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the distance between a book and a movie
sometimes it's pretty big
by reem al-omari (@Reemawi)

You know when you watch a movie, or read a book, and find that the movie is based on a book, or the book is now a major motion picture, and you decide to either read the book or watch the movie because you liked the first form of media you experienced?

That happens to me often. The minute I find out a movie I'm watching is based on a book, or that a book I'm reading has been made into a movie, I make it a point to try experience the story in the other available form. It's a sort of hobby of mine that has grown over time into a sort of obscure and interesting topic I'm well-versed in.

I watched the movie The Painted Veil recently, and immediately knew that I would have to read the novel of the same title by one of my favorite authors, W. Somerset Maugham.

I found the movie to be breathtaking with its cinematography, delicious with its characters and choice of actors, and a unique and bittersweet love story. The tag line reads "Sometimes the longest journey is the distance between two people." The movie lives up to that tag line, that is sometimes a promise.

The two people that the tag line is talking about grow and achieve beautiful arcs in their struggles, while closing the gap between them. Their struggles include adultery, anger and trying to survive physically, emotionally and mentally in the middle of a Chinese village riddled with the cholera epidemic. YOu could say it is a "love growing in the time of cholera."

The characters are Walter and Kitty Fane. Walter is a square bacteriologist working in Shanghai when he proposes to flirtatious Kitty, a burden to her parents who want nothing more than to marry her off. Walter is deeply in love with Kitty, and Kitty doesn't think much of Walter other than a ticket away from her parents. While in Shanghai, Kitty meets a married man, Charlie Townsend, and begins an affair that Walter eventually finds out about and decides to punish Kitty for. It is here where the distance between Kitty and Walter begins.

It is because of this betrayal that Walter decides to take a post in a far-off Chinese village with an advanced cholera epidemic, taking Kitty with him, despite her refusal, knowing her lover will only reject her if she were to make herself a free, divorced woman. Walter's intentions are originally to have Kitty die of cholera, but as the two live together in a bungalow, surrounded by Chinese villagers "dropping like flies" and Kitty finding out what an interesting individual square old Walter is through the French nuns at the village convent, her feelings change from indifference and hatred toward her husband to love and admiration. Walter is cold upon their arrival in the diseased village, but he too warms back up to the woman he never stopped loving.

This man and woman learn to love all over again after they are faced with the deadliest issue in a marriage; adultery, and they come out a couple made for each other. It's bittersweet and lovely.

Of course, this is the movie version.

The book was not nearly as lovely. In fact, the Kitty and Walter Fane in the book, are despicable characters, one colder than the other, and both much less than a joy to read. The distance between them never shortens, and in fact, the book ends with an even bigger distance between them. It is far from a bittersweet love story. It is more of a story about a cold woman who never quite warms up, despite the life-changing experience of living in the middle of a deadly epidemic and surviving it to leave it behind for London, her home. The husband she betrayed, hurt and pitied, but never loved, never quite forgives her for her betrayal, and you don't blame him, as she is not easy to like, little else forgive.

There is very little character development that makes the reader happy and delighted for and about the characters. The theme is different, the outcome is different, and the feel is different from the movie. Even the city is different, and they are in Hong Kong instead of Shanghai.

I remember when the movie first came out, I read a brief piece about it that said to just see the movie and not bother with the book.

I didn't listen at the time, and I wish I had. Reading the book spoils the characters. Today, I say to all who are thinking of seeing the movie and/or reading the book to stick with the movie. It is quite simply put a beautiful experience not to be spoiled (by reading the books) or passed over.


Reem lives and writes about it. She thinks that's what writers do, anyway. If it's not, then she also has a degree in journalism under her belt, along with the titles of reporter, editor (in chief, even) and, of course, opinion columnist.

more about reem al-omari


a one-sided struggle
east (china) vs. west (hollywood)
by reem al-omari
topic: film
published: 4.30.08

the horror genre
please stop shoving it down my throat
by reem al-omari
topic: film
published: 5.11.07


adam kraemer
11.30.07 @ 11:23a

Hmmm... that's rare. More often than not the book is the better experience.

reem al-omari
11.30.07 @ 12:16p

Tell me about it! Like I said, I make these comparisons on my own, and the book always comes out the winner, or at least the movie is good enough, but only because nothing has been changed from the book. But this was truly a surprise for me.

lisa r
12.1.07 @ 1:34a

I've rarely seen movies be as good as, or better than books, with one exception--A&E's Pride and Prejudice. I actually saw th e movie before I read the book, so when I read the book and recognized so much of the movie I was thrilled. I think perhaps the British (with the exception of the Bond series) do a much better job of capturing a book's essence than Hollywood does. Hollywood is too quick to go for the glitz, glamour and sex aspects and miss the important parts.

I flatly refuse to watch "The Jury", based on the John Grisham novel. As soon as I heard they changed the bad guys from the tobacco companies to the gun industry I knew I'd never watch the movie. I thought that was an idiotic change.

robert melos
12.5.07 @ 4:58a

I remember seeing The Handmaid's Tale, and then reading the book, hoping that the book would fill in the spots where I felt there should've been more. Alas, the book was exactly like the film. Both left me feeling empty. Once in a while I'll seek out the book a film was based on, but I rarely seek out the books based on a film, as they were written after the film's success and I always feel they are just capitalizing on the success.

jael mchenry
12.5.07 @ 9:12a

Great books don't always make great movies, but flawed books can definitely have their flaws fixed by the process. Sounds like that's what's happened with The Painted Veil. My favorite example of this is Sleeping With the Enemy, which is a great straight-up thriller, and an absolutely lousy, lousy book. The book has all sorts of pointless subplots and silliness. These get stripped out in the process of condensing the story for the movie, and voila, better product.

Unfortunately I can't think of many other examples. Although I did like the movie of Wonder Boys more than the book, largely because of the acting.

juli mccarthy
12.5.07 @ 7:40p

One of my all-time favorite movies is Diggstown, with James Woods and Louis Gossett, Jr. The credits said it was based on a book called The Diggstown Ringers. I looked for it for years (it was out of print) and finally found a used copy through Half.com.


Other than the very barest bones of the con, there is absolutely nothing in this book to suggest any relationship to the movie. That a screenwriter was able to turn such a pile of garbage into a very watchable film is a miracle.

adam kraemer
12.6.07 @ 11:17a

Admittedly, the best movie ever based on a book it totally surpassed was probably Fletch.

That's not actually my opinion. It's solid fact.

jael mchenry
12.6.07 @ 12:30p

Ah, but the Fletch sequels on paper kick the pants off the Fletch sequels on film.

adam kraemer
12.6.07 @ 6:16p

Sequel. Singular. And it was still pretty good.

alex b
12.7.07 @ 4:39a

There's a few movies out there that match the fabulous book experience: L.A. Confidential, About A Boy, Jurassic Park, The Joy Luck Club, Whale Rider, Once Were Warriors, the Godfather, Interview With the Vampire, the Silence of the Lambs, Sense & Sensibility, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban. (Then there's the LoTR trilogy, which just kicked ass. Hollywood isn't entirely useless.)

Among the many, many movies I think stunk more than the book: Rising Sun, the Lost World, Hannibal, John Grisham titles, Practical Magic (watching that one hurt), and Waiting to Exhale (love the movie for some parts, but overall... oh dear).

reem al-omari
12.7.07 @ 1:22p

Oh yeah! I forgot about Whale Rider. I liked the book for that one... but I still liked the movie more. I felt the girl's appearance was a lot more fitting than in the book. BUT you didn't get the conversation between the whale and his "wife" in the movie.

alex b
12.7.07 @ 1:26p

I figure that a missed detail like that here and there is forgivable when the movie encompasses and embodies the book's spirit. (Plus, if a movie took a strict construction of a book, then L.A. Confidential and Jurassic Park would have each been 7 hours long).

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