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Monday, March 03, 2014

Books Where The Movie Is Better

The post was inspired by someone commenting on my Amazon review of "How to Train Your Dragon" by Cressida Cowell. The person replied (paraphrased from the badly spelled typography) "You recommended to kids that they choose the movie over the book? For shame."

Damn right, for shame. I'll take my shame all the way to the bank. Do you know how many terrible products are out there for kids? Movies, especially. Because parents will do anything to get their kids to shut up for ninety minutes and kids can't work the DVD player. Plus they've had so little life experience they don't know how to tell the good from the bad. So, yes, I would rather my kid see a good movie than read a bad book. Here's a few examples.

Mary Poppins


I consider this to have the biggest Bad-Book-to-Good-Movie gap. I haven't seen "Saving Mr. Banks" yet (I plan to), but I think I can conjecture what Walt was thinking. The book contains disconnected stories, stodgy British characters, and a stifled imagination. Disney saw the potential in the story and enhanced it like a photo in CSI. The right cast, the right songs, the right sets. Not to mention the story, the themes, the motifs are spot on.

Quite simply, Disney nailed it.  I can't think of many family movies that are better. And the book completely lacks any of the enchantment or whimsy. It's poorly written to be accessible to kids and the characters just act crabby. And need I mention the excised chapter where they go on a racist adventure to Africa?

Forrest Gump


In the book, Forrest becomes a professional wrestler. He wears a brown body stocking, greases himself up, and goes under the moniker "The Turd". Need I say more?

This book is not a quirky look at the baby boomer generation. This is a sleazy farce about a retarded man from the south. There's no charm, no inspiration, no romance. Forrest Gump is a selfish jerk. He's the one that screws up his relationship with Jenny, not her. Instead of going to Vietnam, he gets into the space program and goes up in a rocket with an orangutan. Then he crash-lands on a desert island populated by cannibals. Do you see what I'm saying? The plot is like a contrived children's book for adults. Like a one-year-old tried to write like Lewis Grizzard. How Robert Zemeckis saw an oscar-winning movie in this, I'll never know. But that's why I'm not in the business.

Bridge to Terabithia


The movie actually follows the book pretty closely. The problem is that it never updates the material.  And adds in all this too-perfect Disney bullshit. Everything is "so magical". Every unimportant thing is wide-eyed, wondrous, imaginative whimsy enough to make one puke.

The movie takes the visualizations of their "imaginary adventures" too far. Or so the advertising would have you believe. To the point it sucks the life out of them with scenes full of CGI that go nowhere. It tries to make Terabithia the end-all-be-all of the plot.  The book uses it as a vehicle for better scenes the movie skips, like dealing with the stock bullies, or the Key Monster/boy's father, or the Mary Sue-ness of Leslie.

How to Train Your Dragon


The book that started this post. These two are about as unrelated as you can get. It reads like a journal, full of illustrations and pictures, inksplots and one-page jokes. The Ren & Stimpy grossness and chopped-up insets that cater to short attention spans make it feel like a product, not a book. It has nothing to do with a boy bonding with a wild animal. It's not about coming of age, or family versus duty. At one point, Toothless sprays feces all over the inside of his house. Have I convinced you yet?

Howl's Moving Castle


I'm not sure if this suffers as much from "the book is bad" syndrome as "someone told the story better" syndrome. First off, no one beats Miyazaki when it comes to the family movie. Visualizations, drama, not talking down to the audience. It keeps the pace up. It clearly defines the characters. It illustrates the romance between Howl and Sophia.

I feel like if I say anything bad about Diana Wynne Jones I'll be punished, but I just felt the movie did it better. The book just meanders from small thing to small thing and then tries to wrap it up at the end with some "magic can do anything" closure. The movie takes out the unnecessaries and adds in some new things. I'm not saying the movie is the bomb -- it changes the ending and abandons a bunch of plot threads open -- but I think it's a better use of time than reading the book.

Fantastic Mr. Fox




Well, you've got Wes Anderson. That's one. Stop motion animation. That's two. And a script that takes a good concept and adds to it. That's three.  You're out book. And far be it from me to disrespect Roald Dahl. But the book is over before it's begun. The movie follows the plot well, but it adds so much more. The quirky humor, the immersive world.  And it never insults the audience. Roald Dahl always wrote for children, but there's nothing in this movie that all ages couldn't enjoy.

Let the Right One In



Simply put, the book is too wordy. I don't know if that's because it's Swedish culture, or badly translated, or what. The movie follows the book quite closely, but seeing it on the screen leaves a much greater impact, like the pool scene at the end, or the woman in the hospital room. The only thing it's missing is a little bit of backstory on Håkan. And the visual nature of the movie better captures the cold bleakness of the land. Lindqvist just couldn't capture that imagery. Like I said, maybe it was the translation.

The Lord of the Rings



And we'll close with a controversial one. But hey, don't take my word for it. Even John Scalzi agrees with me (or I agree with him). Basically his point is that the book is not the best medium to tell this story, because it's not "great literature". The film version takes out all the boring junk that Tolkien gets flack for. The silly, unnecessary scenes that serve as allegory (Tom Bombadill), the history book passages from a fictional world, all the language and linguistic stuff. Thus, the storytelling is better in the movie.

The movies take the books, put them in a pot, then boil them down to their essential ingredients like an oil or a reduction sauce. The end result is that the plot never stops moving, the characters come through with strong personalities and motivations and arcs. That's hard to do over a trilogy. (Note: This does not apply to The Hobbit. That is a different kettle of po-tay-toes.)

So in conclusion, LOTR is still a great book. But if you see the movie, you will get a better emotional experience and a stronger version of the story.
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