‘In the beginning was the word’…and the word was good.
We savour it, we roll it around in our minds and often on our tongues as we seek to squeeze every trickle of literary goodness from our favorite books.
When we read a book we create our own perfect ‘internal movie’ version of the characters, the scenes, the emotions. Taking a loved book to then create a movie adaptation is serious business.
It’s reported that in the late 1930s thousands of readers of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind demanded that charming southern rogue, Rhett Butler be played by yankee, Clark Gable. And they were right! The readers had gauged the flavour of this character very well indeedy!
The economy of a movie is far different to that of a book. By this I mean a couple of things:
- It would be near on impossible to include all text and scenes from a book and adapt them into a movie plot. Time forbids this with the approx. 90-120 minute length of a movie.
- A book can expand and explore multi-layers of action and dialogue both internal and external within a small patch of text. It is much more difficult to get inside the head of a character and their motivations in a movie.
What do we think so far?
Here are three book versus movie experiences I’ve had. In each instance I have read the book first as part of my B.A.B.E.S. group, in fact I cannot recall an instance of seeing a movie and then deciding to read the book.
While enjoying the book Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, I found it to be confronting and quite dark in terms of the brutality meted out to the circus workers. My experiences of the joy and colour associated with circuses I attended as a child were challenged. The reality of how hard this life was for those working to bring this spectacular event to audiences was difficult to read about.
Of course the main action of the book was set in the 1930s and it was tough for everyone, but the lack of respect for individuals and the privations suffered were appalling. Gruen researched her book thoroughly, apparently and incidences such as when Uncle Al (the owner) had unwanted workers ‘red-lighted’ were disturbing.
If that weren’t confronting enough, the few privileged circus people ie. Marlena and August are entwined in an abusive relationship. This then becomes a love triangle with Jacob and Marlena finding a rapport, gentleness and love that her marriage to August is lacking.
The book was filled with details of the circus workers, some of them so sad and heart wrenching ie. Camel, Kinko and Queenie and who could forget about the detailed description of Barbara the stripper and her dangling breasts.
We miss all of this gritty background in the movie and Uncle Al is eliminated completely. The script is pared right back to concentrate on the central themes of a man’s moral compass, self worth, mental illness, illusion versus reality.
The movie then, almost isn’t about circus life during the depression. By taking out all of this extra detail, the themes explored could be set anywhere.
Having said this though about everything the movie is missing, it does give something in return. The opening scene of the men manually raising the Big Top is magnificent and for me, recreated the excitement felt as a child when attending a circus performance. This then is the strength of the movie, it gave back to me the happiness, marvel and splendor I had personally experienced. The visual experience enjoyed in the movie was a winner.
So now when I reflect on Water for Elephants, I find the experience of reading the book and then watching the movie blend to create a complete experience. Having all the detail of the book already enmeshed in my mental library, I found the movie despite missing many elements enhanced the whole.
The experience of only watching the movie in this instance would not give the same comprehensive picture of circus life during the depression with its associated grittiness.
“Never judge a book by a movie.”
Enough for today, book versus movie, round 2 tomorrow.