Movies and books are two very different mediums for storytelling: one is visual and immediate and requires less detail, but a more dramatic and obvious plot, and the other is full of imaginary characters in an imaginary land created in the reader’s mind and enhanced by the writer’s rich description. Due to the differences in how the audience is presented with each version of the story, film adaptations of novels can be hit-or-miss and often don’t live up to what readers were hoping for. Here are one of my favorite and least favorite movie adaptations and the reasons why, which differ from the normal “faithful/unfaithful to the book” critique:
The best: “What Dreams May Come”
This is one of few films adapted from novels that I like more than the original book, and also recommend seeing before one reads the original. In its film version What Dreams May Come (from the 1978 Richard Matheson book by the same name) is visually thrilling, and although the plot is sparse, the love story between a man and his wife – who he must rescue from hell – is gripping and inspiring. The ways the film differs from the book (in the original Chris and Annie’s children have not died and “Ann” is sent to hell for a period of years instead of all eternity) make for a stronger film with more emotion and better explain the actions of the characters. Although the incredible detail about death, the afterlife, and reincarnation is interesting in its book form, I find the sparsity of the movie’s plot to be one of its strong points. In film form an excess of details about both the surroundings and workings of heaven and hell would have detracted from the simplicity of the love story. I think this film is one of the best examples of why sometimes movies need to differ from the original story, and how occasionally a movie and book can be very different, yet both successful. While die-hard fans of the weighty, spiritual novel may dislike the film for what it leaves out, I am extremely glad it was made into the rich, beautiful, very visual love story it became in its second incarnation. Simply put, this is a story that was meant to be seen.
The worst: “The Virgin Suicides”
I read Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel “The Virgin Suicides” after I saw the film adaptation, and as I was reading it I was constantly thinking what a terrible choice it had been to make this book into a movie. A simple story told by one of a group of neighborhood boys who were obsessed with the five beautiful, intriguing, suicidal Lisbon sisters, the novel has almost no plot other than the mounting obsession of the boys and the suicides of the girls, which happens at the end. Although I didn’t love the novel, I did find it an interesting read, mostly for its narrator and lack of normal plot line. In film form neither of these positives of the book came through well on screen. I remember wondering as I watched the film what the point of the story was since nothing seemed to happen other than the suicides, which, although dramatic, weren’t exactly something one wants to watch an entire movie to see. In the novel the story is being told after many years have passed, and there is a feeling of mystery and speculation about the girls and their motives that is added to by the lens of reminiscence and the glow of nostalgia for the boys’ own youth. In film form this cloud of mystery is lost since the viewer is actually seeing what happens. No matter how vintage and ethereal the movie was made to look, there was no way it could have captured the feel of the novel or compared to what one pictured in their imagination as they read. Overall I felt this adaptation was a failure simply because it should not have been attempted in the first place.