Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Decently and In Order

A comment left by Hamlette on my review of War and Peace last week got me thinking in a new way about the question of whether it's better to read the book before watching the movie or not. She said she often enjoys reading the book afterwards for the pleasure of discovering all the things that weren't in the movie, rather than watching the movie with the consciousness of all the things that are being left out. And that reminded me of my own experience reading several very good novels after having seen the film adaptations, which I'd liked simply as movies for their own sake. I started tallying up the numbers of book/film combinations I'd experienced in this order, and here's a few of the best examples:

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
National Velvet by Enid Bagnold
Random Harvest by James Hilton
All This, and Heaven Too by Rachel Field
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther
Shane by Jack Schafer
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Life With Father by Clarence Day
Mama's Bank Account [I Remember Mama] by Kathryn Forbes
Old Yeller by Fred Gipson
Green For Danger by Christianna Brand
No Highway [in the Sky] by Nevil Shute
[The] Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
They Were Expendable by William L. White
The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington
The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan

Those are all good movies as well as good books. Most of them are very good adaptations, too (National Velvet and, to a lesser degree, Green For Danger are examples of book and movie being very different, but each good in its own way). The question is, would I have ever liked the movies so much if I'd read the book first? 

For argument's sake I've left out those where I simply didn't like the book—that always happens now and again. (I also left out miniseries, which are another thing altogether, and Jane Austen adaptations, which are practically a genre unto themselves.) And once in a while a film adaptation actually has a slight edge—I think the stage/film version of Life With Father outsparkles its source material just a bit; and I still prefer the film version of Friendly Persuasion to the book. Alice Adams kind of breaks even because of the slight differences between book and film; I liked some things a little better in each.

Nonfiction adaptations are a bit of a different creature—there's dramatic license taken, of course, which for some reason seems easier to put up with than the mangling of a fictional creation. (I wonder why that is? Perhaps it's because with fiction, each reader forms a stronger individual conception of what the story should be like; while the facts of nonfiction already exist independent of the reader's and author's minds.) But if you don't know all the facts beforehand, you don't have to spend the movie growling over that dramatic license. And for me, reading a nonfiction book after seeing its adaptation fills in details that give the film even more of an impact. It's one thing to watch a scene of glider troops landing in The Longest Day; it's another to read how a shortage of pilots meant that some glider planes had to be landed by totally untrained troopers if a pilot was wounded. The incident of an MTB's engine clogging because of sabotaged gasoline in They Were Expendable takes on more significance if you read how the squadron's entire supply of gasoline had been sabotaged, the effect it had on their motors and how that affected their missions through the entire campaign.

Now, for comparison, here's some of the books I read before seeing a movie adaption:

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
My Friend Flicka by Mary O'Hara
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Witness For the Prosecution by Agatha Christie

Interestingly, my reaction to a lot of these movies followed the same pattern: "Decent movie, but nothing compared to the book." Of course, the actual quality of these adaptations varies. Anna Karenina ('35) is pretty limp by any standard; My Friend Flicka and Johnny Tremain are colorless and trivial when compared to the books, and no version of Treasure Island that I've seen has ever quite got it right. On the other hand, Little Lord Fauntleroy ('36) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips ('39) were both very good and very accurate—Goodbye, Mr. Chips is probably the only one off this list where I can say I like book and film equally (worth noting, it's by far the shortest book here; much easier to adapt!). Several off this list are indeed pretty good movies, but there are few that I like as well as the titles on the first list. The interesting question is, would I have been quite so unimpressed if I hadn't read the books first?

So what do you think? Do you prefer to read the book or watch the movie first? Do you think you'd be inclined to like a movie better if you're not comparing it to the book as you watch?


Jack said...

It is rare I find a book movie adaption I do not like. But the idea of watching the movie before the book is a good one I think. I bet more people would like movies if they did that.

Hamlette said...

A lot of times, I also figure that a movie takes me two hours or so to watch, but a book takes longer, so I watch the movie first, and then if I like it and want to know more, I read the book.