How the Best Books Get Turned Into the Worst Movies
By some reckonings, the two most successful movies ever made are 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, and Gone With the Wind from 1939. Birth was the movie that ensured the endurance of the medium and inaugurated the idea that its creative talent should be daring and artistically ambitious. We don’t really know how much money it made, but at one point it was thought The Birth of a Nation had been seen by two-thirds of the population of the United States. Gone With the Wind came along almost 25 years later, and over the course of its nearly 80 years has earned an estimated $3.5 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, outstripping nearest contender Avatar by half a billion dollars.
These two movies have two things in common (aside from their ungodly lengths). The first is a racism so horrific and thoroughgoing, they’re hard to watch. The second is the fact that they were adapted from wildly popular potboiler novels full of melodrama and incident. Thomas F. Dixon’s The Clansman was the source material for Birth. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was a best-selling book of the 1930s. The Clansman is unreadable today, while Gone With the Wind created the romance-novel genre and a million subsequent books have followed its model. (I made an effort to engage with it recently and found it stupefyingly bad.)
Similarly, the three movies that inaugurated the blockbuster era of the motion picture in the 1970s –The Godfather, The Exorcist, and Jaws – were all adaptations of bestsellers notable for the novelty of their subject matter, the originality of their plots, and their utter lack of literary distinction. The novelist and critic Joy Williams once called Mario Puzo’s The Godfather a “junk masterpiece,” by which she meant it is compulsively readable and entertaining, yet without enduring merit. The same can be said of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, though it would be a stretch to say it of Peter Benchley’s Jaws, which was basically a hit because of its dust jacket and not for its contents.
Meanwhile, consider the endless list of bad movies made from genuinely great novels…
Tolstoy’s War and Peace with the lean, distant Henry Fonda as the fat, emotional Pierre. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina with Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson (good casting, terrible film).
Moby Dick with… Gregory Peck as Ahab (yes, I said Gregory Peck). And The Brothers Karamazov with… Yul Brynner (yes, I said Yul Brynner).
Madame Bovary with Jennifer Jones (an actress who always seemed on the verge of a complete psychotic break onscreen) under the overheated direction of the musical maestro Vincente Minnelli.
Daisy Miller with… Cybill Shepherd? (It was terrible, but far from the worst Henry James adaptation, believe me.) And even The Great Gatsby, first with Alan Ladd and then with Robert Redford. (You might wonder why I’m not mentioning the new one with Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m not because it’s actually not bad, relatively speaking.)
Moving on to the distinguished novels of the recent past, we have the unbroken example of the horrendous films made from the works of Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint, The Dying Animal, The Human Stain, and the execrable American Pastoral) and perhaps the most misbegotten of all movie adaptations, Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. Among great novelists, only Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and E.M. Forster (not quite in their league) have been treated well by the movie versions of their works.
(Though even here one has to be careful: A mid-1960s adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was proposed by the one-time child actor Jackie Cooper starring Rex Harrison. Cooper told the writer John Gregory Dunne, “Dickens was a terrible writer. In the original, Scrooge is mean and stingy, but you never know why. We’re giving him a mother and father, an unhappy childhood, a whole background which will motivate him.” Given that Scrooge’s unhappy childhood is a major element of A Christmas Carol, it would appear that Cooper never actually read the 100-page book he was attacking. The movie that eventually appeared, a musical called Scrooge with Albert Finney, was awful.)
Why? Why is great literature such poor source material for the movies? Why is throwaway literature such a rich resource for the cinema?
Great movies have great plots. But the plots of great novels, while important, are not essential to their greatness. One is not obliged, as the reader of a great novel, to find its story believable in real-world terms because the story is a way of moving its characters through time and space and seeing how their reactions to the crises they face illuminate the deepest aspects of the human condition. But a movie only succeeds when it manages to get viewers to suspend their disbelief and view the proceedings as though the action were actually happening in front of their eyes.
That suspension of disbelief is achieved through storytelling technique and a magician’s misdirection – which is to say, a really great movie distracts you from its weaknesses by switching things up, changing focus, and getting you to look elsewhere before you start going, “Hey, wait a minute, this isn’t the way things work in the real world.” By borrowing a good plot from a second-rate piece of writing like The Godfather, and adding visual storytelling to narrative, the co-writer/director Francis Coppola was able to deepen the story told by novelist Mario Puzo – which was essentially a roman à clef about well-known mobsters and entertainment industry figures – into a full-blown classical American epic.
There isn’t a sentence in Puzo’s juicy novel that can compare in force and profundity to the sight of Michael Corleone coming out of the bathroom where he has just picked up a gun he is supposed to use immediately on his dining companions, sitting down at the table with them instead, and then standing up with an expression of wild alarm in his eyes as he begins to fire. He has crossed the line he never meant to cross into criminality and gangsterism. He has found his destiny and he has destroyed himself.
Thus, what was exploitative and titillating in Puzo’s telling becomes something richer and more supple in Coppola’s framing of it. To adapt a phrase from Pauline Kael, Coppola (and his many collaborators, including Puzo himself) took trash and elevated it into art.
But you can’t take something that’s already art and elevate it into art, can you? You can’t take something in a superior medium (for, yes, great novels are greater aesthetic achievements than great movies), transfer it to an inferior medium and do much more than approximate what was great about the original. Such decent approximations do exist – there’s a Jane Eyre with Orson Welles from 1943 that’s pretty good, for example. But what you get from Charlotte Bronte is so much more than the account of Jane’s wildly melodramatic life journey. Watching the movie is like hearing a wonderful singer hum Beethoven’s Fifth, while reading the novel is like hearing the Vienna Philharmonic perform the symphony under the direction of Carlos Kleiber.
The best thing to be said about movies made from great novels is that they are gateways to the novels themselves. The best thing to be said about great movies made from not-great novels is that you don’t ever have to read the books.