Book vs Movie: When the Book Is Better

'We are making a film of the book.'

PBS Digital Studios have a new video series It’s Lit! which is part of The Great American Read, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Featuring one of the premiere video essayists in Lindsay Ellis, this series should be brilliant.

The first video briefly discusses a topic I’ve frequently discussed here, what makes a good adaptation and why the book is so often regarded as better.

Lindsay has very concisely summarised why movies so often don’t make for good or faithful adaptations of the source material. But she also touches on why they can sometimes improve the book, or make an adaptation that uses the source material in an interesting way to tell a different story.

If you aren’t already subscribed to Lindsay or PBS Digital Studios, you may want to do so now.

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Book vs Movie: Dr Strangelove – What’s the Difference?

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This month’s What’s the Difference? from CineFix delves into one of the few Stanley Kubrick films I’ve enjoyed.

Everyone remembers Dr Strangelove but very few remember Red Alert, the novel that was the basis for Kubrick’s adaptation. Peter George’s book was an early nuclear war thriller and having got there first tended to be copied (or is that emulated?) by many other authors. This was an important point since Kubrick and George decided to sue the production of another movie based upon a nuclear war thriller that was deceptively similar to Red Alert. I’m not exactly sure why this was important as George teamed up with Terry Southern to change the super-cereal novel into a timeless satire.

Did you know that Dr Strangelove was originally going to end with a pie fight? Apparently, the farcical element involved in that was deemed too silly for a poignant satire, despite how metaphorical it was to the destruction of the human race. I guess many would have missed that point. Comedy needs to take itself more seriously if people are to get the point.

I think Dr Strangelove is a great example of a movie being better than the book. The way it does this is by not taking the source material seriously. What would have been another by-the-numbers thriller was elevated by satirising war. Landing not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film managed to capture sentiments of the absurdity of mutually assured destruction and the ineptness of the cabals of military and political elites deciding fates.

Plus, Peter Sellers.

Do we consume media?

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It is common for us to refer to books we read, movies and TV shows we watch, and whatever it is we do with news, in terms of consumption. But is that accurate? PBS Ideas Channel has an interesting video on this topic.

I like the idea of decoding as an explanation for how we interact with media. It certainly offers a better explanation for how some people will interpret something completely differently than if they were to merely consume it. Decoding also makes me feel much better about writing violent stories, and that is the important thing here: justifying stuff I already like.

What Makes A Good Story?

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Recently a YouTuber discussed what makes for a good story, based upon three important pillars: pictures, feelings, and ideas. Or as he put it:

Hello and welcome to another instalment of “X lectures you on matters he himself knows nothing about”.

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Video removed, see why further down.

Like with everything that has a simple explanation (and even some complicated ones), I think the response to these sorts of posited arguments is “I think you’ll find it is a little bit more complicated than that.” But this one was funny, so points for effort.

A lot has been written on how to tell good stories. Seriously, every second creative person in history has a list of rules or advice. So here is a list of seven things that make for good stories, because seven is more than three, and it was on the first page of my Google search:

  • A central premise.
  • Strong three-dimensional characters who change over time.
  • A confined space — often referred to as a crucible.
  • A protagonist who is on some sort of quest.
  • An antagonist of some sort bent on stopping the hero.
  • An arch in everything — everything is getting better or worse.
  • And perhaps most important — Conflict. (Source: from Inducing Reality: The Holy Grail of Storytelling by Ken “frobber” Ramsley)

I think Ramsley’s explanation is more of a traditional checklist of things you need in your storytelling. X’s, in contrast, is a more generalist feel of where a story sits on one of those trinity diagrams. Neither, in my opinion, is right. And as a creative person, I’m now going to make a list of rules and advice….

Joking. Joking. Because I don’t think it works like that. I think that what makes a story good is the execution of the various story elements, done at the right time, finding the right audience, and being interesting enough to be remembered.

As an example, Star Wars is regarded as good, despite containing clunky dialogue, wooden acting, and passable directing. Why is it good? Because it hits all the story elements of the hero’s journey, it was one of the first space operas that hit the baby boomer generation and their kids, and had cool ideas like light sabres, space battles, The Force, and merchandising before that was really a big thing, to be remembered.

I’ve previously discussed how the luck factor of being a good story works. One example I cited was of Moby Dick and how it became good literature by accident/chance. Essentially one person dug it up, liked it, wrote favourably on it, and the rest is history. Shakespeare is in a similar boat, as his works were collected posthumously by 5 fans (750 copies, 250 surviving). These are examples of how finding the right audience is important, and how timing may not coincide with when something is made. How many other potentially good works were lost because they didn’t have an advocate who chanced upon them?

Of course, that’s just my thoughts. It’s probably more complicated than that.

Edit: When I originally posted this discussion on what makes a story good, I linked to a video by a YouTuber. Via Twitter I have learnt that this YouTuber sexually abused his former partner. Please take a moment to read her story in the links.

This isn’t behaviour any of us should condone, nor support. In this instance, I was sharing his video and promoting his profile – hence why his user name and video have been removed from this post. I was wrong to tacitly support abuse in this way. By not standing against abuse you might as well be condoning it.

Book vs Movie: The Running Man – What’s The Difference?

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Given the impending authoritarian regimes and mega-media corporations forming, CineFix decided that this month’s What’s the Difference? would look at our near future. Reality TV will soon bring us The Running Man.

Back when I first saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man the title sequence credited the source material as being written by Richard Bachman. One of the people with me, turned to us all with one of those know-it-all looks and said, “That’s really Stephen King.” So as we watched Arnie take down hulking professional killers with his trademark killer puns, we wondered if he was correct. Spoiler: he was.

Decades later I finally got around to reading and enjoying the novel. The movie and the novel were starkly different in so many ways. For starters, no half-starved, poverty stricken Running Man contestant is going to look like Arnie. But many of the themes are the same, if explored in differing ways.

This made The Running Man more than just a standard action film. By exploring the themes of totalitarianism, class subjugation, and media control while Arnie slices a guy in half with a chainsaw, we got a movie that was subversive and satirical. While not on the same level of social commentary as King’s novel, it does stand as an example of how you can do a loose adaptation of source material as an action movie but retain the exploration of themes.

And watch a guy with no pants get electrocuted when the fire sprinklers are set off. Way better than reading the description of Ben Richards’ entrails getting caught on plane seats.