Beloved stories: Books vs. movies or miniseries
This isn’t necessarily about whether the book is better.
(Except for “The Godfather.”)
(And “Jaws.” And definitely “The Devil Wears Prada.”)
(Let’s just agree that it’s subjective and complicated.)
It’s about abiding love and full-body cringes, the soul-deep kind that can cause actual, physical pain. It’s emotionally akin to having a 39-year-old timeshare salesman show up on your doorstep to take your 16-year-old daughter out. It’s about hope and often betrayal.
It’s about seeing a book you love turned into a movie or TV show.
With Season Two of “Poldark” premiering at 7 p.m. Sunday on Masterpiece Classic on Rocky Mountain PBS (rmpbs.org), it’s the right time to consider the particular angst of seeing “your” story, your beloved, your darling, appropriated by someone else and told completely wrong because he doesn’t look like that and she would never say that!
This is not to besmirch “Poldark,” of course. The BBC series is excellent, arguably better than Winston Graham’s 12-novel series upon which it is based.
It tells the story of Ross Poldark, a British veteran of the American Revolutionary War, who returns home to Cornwall to find his father dead, his estate in ruins and his fiancee about to marry his cousin.
When last we saw him (in the BBC series), he’d been arrested for murder, and it’s all very exciting and dramatic and there even was a shipwreck. It’s great, but it’s not the book.
This, then, is often the problem: It’s not the book.
“It’s rare that a movie lives up to the promise of a really good book,” said Carole O’Brien, manager of Book Train in Glenwood Springs. “Part of that is a time constraint. With a book you can do so much detail and background and description that a movie just can’t in two or three hours.”
Even films such as Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” series, which clocked in at four hours each, still necessarily cut swaths of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. That’s where it can start to hurt.
“Doesn’t that happen a lot?” agreed Marya Johnston, owner of Out West Books in Grand Junction. “We were talking just this morning about the book ‘Wild’ and how things that we thought were important in the book, they left out of the movie.”
Perhaps the problem is that reading becomes an act of ownership: To spend time with a book, to take it in, to walk with it, to live with it or even live inside it, to worry for it, to fight with it, to fall for it — this makes the story yours.
To love a book is to build a little nest for it deep inside your heart, and there it lives, its characters your constant friends and companions.
“When I read a book, I put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it — or rather, it is like living it. It makes reading so much more exciting,” wrote Dodie Smith in “I Capture the Castle,” and that’s it exactly.
Then along comes some clod-footed filmmaker, crass and rough-handed, to manhandle your baby, and this is where the cringing starts.
“When we read, we picture in our mind’s eye what we’re seeing,” O’Brien said. “If you go to the movie and the director’s vision isn’t your vision, that can be really disappointing, because as you’re reading maybe you’re casting your favorite actors, or you just have an image of that person and it might not fit what you see on screen.”
There’s a quote floating around cyberspace, attributed to Stephen King and possibly apocryphal, that observes, “Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different.”
So, maybe the solution is to keep the two separate, to approach the movie as a vaguely familiar story, but certainly not one you love, populated by characters you count as friends. Because it’s never going to be the same, even in excellent adaptations that are faithful and true to the story and the author’s perceived intent.
Plus, if we’re being honest, sometimes the movie can help a book along.
“‘The Last of the Mohicans’ is the story that I have most recently experienced in both formats,” said James Price, head of literacy services at Mesa County Libraries. “I loved the movie growing up, so I was intrigued by the novel. Warning: don’t expect the movie from this book!
“It turns out that the movie is a very, very loose interpretation of the source material. They share character names… and that’s about it. They have completely different characters falling in love, dying, or adding importance to the storyline. Since they are so completely different, I have no problem saying that the movie is a much more entertaining affair than the novel.”
Any book and movie lover probably can cite similar examples of the two either being different enough or the movie enhancing the source material enough that both are enriched (sorry, Margaret Mitchell, but your prose can be too much and Clark Gable makes everything better).
That, however, seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
Johnston said that a quick poll of her customers Wednesday afternoon revealed most could immediately think of one or more examples in which they cringed seeing a book turned into the movie: “Dune,” “The Golden Compass,” “The Hunger Games,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Cat in the Hat” ...
To truly satisfy book lovers, most adaptations would need to be 27 hours long and exclude not a single detail or snippet of dialogue, plus grant final casting, script, cinematography, location, soundtrack and editing approval to anyone who loves or ever loved that book.
You see where it gets complicated.
So, book lovers get selective about what they will and won’t see. O’Brien said she loved “The Light Between Oceans” by M.L. Stedman, so she probably won’t see the movie, which opened Sept. 2.
And some books are beloved enough — the Harry Potter series is a good example — that readers are willing to compromise a little on what they see in their minds because they just want to live with the stories some more.
Otherwise, they creep into the theater with trepidation, cringing, and yet still hoping to see something good, something familiar, something beloved.