January 13, 2016

Horse 2056 - The Book Is Better Than The Film. So What? The Book Doesn't Matter.

At some point over the past 19 years that I've kept a blog, I imagine that I must have made the point that I think that in the vast majority of circumstances I've enjoyed the book version of something more than the film version. The reason for this is that for reasons of brevity and form, filmmakers need to tell a more direct narrative than people writing text. In a book, you're allowed to make meandered wanderings that have little to do with the current plot, you're allowed to make lengthy flashbacks and you're allowed to make more detailed asides where the characters' thoughts and motives are made public to the audience. In a film, you only have about ninety minutes to say everything and so you need to make your points as efficiently as you possibly can. Then there's always the issue that someone's mind can paint the scenery and the smells of a world far more vividly than any UHD, UHX, Dolby, Technicolor, Kodachrome set of tools ever could.
Someone said something to me today that totally made me rethink my perspective on this matter. It was this:

The book doesn't matter. 

Read the book. Enjoy the book. Put the book on your bookshelf as a monument to your own literacy in your own personal mausoleum.
The truth is that there are people who will never read the book. They will never read the comic. They will never play the video game. They will never play the board game. Whatever the source material was, however brilliant, mediocre, detailed the world inside the source was, however rich the history, however complicated the back story is, the film maker can not rely on the fact that the person who has forked over many dollarpounds to be entertained by the film for ninety minutes, is familiar with any of it. The audience might be someone who works hard all day long and simply doesn't have the patience to do the work required to read a book, or read a comic book, or have played the board game or video game. The contract that they have made with the filmmaker is for them to sit in a darkened space and passively let the story wash over them for however long the film runs for.
If the film is terrible and is worse than the book, then the people who have read the book will feel ripped off but the people who haven't read the book don't experience that loss of wasted potential. If the film is terrible and the book was also terrible, then the people who have read the book will forgive the film maker for working with bad source material but the people who have never read the book suffer nothing at all except a bad film.
If the film is brilliant then people who have read the book will feel happy and the people who have not, will still get to see a worthwhile film. If the film is brilliant and the book was terrible, then the people who have read the book will praise the film makers but the people who have not will walk out of the cinemas having seen a good film.
Whatever possible combination you can come up with, it is only the people who have read the book who have several sets of expectations to juggle. The people who have had no contact with the source material will only make their judgements about the film in front of them. That isn't a question about the relative merits of the book or the film but purely about whether the film maker has fulfilled their part of the contract or not.

A good book is not the main determinant in the final quality of a film in question. Again I return to the example of the Lord Of The Rings and Hobbit series. I thought that the Lord Of The Rings series of films was all right but not brilliant. I think that the films are better than the books because Tolkien is such a tedious writer. By the same token, 2001: A Space Odyssey contains an all right movie surrounded by many many minutes of pointless garbage. The book is better because the internal conflict of HAL is expressed by the writer in no way that any film could hope to do.
The source material for both of these films are equally famous books. Their adaptation into films as far as I can tell, depends in no way whatsoever on the original quality of the writing of those books. I can categorically say that the Lord Of The Rings films age better than 2001: A Space Odyssey simply based on the quality of the films.

Actually I'll also suggest that the quality of the film making also largely doesn't matter either. There is a case to be made for the art and technical prowess of a film and a lot of that depends on the technology available to the film maker but as far as the film watcher is concerned, it all returns to that contract which was made before the film began. How well does the film provide entertainment for ninety minutes or however long the film runs for? I think that I must have seen at least two dozen silent films in 2015 and some of those sequences although they appear utterly hokey (and in some cases this is riffed upon), they still work as well as they did more than a hundred years ago.

In the end, films are judged against other films; not books. If the book is better than the film, then good. Reread the book and enjoy it again. For someone who just wants to sit in a darkened place and let the story play out in front of them, the book is irrelevant. The book does not matter.

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