A common saying, and I’ve said it lots of times myself: “The book was better than the movie.” It’s short-hand for the way that material that’s appealing at book length somehow loses its depth when adapted into a movie. But what about stories that improve in the conversion process?
Let’s look at two recent cases: I Am Legend and The Da Vinci Code.
I’ll look at the Dan Brown case first, since that’s most easily dispatched. The Da Vinci Code in its original book form is famous for its bad writing, and I would ordinarily defend a potboiler like this, on genre principles if not anything else. Hey, it’s apparently got thrills, spills, and chills, with all that conspiracy stuff that reads like pure fantasy to me.
Except that the snooty dismissals of Brown’s prose are entirely correct. A little while ago, I added The Da Vinci Code to my queue of audiobooks, but it’s one of only two audiobooks that I had to give up on in my history of listening to them (1.5 hours of walking to/from work every day for 5 years). People who liked the book always told me about getting caught up in the story and not being able to put it down, all that good stuff that hooks people on so-called guilty pleasures. But Brown’s writing was so shoddy on a sentence-by-sentence basis that I couldn’t get far enough into the story to get hooked, especially in the audiobook format. Had I picked up the book, my eyes could have skimmed over the deadly descriptive bits, an option not as easily done while listening to the narrated version.
The inevitable movie version came out a few years ago, but I didn’t see it until last weekend. I was pleasantly surprised by it: yes, it’s long, somewhat pointless, plagued by giant lapses in logic, unconvincing in its characterization, and massively talky. All of which it inherited from the book, as far as I can tell. The movie had one inherent advantage, however: all of Dan Brown’s descriptive passages are replaced by the lush visuals common to big-budget productions. Everything’s glossy, everything’s set in the location where it should be. The corny dialogue is still there, but the lack of description, simple as that might be, is an improvement worth noting.
The recent Will Smith vehicle, I Am Legend, boasts some of the same improvement. It’s based on a rather famous book by Richard Matheson that’s been adapted into a movie twice already (as The Last Man on Earth in the 1960s with Vincent Price and as The Omega Man in the 1970s with Charlton Heston). Now, Matheson’s book broke fresh ground on every side when it came out in 1954, but it hasn’t aged well. I read it earlier this year for the first time, and my reaction was to wonder what the fuss was all about. Part of that is the fault of all the other books and movies that have ripped it off over the years. Part of it is all the weird sexist stuff in the story (accurately reflected in the Heston version, if memory serves) that left me distinctly creeped out. The book also has a notable downer of an ending, but that’s one that I mark down in Matheson’s favour since it actually works, thematically speaking.
The I Am Legend movie starring one of the biggest movie stars on the planet turns the story – surprise, surprise – into a streamlined Hollywood version. All of the weird stuff is jettisoned, in favour of a tight focus on the leading man. I have to hand it to Will Smith, the man does carry the movie. Unfortunately, in the place of the odd sexual vibe of the book, we get… nothing, which makes just as little sense in its own way (see this angry post by Steven Barnes who can explain it better than I can). And anyone who knows what the title of the book means is in for laugh at the end of the movie, since the legend of this title is pretty much the opposite of the book’s eponymous legend.
The scenes of devastation in the movie are remarkable; this is a New York City gone without humans for only three years, and already the decay has set in, by which I mean that nature is reclaiming the concrete jungle. For all the other flaws of the movie, it definitely gets this bit right, in the vein of The World Without Us and Life After People. That visual sense of the world gone to seed is the parallel to the art and real-world locations in the movie of The Da Vinci Code.
So, to sum up: two books that were on shaky ground, in terms of their writing or subject matter, then adapted into movies that capitalized on the strengths of the medium, namely fancy visuals. I think these two movies might be a rare case!
Any other good adaptations you can think of? Anyone else out there disappointed about the movie version of The Time Traveler’s Wife? Please add your comments below.