Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Heresy: Movies Better Than the Book

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.

Marjorie Morningstar

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.

 Annamaria Alfieri  


  1. No screaming here. Gone With the Wind and Jaws are better movies than the books they dramatize. I just put Marjorie Morningstar on my to-be-read pile a few days ago. I'm always perplexed by any attempt to film Henry James novels, especially the late ones since they feature what characters don't do because they are thinking so much. And going from the sublime to the supremely witty ridiculous, I always think that PG Wodehouse on the screen doesn't quite work (though there are some exceptions) because so much of the humor lies not in dialogue but the way in which events are narrated

    1. Steph, tell me what you think of marjorie Morningstar. I haven't seen the movie in years. I think I'll take another look. BTW, it wasn't until I was collecting the pictures for this post that I noticed difference in the sharks on the book cover and the movie poster. Those images tell the whole story of which telling is more memorable.

  2. Movies and books are on two different planets for me, though I do recall the TV series of Herman Wouk's Winds of War with deep admiration. BTW, Annamaria, I enjoyed your blog on Murder Is Everywhere for Jan. 13 - charming and frank glimpses into your life and situations that resonate with many of us, whatever our backgrounds. tjs

    1. Thanks, Thelma. Keeping up with the two blogs takes time, but I do enjoy writing in this short essay form. I am going to get that miniseries and watch it.

    2. I too enjoy thoroughly writing in this short essay form. Some of them, especially if one is dealing with facts and non-opinion topics, do require a lot of time! People assume all blogs are dashed off from the top of the head... but only a few are, actually. I have never enjoyed doing short stories - did sell one once, for a lot of $$, but prefer the long life and involvement of the novel form, BUT, blogs are right up my alley! tjs

  3. I've heard it said, and I agree, that not-so-great books make better movies than really great books.

    1. Than you, Julia! That is not one I had heard, but it makes perfect sense. The great thing about great books is that they say things that can't be easily portrayed on film. But a whopping story without greatness, bring it on in film.