I am jumping on the CWC movie-talk bandwagon, and I am about to blaspheme. You can yell at me in the comments section.
There are few movies that can touch the book on which they are based for sheer story pleasure. No movie will ever really capture David Copperfield or The French Lieutenant’s Woman on film, though some have tried.
There are some exceptions, however. When embroiled in such dinner-table discussion, I have from time to time pointed to a few (very few, I admit), where the movie made from the book is really better than the book. Here are three that I think fit that description:
Gone With the Wind
I am starting with the most controversial example, hoping you will calm down before you get to the comments section. When I was contemplating writing my first historical novel, I had in mind a war-torn romance in the late nineteenth century. (The book turned out to be a mystery and my second published novel Invisible Country.) I figured I could learn a lot by going back to the grandmother of all such stories, Margaret Mitchell’s ever-popular American Civil War epic. After all, “my war” began just as hers ended. I had loved her book when I read it as a twelve year old. So I bought a copy.
Of course, by then, I had seen the motion picture many times, and truth to tell, the movie too, in some ways, had lost its gloss for me. My problems with the movie, though, had to do with the story, not with the production. I just did NOT get Scarlett’s infatuation with Ashley Wilkes. As a grown up, I had a hard time believing that a woman whose innards were anything like mine would hang on to her teenage infatuation with the pale Ashley when Rhett was hers. Oh, I know she came to her senses eventually, but REALLY? I was not sure whether that problem had to do with the casting or with what was in the book.
Anyway, I cracked the book expecting to find it better than the movie and also to be able to study it as a great example of how I should write my story. Instead, I found great disappointment. For one thing, the whole Ashley vs. Rhett issue was just as jejune in the book. Worse then that, I could draw lines across the pages to demarcate the fiction from the history. Two and half pages of story, a page and half of history, four pages of story, three pages of history. It was choppy. That and the character of Scarlett as she appears on the page were enough send me running back to the movie. On top of which, the book is MUCH more racist than the movie—the brave men who founded the Ku Klux Klan, the nasty descriptions of uppity blacks, the lovely blacks who had the decency to continue to act like slaves. OY! as we say in New York. It is only the wonderful actors in the movie who make any of the characters more than stick figures. And you get a chance to see Clark Gable and Hattie Mcdaniel.
It is also the acting that makes the difference in this flick of Herman Wouk’s novel about a girl who wants to be an actress. I read the book before the movie came out. For me, the actors so enhanced their characters and added to so much depth to the experience that the movie trumped the book. Wouk is a wonderful writer. In fact, his WWII novel, The Winds of War is the polar opposite of Gone With the Wind when it comes to how history should be woven into fiction. Anyone who aspires to write a historical novel should read it with a screwdriver and wrench to try to figure out how he did it. It is masterful.
Margery Morningstar is, on the other hand, a good but not a great book. It’s a better movie, thanks to Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly, and the totally brilliant Ed Winn.
The book is certainly a page turner. But it reads like a screenplay, completely bare bones. I admit that I could not put it down until I finished it, but then I would have forgotten all about it if it hadn’t been for Steven Spielberg’s terrifying film and especially the nuanced performance by Roy Scheider—one of the most underrated actors in history.
I promise to listen respectfully to your rejections of my opinions.