Snakes on a Plane got this treatment. I saw the first movie, but haven’t read the novels based on either. When I have read novelizations of movies, I’ve found them pretty disappointing. (And let’s face it—nobody could make Snakes on a Plane into a book worth reading.)

The 1977 novel, The Amityville Horror, has been spawning sequels for 30 years. One of them (The Amityville Haunting) released in 2011, was a “found footage” direct-to-video film. This kind of horror movie tells the story via amateur video footage supposedly made by the characters and found after horrible events have occurred. It features jerky, out-of-focus shots, confusing jump-cuts and often unintelligible sound.

The Blair Witch Project, which was a big success about fifteen years ago was probably the first to use the "found footage" approach, and the one that taught me they’re not for me. Not only did I dislike the picture, it’s the only movie I’ve ever seen that caused me actual physical pain—I left the theatre with a migraine triggered by the erratic cinematography. First time a movie was actually a pain physically, as well as mentally. Other movie-goers didn’t agree; the picture was a huge success.

A movie I thought captured a book well was Emma Thompson’s version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Thompson’s script for the film (in which she also acted) skillfully evoked Austen’s time and the attitudes of the era. Thompson took some minor liberties with the book to make the story more comprehensible to modern audiences, but overall I thought she understood and respected the source material.

Some people argue that while a book may inspire a film, film is a separate art form, and can’t be expected to present a story in the same way a book does. This seems reasonable, but movie producers sometimes try to have it both ways by using a book’s success to publicize a film, while significantly departing from the book’s spirit or story. An example of this was the movie version of Jodi Picoult's book My Sister's Keeper. In the book and film, one sister dies and one survives, but in spite of the author's protests, the film version changed which sister survived.

What movies based on novels have you seen, and how well did you feel they captured the story from the book? If it’s a good movie, do you care if the hero lives happily ever after, even though he died in the book?

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