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this book is a movie
strike that, reverse it
by mike julianelle
2.6.09
film


Whenever I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich - which is more and more often these days as my household feels the economic crunch - I make sure to spread the jelly first. And thank God I do.

If I dip the knife into the peanut butter BEFORE I spread the jelly on, it's a lot harder to remove the residue that remains after I put the peanut butter on the bread. I need to either get a new knife, take a minute to clean the old knife, or - and this is what typically happens when you're lazy - plunge the dirty knife into the jelly jar, inevitably contaminating the pristine jelly with the knife's leftover peanut butter. The jelly is thus robbed of its identity, the peanut butter having forever violated its integrity by leaving its residue lingering for months or more. The jelly is never the same.

Rest assured, this column is not going to be a treatise on the best ways to prepare different sandwiches. The jelly before peanut butter technique serves as an analogy for this groundbreaking theory:

When a movie is adapted from a novel, it is better to see the movie BEFORE reading the book.

Everyone assumes it's best to read the book first. But I contend that it is much easier to ruin a movie than it is to ruin a book. By reading the book before seeing the movie, not only is the plot spoiled for the viewer, but so is every other possible nuance. Worst of all, one's mind is irrevocably tainted by both the source material and one's own imagination. (Get it? The movie is the jelly!) A book's complexity cannot be easily translated to the screen; the movie version is at best a limited interpretation that can never live up to the book you read beforehand.

When you read a book, you have nothing but the author's words and your own imagination to carry you through. Inevitably, you create a little movie in your mind: you have an image of the main character, an idea of what the landscape looks like, etc. Any time you see a movie after having read the material on which it's based, you are constantly comparing what you see on screen with what the vision held in your mind's eye. No director, no matter how talented, can reproduce a book exactly the way the author or its countless readers envisioned it and the movie inevitably falls short. See a movie after you've read the book and the movie is always a letdown.

By seeing the movie before reading the book, one major element is definitely compromised: the plot. But in the final analysis, that's really it. Most movies hardly bother with character development anyways (Michael Bay and Guy Ritchie films being the exceptions that prove the rule), and the mental life required of many characters in order to fully flesh out character motivations and back stories are really only feasible in literature, with some exceptions that aren't likely to come out of Hollywood.

Obviously, knowing the ending to a movie before you see it is a serious detraction. Yet not only does the importance of the ending vary from book to book (and I might argue the more "serious" the book the less important the ending is in comparison to the character development and subtext and prose and more), but Hollywood has a pesky tradition of mangling plots and altering endings willy-nilly. They do this for a handful of reasons: to make things more palatable to the general public (The Natural), to make things more understandable to the general public (L.A. Confidential), and, ultimately, because they are suits, not poets.

For most Hollywood movies (and Dan Brown novels), the plot is more significant than anything else. But in a good novel, the plot is often just the clothesline on which the author hangs a wardrobe worth of description, dialogue and denouement. The plot is a part of the book, not the only reason for it. Sometimes, thankfully, the creative team behind an adaptation realizes this, and we get lucky.

Many successful book-to-movie adaptations succeed because they bear little resemblance to their published forebears, and that is often a good thing. They sacrifice plot for spirit. For example, Children of Men, a philosophical sci-fi novel with a provocative premise but inert plot, made for a great movie only because the premise was retained and the plot was shaped into something with momentum and drive. After adhering to the basic setup of the book, the movie distances itself rather quickly by changing course and never going back.

L.A. Confidential is another example. It's one of the best book-to-film adaptations of all time and I am sure most viewers have no idea it's based on the third book in a quartet. The story in the book is born of incidents and characters present from book one of the series, but the filmmakers wisely decided to create a standalone film. The movie works beautifully on its own, remaining dense and complex, not despite but because its creators jettisoned a large amount of material. Curtis Hanson and his screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, knew there was no way to properly duplicate the hefty tome for the screen, so they did what they could, retaining the trademark elements of the book - the feel of 1950s Los Angeles, the moral complexity of the characters, the seediness of the crimes - and fashioned a great film, but one that, at least plot-wise, might be unrecognizable to fans of Ellroy's original LA Quartet.

It isn't easy to make a quality movie from a book, regardless of whether the source material is itself good or not. It's impossible to adapt something without fans of the original scrutinizing the result, but filmmakers still try, in one of two ways: a point-by-point copy of the book, which is incredibly difficult and almost always fails, or a true-to-the-spirit approach that doesn't get bogged down in attempting to duplicate a novel. Both approaches are handicapped by the expectations of the audience (which is a topic of its own). Filmmakers probably shouldn't try the first approach, and we moviegoers probably won't like the second.

The best way to let the movie and the book coexist without destroying each other, to preserve the chances of enjoying both the book and the movie, is to SEE THE MOVIE FIRST.

Trust me. Keep the peanut butter out of the jelly.


ABOUT MIKE JULIANELLE

Let's get real here. You don't want to know about me. You want to know about "me".

more about mike julianelle

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COMMENTS

sandra thompson
2.6.09 @ 9:33a

You may be onto something here. I saw the 1949 Alan Ladd version of "The Great Gatsby" long before I'd read it, and when I did read it there's no doubt that it was WONDERFUL! Then I saw the 1974, version with Robert Redford, and strangely enough I loved it, too. Other books-to-films haven't fared so well. "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy," worked very well for Fitzgerald, even though Jay Gatsby was more of an anti-hero than an old fashioned "hero." I think Romanticism translates better to the screen than anything else. I could be wrong.

jeffrey walker
2.6.09 @ 11:37a

I don't read often enough to test your theory, but I do have one example that I think would have been better the other way - "Casino Royale", the 2006 James Bond movie, added non-existent plot lines and other etc. drama that made the book (published 1953) seem like nap time. I was certainly disappointed reading the book post movie. That said, the book was good enough that I would have still enjoyed it on its own had the movie not skewed my expectations. I think if I'd read the book first in that instance, I think the movie would have been even more exciting.

Also, I like peanut butter.

jeffrey walker
3.3.09 @ 10:05a

2nd example. "Choke" -- the book, while not a masterpiece, was very entertaining. The character was interesting and I liked it.

The movie, which I saw after reading, was confused and insane.

Had I watched the movie first, I would have ignored the book by assuming it would be also ill-thought-out. But, it turns out, the screenwriter / director and /or someone else on the movie side simply blew it and didn't explain the story well. Had I watched the movie, I'd had never known a LOT about the character development.



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