Books vs Films

I’m very clear about how I spend my free time; I like watching films, but I love reading books.  This means that I can be very hard to please when it comes to literary adaptations on the big (or even small) screen.

It can’t be denied that, far too often, films do not live up to their source material.  It is pretty much impossible to cram a whole novel into a manageable watching time, and that’s even before engaging with the struggle to convey a literary style on screen.  Still, I want to use this blog to celebrate great story-telling rather than snipe at easy targets.  When there is a match in quality between the reading and the viewing experience then something magical happens.  The truth is, there are some incredible ‘films of the book’ and below are my go-to examples when playing devil’s advocate…

images-1 Daphne Du Maurier is probably the queen of source novels.  Hitchcock adapted any number of them and I could easilimgres-2y have gone for ‘The Birds’ or ‘Rebecca’, but last year I saw ‘Don’t Look Now’ and was entranced.  The short story was one the scariest books I read in 2012 (I nearly couldn’t finish it, I was so creeped out by the opening chapters).  Imagine my joy when I realised that the 1973 film was just as good.  In fact, I think I even preferred how Roeg conveyed the shocking ending to the story.

url Stephen King really disliked what this adaptation did to his book, but I think the film is brilliant.  Kubrick took some of the main ideas of the novel and then made them odd and scary and wonderful.  On the other hand, he also missed out some other, very scary, parts of theimgres-2 book (wasps anyone?) so there is something to be had from reading the novel for any die-hard horror-film fans.  One thing King was most upset by was how his original ending was changed.  The film’s denouement is very different from the source material and is an utterly unforgettable closing scene.  For sheer audacity, ‘The Shining’ has to be mentioned in any debate about books vs. films.

imgres-4I saw this film before reading the book and, I’ve got to be honest, I think it really added to my enjoyment of the original.  It meant that I could picture Ridley Scott’s stunning cityscapes and incimgres-3redible costumes while reading the, somewhat less luscious, prose.  On the other hand, the novel reflects its title, dealing with complex themes of empathy, identity and theology in a way which shows a clear focus on substance over style.  Basically, I love the book and the film for very different reasons, but they’re both excellent examples of how science fiction can be engaging, entertaining and challenging.

urlI don’t want to be misleading here.  It’s not only genre fiction that can translate well into film.  Nick Hornby has written a lot of very well-adapted novels and my favourite will always be the 2000 version of images-1‘High Fidelity’.  For a  long time this was my bench-mark for films of books because the virtuosity of the narration (first person or voice-over) makes both book and film equally excellent media for telling the same story.  Unlike the previous entries in this list, I find ‘High Fidelity’ almost uncanny in the way it creates the same atmosphere and plot but in ways utterly appropriate to the different art forms.

imgres-2In an unusual (for me) foray into non-fiction, ’84 Charing Cross Road’ is equally charming on paper or celluloid.  A sequence of letters bimgres-3etween a New York spinster and a British bookshop may seem like the least cinematic of topics, but the 1987 film is a joy from start to finish.   As an additional pleasure, the adaptation changes a book about book-lovers to a film about book-lovers without any loss of reverence or passion for the main topic.  If you enjoy reading (and I’m assuming you do) then you’ll really enjoy either telling of this beautiful tale.

imgres-2It would be highly hypocritical to write this post without any reference to literary fiction.  Fortunately I have Ivory’s 1993 adaptation of Ishiguro’s beautiful novel to show that it can be done.  Anthony Hopkinsimgres-3 is the repressed and deluded butler who is trying to make sense of his life and lost opportunities. As both film and book progress, he must face hideously banal truths about his past, his identity and everything he holds dear.  Like all the entries on this list, the book has been adapted by those who understand its message and how best to convey this on screen.  Highly, highly recommended in either format.

imgres-5This last entry probably doesn’t belong in the list at all, because I loathe the book.  I have actually never been able to finish it because I genuinely find the level of violence just too repugnant.  On my last attempt I tried skipping the violent chapters, but then the alternating dull passages just got unbearably tedious.  In contrast, I watched the film under duress only to find myself loving it.  It seemed to convey everyimgres-4thing the novel was suggesting, but with a level of style which meant the escalating violence was kept in proportion and the comic timing could really shine.  I’m sure that if you did like the book you’ll also enjoy the film, but I want to use this space to plug the movie to those who are like me.  This is the top end of the scale – films which surpass their source material.

One final honourable mention, I don’t think ‘Clueless’ is as good as ‘Emma’, but it is still my absolute favourite film adaptation of any Jane Austen novel.  You can tell it’s good because it can even be enjoyed by people who aren’t already in thrall to the original author – a feat few versions of classic novels can boast.  Also Alicia Silverstone is, for my money, the most charming, well-intentioned, and also the least irritating ‘Emma’ I’ve seen on screen.  I’m not sure any period costume versions quite capture the freshness of the novel, but this chic-flick really has it all.


I know that this is far from comprehensive, but it’s at least a small contribution to an ongoing debate between readers and the rest of the world. There are so many similarities between films and books, it would be a real shame to label either as superior. I’m hoping that the current releases of new book to film adaptations will give me a load of new titles to add to the list. In the meantime, please let me know what I missed out and which films I simply have to see.

This entry was posted in Book Lists, Books vs films, Kazuo Ishiguro, Something Silly and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Books vs Films

  1. Great post! Like you, I enjoy films but books are my real love. I haven’t read Don’t Look Now but I think the film is great, and 84 Charing Cross Road is a wonderful book, I’m so excited that the film works – you’ve given me reading and watching to do 🙂

    • I should point out that I haven’t seen the film of 84 Charing Cross Road for years, but I do remember loving it. As for ‘Don’t Look Now’, it’s Du Maurier at her very finest.

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    I rather liked Room with a View adaptation as well. As for adaptations which I personally liked even though they were very different from the book (and the author loathed it), I would say Tarkovsky’s Solaris is brilliant. Completely different emphasis than in Lem’s story, but very good nevertheless.

  3. You made me laugh Shoshi, because though I haven’t read American Psycho (which several have assured me is regarded as BEE’s best, I surmise you may have an aversion to his writing with some similarity to my own – the only BEE I read (which didn’t make it onto my blog, as I only review books with 4 star as my lowest rating – though it did produce a rant in which it featured – was Rules of Attraction. Yes, he is scathing and dismissive of his shallow characters who don’t have much to recommend them, but I intensely loathed the author’s sense of his own superiority, and felt he was inviting his readers to share in their own smugness in terms of viewing these people as beneath them and unlike them. If anyone had written a book looking at any other group other than privileged WASPS etc in that way, they would have been rightly slammed as racist, sexist etc etc. I have on a very very very back burner, so low as to be on the verge of never igniting, the intention perhaps of reading AP one day – but I suspect I’ll still hear the author’s superior to all this judgementalism loud and clear. I am not averse to books filled with despicable characters, but it needs a writer (in my opinion) who can both hold their unlikeability AND make them credible and human to themselves – judgementalism means cardboard cutoutness, standing at a remove, rather than the writer getting down and dirty and inside them. BEE seems to me to do what bad actors do, when playing ‘baddies’ – they deliver performances where they comment on ‘look how wicked this character is’ whereas though they are wicked, their internal dialogue about themselves may not see that, or may see other things as well, as they find ways to justify themselves to themselves.

    • Thank you – and thank you for stating your (and many of my own) views of BEE so eloquently! Having read ‘Lunar Park’ and bits of ‘Less Than Zero’ I agree that ‘American Psycho’ is his best book. Sadly, what makes it stand out is brio of the protagonist and the shock tactics of the violence. While I can appreciate the former I really couldn’t handle the latter. The film is brilliant though; it perfectly balances cartoony cardboard cut-out characters with an evenhandedy brutal (and funny) treatment of violence in society. The script, direction and acting all combat the faults you list above so well.

  4. PS – sorry for long rant, above – this is a quickie – it’s not a Hollywood movie, more art-house, but Marlen Haushofer’s extraordinary novel The Wall, was made into a wonderful film – it’s German title Die Wand – English, The Wall – but sometimes called Die Wand to distinguish it from the Pink Floyd movie – the film and the book rather add to each other – and it was the film which caused the re-publication of this largely forgotten book – I only heard about it from this, hearing about the film

  5. Stefanie says:

    Have you seen/read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell? I couldn’t fathom how it could possibly be made into a film but it worked really well and it even cleared up some confusion I had with the book!

    • I’ve read the book, but I found it a bit of a struggle. The whole way through, I kept on wanting to re-read Calvino’s ‘If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler’ because I felt like that was a much tighter exploration of similar ideas. On the other hand, I would be interested to see how it works as a film. It’s certainly setting up a challenge for any director.

  6. Pingback: Reading out of my comfort zone part III: ‘The Early Science Fiction of Philip K Dick vol. 2’ | Shoshi's Book Blog

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  8. says:

    I’d be curious to know your thoughts on famous controversy surronding the book vs. film versions of A Clockwork Orange.

    • I’m afraid I haven’t yet seen the film of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ so I can’t comment yet.
      In general, I know it must be terrible for an author to find their work has been appropriated by a film maker in a way they don’t approve of. On the other hand, I personally try to judge both versions for myself so this initial feeling doesn’t mean I might not end up really appreciating the film (like with ‘The Shining’).

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