Movies Don’t Suck

Why do you insist that the movie version is always worse than the book? We keep having this conversation over and over and over. Books are always better, movies always suck; books get everything right, books do everything wrong; books are good, movies are evil. What are you, some kind of book snob? Why can’t I have nice things? I got it, I got it—things get lost in translation. Details are lost, subplots are cut, storylines change, characters disappear, sad endings are replaced with happy ones. It happens all the time. Books are long: a two-hour movie can barely handle the content of a twenty-page short story. But I’m telling you, Hollywood doesn’t always screw things up. Sometimes the movie gets it right.

You don’t believe me? Fine. I’ll go further. I’ll show you: sometimes movies do it better.

You’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, right? Sure you have. But have you read the book or the short story? Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel,” the inspiration for the movie, is a fine example of his short fiction, but hardly among his best. I’m not saying go read it—you probably have plenty of other things to go read instead. The book 2001 was written while the movie was being made, so is it fair to say the movie was based on it? No—but it means that the two should be even more like each other—and the movie is still far superior! The book is just an average science fiction novel. How average is it? It didn’t win any awards. OK, that’s obviously not the only way to judge a book, even from one of the best SF writers of that era. But—you know what Clarke did get? An Academy Award nomination, shared with Kubrick, for best screenplay!

2001: A Space Odyssey turned out to be one of the most impactful science fiction movies ever made. I’ll be fair: it’s one of the most intense or boring films imaginable, depending on your state of mind, but it also has one of the most memorable characters in movie history, HAL. A computer. This movie is so powerful, that it made a faceless, bodiless computer—not even a robot/android, just a voice—part of our cultural mythos. Plus, it turned Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” into “The Theme From 2001.” The only thing better about the book was that it had the line, “My God, it’s full of stars” which never made it into the movie, so was put it in the sequel. Score one for the book, which nobody cares about. Score everything else for the movie

OK, that’s not fair, you say. The movie wasn’t really based on the book, and it’s barely based on the short story, only inspired by it—even Clarke hated it when people made “based on” claim. Fine: let’s pick a movie that is unquestionably based on its source material, To Kill a Mockingbird. Loved and adored. How revered is this book? When its sequel came out, over a million copies were sold by the first week (including pre-sales). And its story, so many themes! Civil rights, racism, childhood, coming of age, rape, you name it—all in one easy-to-read novel, shoved on and loved by middle schoolers across the land. At the center of it all, from the point of view of Scout, the girl we all wanted to be, one man, the father we wanted, the lawyer we needed, the beacon of hope we yearned for: Atticus Finch.


But you’re not imagining just any Atticus Finch. He’s not an abstraction, or a composite from your experience, or someone you know personally that you imagine could be him. No, the Atticus Finch you’re picturing is Gregory Peck. That’s because the movie has an advantage over the book: it took one of the greatest heroes of 20th century literature and married him to one of the greatest actors of 20th century cinema. That’s the real Atticus Finch. Sure, you can get away with just reading the book, but once you’ve seen the movie, you realize the truth: You haven’t met Atticus Finch until you’ve met him played by Gregory Peck.

You’re looking for something less serious? How about Harry Potter. Any of Harry Potter. All 23 volumes. Which you take so seriously, and I seriously tell you the movies are better. You know why? Three reasons. 1) Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith. I don’t see Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith in any of your two-ton hardcovers, do you? Oh yeah, Severus Snape and Minerva McGonagall are all over the place, popping up to give us some relief from Harry and Hermione’s endless exploits, but they don’t hold a candle to Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith. J.K. Rowling isn’t that good. She may have written the characters, but the stars brought them to life. 2) The movies are more fun. Sometimes, even funny. 3) Unlike the books, the movies don’t go on and on and on; they eventually end. Oh, I know, some things were cut to make this happen; you must be distraught over that missing quidditch match. Maybe the director’s cut will restore it.

Speaking of baseball, I used to hate the movie ending for The Natural. What was Robert Redford thinking? (Yeah, Barry Levinson directed, but I still blame Redford.) We can agree that he totally undermined Bernard Malamud’s cynical view of human nature: Roy Hobbs sucks, the world sucks, life sucks. Roy deserves to hobble into oblivion, ruined and alone. So maybe you’re right… The movie ruined things… But maybe, just maybe there’s something to be said about Roy being a somewhat decent human being. Maybe it’s OK that the world isn’t such a terrible place, and life doesn’t totally suck. Maybe it’s not the worst thing to have a happy ending. It’s not entirely happy, really. This was Roy’s last game, after all. He was hurt—probably about to die. Why not let him leave the world his legacy? Dammit, why can’t we all give the world a piece of ourselves? Why not help make the world a better place, at least for a few people—or a whole crowd of stunned and cheering fans? Why can’t we shatter the stadium lights and go out in a blaze of glory before we forced to retire or die? Let the depressing book ending stand—and let the bittersweet movie ending stand proudly beside it!

Still with me? OK, just a few more:

Adaptation vs. The Orchid Thief? Susan Orlean wrote an inconsequential book; Kaufman created art.

Les Misérables? The movie achieves in just over 2-½ hours what Victor Hugo wrestled with over half-a-million words to deliver. And it’s got singing.

The Lord of the Rings? The same combination of walking, standing, talking, and racism as the books, and almost as long.

And what about Emma vs. Clueless? As if!