Some Movies Outshine Their Inspiration

by Shannon Baldo
Columnist

On a recent date, I somehow began discussing the one topic I call off limits: literature. I began my unavoidable rampage of symbolism and irony, gently critiquing Austen before slamming Mary Shelley. My date’s eyes grew wide, and with that awkwardness I started on 20th century literature. His eyebrows rose into a look of utter intimidation, but then he managed to chuckle, and somehow dared to say, “Yeah, but the book’s always better than the movie!”

The poor boy hadn’t realized what he’d done. He’d used the ultrafamous line that everyone thinks literature nerds say, and yet he barely realized the implications of his overwrought generalization. Of course, I finally overcame my nervousness and managed to change the topic, and somehow we had an enjoyable evening. Yet his comment sparked one of my usual rants which the Rambler somehow deigns to publish. So, fellow English majors, prepare the funeral pyre: The book is not always better than the movie.

I will admit that the majority of the time I would choose a book over a film, particularly when considering popular blockbusters. Production companies across the world are doing everything they can to make the most from overused storylines, and that often includes adding action, romance and special effects until the film barely reflects its inspiration. With the ease of achieving outright sensationalism, production companies no longer need the thematic or symbolic importance found in an original text, often abandoning even character development and realistic dialogue.

In this world of moviemaking, we cannot expect a production company to adhere so closely to a novel, and it even seems excessive to expect great depth. So I’ll forgive Mike Nichols’s “Closer” for making a happier ending, and I’ll risk seeing Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” despite my dedication to Lewis Carroll.

Alterations must be allowed to transition art to a different medium. Taking a work of literature and transferring it to film rarely lies in so simple an action as marking the dialogue. Like any shift between mediums, whether it be canvas to sculpture, poetry to prose, or Spanish to French, some changes are inevitable to capture the art’s greater meaning. Oftentimes the best translations are those that break away from structure and capture their creativity.

Cinematic versions of books, like textual translations, must be considered an adaptation to improve accessibility. The English translations of Vergil, of Goethe and of Dante may miss specific original meanings, yet the change of medium allows many more English-speaking students to experience these classic works. Similarly, many who would not have read “Atonement” were utterly entranced by the film.

So, one needs to take the original work and the adaptation as two separate works, each with good and bad qualities. Separately, it seems plausible to prefer one to the other, depending on the literary merit of each. Plus, some adaptations can influence the tone or add meaning to a failing book, such as Showtime’s “Dexter” and Chris Weitz’s “New Moon,” a movie which actually manages to entertain and surpasses anything Stephenie Meyer ever wrote.

My primary evidence for film’s occasional superiority over literature, however, lies in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings.” I find the cinematic version to capture the best of Tolkien’s thematic elements while merging his archaic, difficult tone with the allure of modern sensationalism. Superficially, the film features vivid monsters, violent battles and hypermasculine men, the perfect formula for a modern blockbuster. Yet it possesses such overwhelming depth in its script, cinematography, development and acting that I feel rather like I lost nothing in the transition from book to film.

My opinion is rather biased, as I have yet to truly enjoy an Inklings novel, but as opinions of cinema are ultimately subjective my point stands. Comparing a book to a cinematic adaptation is a problematic analysis, and the English-major generalizations you’ve heard may, in fact, be wrong.

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