IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE BOOK or, THE PROBLEMS OF GREAT BOOKS MADE INTO MOVIES

Anyone who came to the Circulation Desk of the Field Library in 2008 when I was working on the desk knew what I thought of the book, Child 44, by Tom Robb Smith. I read it myself in one exhilarating gulp, and recommended it enthusiastically to anyone who showed the slightest interest in reading a good thriller. It had all the elements I loved and still love in a good read: a great premise (a serial killer of children stalking Stalinist Soviet Union, where the official line is that there are no such things as serial killers in the workers’ paradise), a setting unfamiliar to me but extremely well-developed and all-engulfing, complex and fascinating characters, a plot that drives faster and faster to reach a surprising but satisfying conclusion.*

So naturally when I heard that a movie version of Child 44 was in production from a major studio, I was . . .

Horrified.

Yes, horrified. Not that I didn’t think the book had all the makings of a terrific movie: a great plot, fascinating characters, unusual setting. Of course it did. It’s just that my experience with the transition of books I love into movies has not been a good one. As a matter of fact, when I hear that a movie has been made of a favorite book, I’m incredibly reluctant to see the movie at all.  This is, I’m sure, not what Hollywood wants people to think. The whole purpose of making movies out of bestselling books is to get a ready-made audience of the people who made the books bestsellers in the first place, and make a hit that way.

I’m not one of those people who believes that movies have to be slavish recreations of every nuance of a book. I remember a patron coming into the library a few years ago, indignant at one of the Harry Potter movies. The movie makers had changed the books, he cried. They’d left out crucial details! They’re not allowed to do that, are they?

This was not a teenager, either. This was someone who’d been watching movies for years. Possibly he hadn’t ever read the books on which those movies were made before, and so this was a new discovery for him.

And while I know, intellectually, that books and movies are different things and what works in a book may not work in a movie and vice versa, and I know that in many cases a line for line, scene for scene translation of even the most “cinematic” book would result in a movie much too long for anyone to sit through, even so, I want the movie to be faithful to the book. I want it to catch the spirit of the characters, the plot, something of what the author created and this just doesn’t happen often enough.  Yes, there is the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, which got it gloriously right, and there’s the movie version of Doctor Zhivago, which I thought was better than the book, but there are too many butcheries of books when they’re translated to the screen.

One of my all-time favorite books in the world is The Postman, by David Brin. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel about hope and the need for self-delusion and the power of humanity in the face of disaster. When I heard Kevin Costner was going to star in the movie version, I knew it would be a disaster. He would turn the main character into a classic Kevin Costner character: the guy who’s right all the time when everybody’s against him. There was no way Costner would portray the protagonist’s self-doubt, sense of irony and deep knowledge that the lies he was telling, while necessary, were still lies and still keeping people from the reality of their situation, even for a good cause (if this makes you want to read the book, I’m delighted because it really is a wonderful and heartwarming book). I managed to make it through the first fifteen minutes of the movie before I turned it off in disgust. It’s possible that Costner’s character developed some humility and sense of irony over the course of the movie, but it started out so far from the book that I still can’t imagine how it would have found its way to the book’s message in two hours or less.

Another example is the brilliant series of graphic novels, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, written by Alan Moore. The books bring together famous 19th century literary characters and give them exciting adventures, while giving characters like Mina Harker (of Dracula fame) and Dr. Jekyll and Alan Quartermain the ravages they would have suffered in real life.  Once the movie cast Sean Connery as Alan Quartermain, it completely lost its way. Connery couldn’t be the broken man in the books, and he couldn’t play second fiddle to Mina Harker, who is the leader of the group in the books. The movie became a grotesque action movie loaded with special effects and a ridiculous story, nothing like the books at all.

I read Vikas Swarup’s book, Q & A after I saw the movie version of it, Slumdog Millionaire, and that’s a good thing, because I enjoyed the movie, and if I had read the book first, I would have been furious at how the screenwriters stripped most of the plot, almost all of the irony and breadth of the characters and the situation, away and left only a very simplified structure with very simplified characters instead. If you loved Slumdog Millionaire, you really should read Q & A and you’ll see what I mean. An okay movie, but a great book.

So, to return to Child 44. I probably will watch it, maybe even in the theater. I’ll try not to raise my expectations too high, and maybe this time the movie will be worthy of the book.

 

 

*Tom Robb Smith has written two sequels to that book, both of which I read eagerly but neither of which, alas, rises to the level of _Child 44_ in terms of suspense in my opinion.


Books mentioned in this post:

Child 44 by Tom Robb Smith

The Postman by David Brin

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore

Q & A by Vikas Swarup

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