“The Movie Was Better:” The 9th Deadly Sin*

I just finished reading A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean’s classic novella, written in memoir style. The thing is, I was disappointed with it. This was my first time reading it, but I had high hopes because of how much I love the movie. I grew up watching that movie over and over, and I still watch it over and over. It’s such a wonderfully told, wonderfully woven coming-of-age story of love and loss, addiction and gambling, family and fishing and faith (those last two – fishing and faith – being treated as interchangeable in this particular narrative). And if you can’t relate to any of those themes, then hopefully you can at least appreciate a young Brad Pitt early in his career!

Naturally, being the bookworm I am, I started wondering why I liked the movie so much better, and I even felt a little guilty for admitting it at first. It can’t be purely about childhood nostalgia or celebrity crushing. In my brief review of the book on my Goodreads account, I recommended that any readers who love the movie and/or aren’t familiar with fly fishing skip the first hundred pages (the copy I read paginated to 160). I don’t know if I’d stick to this recommendation exactly because, to be sure, there are details (perhaps even necessary ones) in the first hundred pages that the reader might appreciate having access to. That being said, though, reading this book gave me a whole new respect for screenplay adapters and script writers. The makers of this movie took a beautiful concept that, in print, translates as piecemeal, extremely personal, and even a bit amateur, and made it into one of the most profound, complex, touching, and universal stories I have ever experienced. There’s certainly something to be said for that.

For starters, the movie’s plot line is more linear than the book’s. Book Norman jumps back and forth, in and out of various stages of his life from childhood to young adulthood to marriage to old age, and it can be difficult to tell what’s happening and in which stage it’s happening. (This is something we certainly would’ve focused revision efforts on had I been his editor.) The movie, on the other hand, moves pretty much chronologically from start to finish in a way that makes complete sense. The movie script also skillfully cuts out certain digressions detailing the technical aspects of fly fishing, the substance of which are what so bogged me down in the first half of the book.

Finally, the movie also does a good job of pulling out the best lines from the book and freeing them from their tangential entanglements so that they provoke the maximum amount of thought and reflective ahhhs. Don’t get me wrong; the book has some great one liners that are certainly thought provoking and deserve to be quoted. But it also has several trains of thought that are absurdly abstract; the kind of abstract that, like certain works of art [most notably the ones that appear to be just errant splatters on canvas, no more impressive than a first grader’s work], make me feel as if I’m missing something for not being awe inspired or driven into reverent and somber silence.

My disappointment with this book and rare (almost shameful) admission that the movie is actually better got me thinking about the other times I have experienced this anomaly. It hasn’t been often, but it has certainly been noticeable each time.

The Count of Monte Cristo is probably the most memorable. I inadvertently bought the abridged version of the book. I had already seen the movie and knew the story and, even with the abridgement, still found the book long, boring, and so tortuous that I couldn’t even finish it (notice that’s tortuous, not torturous; there is a difference). My disappointment was considerable, given that I considered Alexandre Dumas to be one of my favorite authors and I highly revere The Three Musketeers. 

The other main fault I found with The Count of Monte Cristo is that there are too many supposedly important characters and too much time between pickups of their story lines for any reasonable person to be able to remember their pertinent details. In that sense, reading the book felt like the print version of the TV show Heroes. (Remember that show? How awesome was season 1? And even season 2, and then it just got awful after that!)

Brokeback Mountain is my third example of a movie that surpasses its printed counterpart. If you know me at all (or if you’re a faithful reader), you know that I love this movie to pieces. Naturally, I assumed I would also love the short story, but I don’t. I don’t hate it, but I fell in love with the characters as portrayed by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Film Ennis and Film Jack are excellent and skilled enhancements of Annie Proulx’s Ink Ennis and Ink Jack. Proulx, like Norman Maclean, spins a tale layered with intricacy and a depth that seems almost too much to be adequately unraveled without visual aid or an outsider’s objective interpretation.

It is not a criticism of these beautiful pieces of literature to say that their visual companions did the job better. In fact, better is probably not even the right word. I posit that it’s even a credit to the authors that their works are so layered, so complex, so profound, that they require something more than just black and white words on a page. The fault lies with consumers, perhaps, rather than the authors of these fine works of prose. We consumers have become so detached from the sacred experience of literature that we need the visual stimulation, the third-party, more objective interpretations, to help us connect and engage and receive in the ways these themes deserve and are meant to be received.

That being said, would I take it well if I were told that my masterpiece was better represented, understood, and received in its butchered, doctored cinematic version instead of my own, lovingly crafted original? Likely not. But that’s a hypocritical post for another day.

*If I’m not careful, this could become a post series. I blogged about the 8th deadly sin just over a year ago.


Filed under bloggy, books, classics, experimental, movies, reviews, writing exercises

12 responses to ““The Movie Was Better:” The 9th Deadly Sin*

  1. b longfellow

    Another movie I think was better than the book: About a Boy. And like you wrote, Audra, better might not be the appropriate word choice. But what the movie did for me that the book didn’t do was communicate clearly a thought-inducing theme and central purpose. When I read the book again, I could see these things were there all along, but the movie focused my attention on what was best about the book.

    Your similar observation regarding A River Runs Through It is great analysis, and you’ve expressed it wonderfully: “[the movie does a great job] pulling out the best lines from the book and freeing them from their tangential entanglements so that they provoke the maximum amount of thought and reflective ahhhs.” Yes, and perhaps as a result the value of the book may be raised when it is revisited? That was my experience with About a Boy anyway, but I guess you already had the advantage of this perspective on your first read of RRTI.

    If I made a list of things I could change about myself, remembering more details from books I’ve read would make my top three, and this would include remembering why I feel the way I do about certain books. Unfortunately, all I remember about the experience of reading RRTI is that I loved it. If asked why, I would probably say something about it being beautiful. And yes, I did picture Brad Pitt as I read, but I don’t think this is where my evaluation of beautiful came from. In short, I’d like to read it again so as to remember why I was entertained by the parts that were tedious and boring for you. And if I could change something else about myself, fourth on the list might be adding the ability to reread books in about ten minutes. But alas, my list of unread books pursues me like a hound that never stops for a snack or a drink of water . . .

    Love the connections you’ve made between your critiques of each of these written stories and their movie counter parts. You represent the editors of the world well. Wish you’d been around when Dumas and Dickens wrote.

    • b longfellow

      I do still prefer the movie version of About a Boy over the novel, by the way. Meant to include that.

    • Longfellow,

      Thanks for adding your comments on your experience in this realm. I’m not surprised you mentioned *About a Boy*, since we’ve had numerous conversations about it and these feelings you’ve expressed about it.

      I think, however, that the only thing that would make me appreciate *A River Runs Through It* more upon a second read would be a personal experience with and firsthand knowledge of fly fishing. Since you have both of these, perhaps that contributed to your enjoyment of the book.

      I’m not at all surprised you liked this book, just as I wasn’t surprised that you liked *The Old Man and the Sea* and *The Stranger*. They all have qualities that you have: contemplative, pastoral, isolated self-reflection, calmness. These books are all just variations of your own story. They are stories you could’ve written, in fact, if specific details of your life had gone just so. They are the story you *would* write (with some slight nuance changes depending on context and circumstance, of course) if you ever decided to write one. You understand their very essence because it’s contained inside you already, and that’s why they resonate so deeply with you and why you love them so much. Not only do you understand them as you read, but reading them makes you yourself *feel* understood. And, in my experience, to feel understood is to feel valid. And that’s an invaluable feeling. Or at least, that’s my opinion, given what I know of you.

      Your Brad Pitt comment made me laugh, by the way. :) Thanks for including that little aside. I also appreciated your hound analogy but wonder, what does a hound stopping for a snack look like? They are already pursuing game. I imagine a snack detour going something like them stopping to munch on a squirrel or something. It’s funnier in my mind than I’m able to detail here. (How appropriate – the visual picture provides a nuance that my words can’t…)

      One last thing I didn’t mention in the post but that is notable: Part of my trouble with *A River Runs Through It* was the absence of chapters, or even section breaks. Any book that lacks marked stopping points wears on a reader’s motivation eventually.

      Thanks for your feedback and additions to the discussion.

  2. I think you’re right. People don’t respect the art of screen writing. It’s just as legitimate as book writing, and it’s totally unfair to say, “The movie is always better than the book.” It is more fair to say, “I enjoy the medium of the novel more than I enjoy the medium of film.”

    Movies I can think of that I enjoyed more than the books: Chocolat, anything by Nicholas Sparks, uhh… I’m sure there are more, but it’s early in the morning! :)

    Anyway, good post. You’re so great at thoughtfully reviewing things.

    • Katie!

      I always feel giddy and flattered when you 1) take the time to even read my blathering, and 2) actually comment on it. You’re a published author now, so it’s kind of like a celebrity is noticing me! And now I’m doing that thing all commoners do when they encounter celebrities: ramble incessantly about the celebrity’s greatness and avoid getting to the point. Sorry about that.

      You bring up a good argument about the language we use when discussing mediums. I have written this post from a clear (and rather old-school) stance of “the book is always better.” But you’re right. We should make distinctions based on what we tend to prefer given our sensibilities, experiences, personalities, and learning styles, rather than sweeping generalizations based only on adherence to tradition or inexperienced misconceptions. This allows for everyone’s opinion to be valid, and it also allows for exceptions to the rule, which of course there always are.

      Thanks for your thoughts and your kind words!

  3. This is an interesting post. I agree that when a movie is better it leaves you wondering whether the author should have been disciplined enough to go through another draft (instead of having kinks worked out in the screenwriting stage). I was also surprised by how the Count of Monte Cristo was different from Dumas, but was still enjoyable in its own right.

    Another, less mature example, is the Bourne series by Robert Ludlum. I have tried to get all the way through two of his books but can’t force myself to the end.The characters are stilted, the dialog is dull, and the plot is laughable. The movies, however (well, until the last one), are very enjoyable and engaging because the screenwriters completely rewrote the original stories.

    • Joshua,

      As far as the Bourne series is concerned, I am almost positive I heard or read somewhere that Ludlum has never written his own books. Or something like that. I’m not really sure how that’s a relevant comment, except to say that I think the movie brings a coherence to the series that the books probably can’t because I think that, even though Robert Ludlum’s name is on all of them, he used a different ghost writer for each one (and clearly not very good ones). Anyway, I could be totally wrong on that, and it certainly doesn’t explain why the books are poorly written, but it at least provides a reason for why the movies work a little bit better, with a bit more clarity and cohesion among them all.

  4. The Count of MC (book) was loooong indeed. I love the movie, though. One suggestion…I know you’ve read Water for Elephants, but have you seen the movie? In my opinion, that was the best book-to-movie adaptation I’ve seen. I LOVE the book (read it either two or three times–can’t remember exactly) and therefore didn’t have high hopes for the movie. But I ended up being extremely pleased with it. You might have a different opinion, but if you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend it.

    • I have not managed to see Water for Elephants yet. I held back because (like you) I loved the book and had pretty high expectations for the movie. And then I heard only good reports about the movie, both from people who’d read the book and people who hadn’t. So now my only excuse for not seeing it is that I basically don’t see any movies (anymore) that I don’t have free access to. I don’t really rent movies anymore, so if it’s not available on Netflix IP, then I don’t watch it. :) Maybe someday NFIP will get it.

  5. I like your posts. They’re thought provoking, but so thorough I don’t have much to add. I’m trying to think of a movie version that I like more than its book originator. I can’t think of one. Probably because if the movie version is that good, I end up watching it first and never getting to the book. I’ve never read Count of Monte Cristo, Dracula, or About a Boy….but I’ve seen all those movies. Don’t know that Dracula should count. since the movie isn’t exactly fantabulous. Maybe I should replace it with Interview with a Vampire. I’ve never heard bad things about Anne Rice’s writing though. So maybe that’s not fair. Hey! Brad Pitt is in that one too. And now we’re full circle. Amen.

  6. I forgot to mention Anne of Green Gables. Probably the movie with the highest expectations, and you convinced me it would not disappoint. THAT is a movie that could have gone horribly wrong.

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