Monday, March 06, 2006

BOOK OR MOVIE? It’s time to stop the comparisons LIT vs. FLICK?

The Kansas City Star

If you still don’t know why many bibliophiles cringe at seeing their favorite books turned into films, here’s a timely answer: &.

That’s an ampersand, as in this year’s Oscar-nominated “Pride & Prejudice.” I’ve yet to find a reason why Hollywood felt the need to change the title from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but I suspect it was nothing more than the nonsense that went into advertising “Terminator 2” as “T2” or “Alien vs. Predator” as “AVP.” Tinseltown loves typographical tomfoolery.

Actually, “Pride & Prejudice” is a fine film. Also nominated in various categories this year are “Brokeback Mountain,” from the Annie Proulx short story, and “Capote,” from the biography by Gerald Clarke.

My, my; could it be that Hollywood finally has learned to respect literature?


This is just coincidence: Three films getting released in the same year, all of which do justice to their source material. They just as easily could have been released in three different years. Every film that gets made is a caprice of time, the end result of certain opportunities and obstacles, including the schedules of hundreds of people, from director and actors to gaffers and key grips.

So my first reaction to the literary sparkle of this year’s Oscar-nominated films: big deal.

I can cite many movies in which the filmmakers eviscerated the literary cow. The one that still sickens me is “Simon Birch,” the execrable 1998 weepfest so unfaithful to A Prayer for Owen Meany that author John Irving asked for the radical title change.

The truth is that none of us really should care whether a book makes it to the screen in good shape, because these two art forms are two different animals.

Vivid as any book or story may be, assimilating it remains a function of our ability to imagine. We must create, in our heads, the story’s faces, rooms, voices and so on — based, of course, on the author’s little black marks on white paper.

Not so with film; much of the work is done for us. And so, confronted with the literality of an actor’s chiseled chin or an actress’s flawless lashes, we sometimes find that it was more fun doing the imagining ourselves. That can happen even with a good film.

That said, there are cases in which the Hollywood product can transcend the printed matter. I’ve always thought Francis Ford Coppola’s brooding “Godfather” superior to Mario Puzo’s florid novel. And I suspect Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club was better off once director David Fincher, along with actors Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter, got their mitts on it.

If you’re a Palahniuk fan and you find the previous sentence heretical, consider this: In the supplemental material included on the double-disc DVD of “Fight Club,” the author remarks that he was so impressed with the contributions of Fincher and Co. that he began to wonder if his book didn’t suffer by comparison.

But wait … we’re doing it again: judging the apples against the oranges. I like “Fight Club” a great deal … and I like Fight Club immensely, too, but the former is a film and the latter is a novel and the twain don’t really meet.

The film, as films tend to be, is more linear, and its directness is a result of the filmmakers taking some of the bends out of the novel’s narrative river. The book is a serpentine thing; it toys with time even more playfully than the film does. Both are valid works of art.

I do confess I saw “Fight Club” before I read Fight Club; thus, approaching the book, it was hard for me to see Tyler Durden in my mind without seeing Brad Pitt. I suspect some of you who saw “Brokeback Mountain” before reading the Annie Proulx story might have had trouble forgetting hunky Heath Ledger.

That leads to this point: I’ve often been asked if one should not read the source material before seeing a film. Actually I think it’s entirely up to you and partly dependent on the situation. If a good film is in limited release instead of enjoying a long run at a multiplex, this books editor has no qualms about seeing the flick first, then reading (or re-reading) the book.

Our lives are bound by many rules. I’m not sure the arts should be. Forcing ourselves to read every book before seeing the film or insisting on finding fault with one or the other after we’ve experienced both — why, that’s nothing but pride, & prejudice, too.



The famous “I wish I knew how to quit you” scene from “Brokeback Mountain” differs only slightly from the short story. We pick up Annie Proulx’s story after the oft-repeated line.

“Like vast clouds of steam from thermal springs in winter the years of things unsaid and now unsayable — admisssions, declarations, shames, guilts, fears — rose around them. Ennis stood as if heart-shot, face gray and deep-lined, grimacing, eyes screwed shut, fists clenched, legs caving, hit the ground on his knees.

“ ‘Jesus,’ said Jack. ‘Ennis?’ But before he was out of the truck, trying to guess if it was a heart attack or the overflow of incendiary rage, Ennis was back on his feet and somehow, as a coat hanger is straightened to open a locked car and then bent again to its original shape, they torqued things almost to where they had been for what they’d said was no news. Nothing ended, nothing begun, nothing resolved.”

But Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s script continues the confrontation:

“ENNIS: Then why don’t you?! Why don’t you let me be? It’s because of you, Jack, that I’m like this. I’m nothin’. I’m nowhere.”

“(JACK starts toward him, but ENNIS jerks away.)

“ENNIS: Get the (expletive) off me!

“(JACK moves towards him again, and this time, ENNIS doesn’t resist.

“JACK: Come here … it’s all right. It’s all right … damn you, Ennis.

“(And then … they hug one another, a fierce desperate embrace, managing to torque things almost to where they had been …”)



Movies based on an original screenplay seldom win a best picture Oscar — only 10 times since 1982. Sometimes those winners were based on plays (“Chicago”) or historical texts (“Titanic”), but here are some recent winners that started out as books:

? “Million Dollar Baby”: A book of short stories by F.X. Toole.

? “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”: The final book in the trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.

? “A Beautiful Mind”: The biography of John Nash by Sylvia Nasar.

? “The English Patient”: A novel by Micheal Ondaatje.

? “Forrest Gump”: A novel by Winston Groom.

? “The Silence of the Lambs”: The second Hannibal Lecter novel by Thomas Harris.

? “Out of Africa”: Based on several texts, including Judith Thurman’s Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, Errol Trzebinski’s Silence Will Speak and the memoirs of Isak Dinesen.

? “Ordinary People”: Novel by Judith Guest.

? “Kramer vs. Kramer”: Novel by Avery Corman.

? “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”: Novel by Ken Kesey.

? “The Godfather”: Novel by Mario Puzo.

? “The French Connection”: Novel by Robin Moore.

? The first big-screen adaptation to win a best picture Oscar was “All Quiet on the Western Front” in 1930 — only the third year of the Academy Awards. The film was based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel.

Sources: Internet Movie Database,, 70 Years of Oscar by Robert Osborne (1989), ACNielsen Academy Awards Guide

Compiled by David Frese The Star Source: Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay, by Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana Compiled by David Frese The Star Source: Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay, by Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana

Kansas City Star | 03/05/2006 | BOOK OR MOVIE? It?s time to stop the comparisons LIT vs. FLICK?

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