It’s a cherished notion among book lovers that the book is always better than the movie — always. But is this just snobbishness perpetrated by people who prefer one art form over another? After all, movies have things that books don’t have. Soundtracks, for example. And Robert Redford. But we’ll get to him in a minute.
Our most recent Booklab experiment investigated the theory that books are better than movies by comparing six books and their film interpretations. To make it fair, the movies we chose had to boast some kind of artistic merit. That is, they had to have won some kind of award or have been directed by a notable director or simply to have a longstanding place in the pantheon of classic films.
The list was actually quite long.
The six we settled on were: Out of Africa, The Virgin Suicides, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Speak, and Papillon.
But how does one make an honest comparison between two inherently different art forms? It’s not enough to consider whether or not the movie included all of the book’s elements — usually that just isn’t possible. And then there’s the Robert Redford factor: sometimes the sheer beauty of a film (or its lead actors) is enough to sway preference.
In the end, the most important thing was how well each medium conveyed the “aboutness” of the story.
Anna chose Papillon by Henri Charrière (film directed by directed by Franklin J. Schaffner), and had this to say about it: “I liked both. The movie conveys — but the book really, really conveys — Charrière‘s mind and how he was able to triumph over his circumstances. In the book, there are glimpses into the futures of other characters, which I really enjoyed, and which the movie doesn’t have. The movie ends with his Devil’s Island escape, which was a nice ending, but the book goes on to include his arrest in Venezuela and eventual pardon. Also, Steven McQueen did NOT look twenty-five.”
The Verdict: “I liked the book better because of all the background info, and because it was a true story whereas the film was a fictionalized version. But I appreciated its ultra-Technicolor.”
Tecla chose The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (film directed by Sofia Coppola), and offered this analysis: “The movie and the book were very close, and some of the lines in the movie came directly from the book. The book was darker, and in the movie, everything was prettier than I imagined while reading it. This made the boys’ obsession with the girls more understandable, because in the movie they go outside more. The book is quirkier, and you get a sense of time passing and the Lisbon family’s deterioration. The movie skips a lot of things, and the story feels like it takes place over a few weeks, which ultimately makes less sense.”
The Verdict: “I liked the book better. If I’d seen the movie first, I wouldn’t have wanted to read the book.”
Deb chose Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (film directed by Sydney Pollack) and had this to say: “The book and the movie are totally different. The book is a memoir and is more about her interactions with the Africans on her farm. It felt very journal-like and episodic. The movie, on the other hand, is a Meryl Streep/Robert Redford love story, and I wasn’t very enthused about watching it because that’s not really my thing. I kept putting it off, but when I did finally watch it, I was like, THIS IS AWESOME! It really conveyed the spaciousness of Africa. And Robert Redford! STILL SEXY AT FORTY-NINE!”
The Verdict: “I liked the movie better because it had more of an overall arc.”
And now, another picture of Mr. Redford, just because.
Nedra chose One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (film directed by Miloš Forman) and offered this comparison: “The book was amazing, and in general, the movie was true to the book. Because of Jack Nicholson’s facial expressions, the movie was funnier than the book, and in the book, the animosity between the patients and Nurse Ratched is more intense. The narrator in the book is the Native American character, and I liked that; he was the ‘camera’ through which we saw the story unfolding.”
The Verdict: “I liked the book better. They were both great, but the book is just more in-depth.”
Jennifer chose Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (film directed by Jessica Sharzer) and had this to say: “The movie version was energetically lighter. The setting was changed from New York to the Midwest. I thought I would hate it because I’m not a fan of Kristen Stewart, but in the end I thought it was very well cast. The book is narrated in first-person, and so it feels very intimate. But through the use of voiceover, the director did a very good job conveying that intimacy. The movie presented Melinda’s rape in a more explicit way. The story itself is not unique but the way that Anderson wrote it was. Because of the novel’s format, it felt natural and very easy to get into the head of a teenage girl.”
The Verdict: “I liked both of them exactly the same amount.”
I chose Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (film directed by Blake Edwards). My take on it: “I watched the movie first, and loved it. But then I read the book, and the book was so good — and so different — that the movie lost some of its luster. Capote’s Holly Golightly is a beautiful but restless woman who inspires myriad loves to which she can never really lay claim. It ends more sadly, and the story itself is a mystery, centering around Holly’s unknown fate. The movie is really fun to watch for the fashions and the happy ending, and because Audrey Hepburn is adorable. But when I read the book I pictured someone who was less aware of her effect on others than Hepburn’s Holly seems to be.”
The Verdict: “I liked the book better. The movie is a classic, but after reading the book I don’t know why it isn’t the more famous version.”
The score — books 4, movies 1, with one tie — is hardly surprising considering that we’re a book club and not a film enthusiasts’ club. Books make us do this:
But then, so does Robert Redford.