Friday, October 5, 2018

Is the Movie Better Than the Novel?

Sometimes I find myself lost in thought, pondering the many deep and philosophical questions facing humankind. Recently, this is what I spent a few hours contemplating: Has there ever been a movie that was better than the original novel?

After much rumination, I concluded the answer is “no,” there has never been a movie that was better than the original novel. And I’m not alone with that opinion. Novelist John le CarrĂ© famously quipped, “Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.”

(In the 17-plus years of writing this weekly humor column, I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve had to type the phrase “bouillon cubes,” which would make a great name for a rock band.)

Admittedly, my personal sample size is rather small. I estimate I’ve seen about 30 movies over the years where I’ve also read the novels on which they were based. Even very good movies — such as “Jaws” and “The Godfather”— can’t hold a candle to the original novels.

For example, Steven Spielberg did a terrific job creating the film adaptation of Peter Benchley’s best-selling shark terror story. He inserted some clever Hollywood-style moments of surprise and humor. And the big bang ending was emotionally cathartic for the audience, but completely ridiculous. However, the film never captured the powerful social class undercurrents of the novel. Instead of a short, bearded smart-aleck (Richard Dreyfuss), the oceanographer character, Matt Hooper, was in the novel a tall handsome upper-class preppie. Hooper’s presence in town triggers suppressed resentments in Chief Brody’s wife, who many years earlier gave up her social privilege to marry a middle-class cop. (I won’t give away how Hooper and Mrs. Brody dealt with this tension.)

 Anyway, good movie, better book.

Same thing with “The Godfather.” Francis Ford Coppola’s award-winner classic is a great movie, in large measure because it stayed so faithful to Mario Puzo’s novel. It even added some of my all-time favorite movie lines: “Leave the gun; take the cannolis,” and, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”

Like all movies, there was simply no time to explore the back stories of interesting characters, such as Johnny Fontaine, Jack Woltz, Lucy Mancini, Al Neri, Moe Green, and the aforementioned Brasi. Again, it was a wonderful movie, but the novel was better.

So, imagine my surprise when I found an online article, published by Variety magazine, titled, “Ten Movies That Are Better Than the Book.” Right at the top of the list were these films: “Jaws” and “The Godfather.” Wait a minute! I know “Variety” is a Hollywood industry publication, but did those guys even read the novels?

By the way, the other movies on the list were: “Psycho,” “Planet of the Apes,” “The Spy Who Loved Me,” “Die Hard,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Jackie Brown,” “The Notebook,” and “Fifty Shades of Gray.”

“The Spy Who Loved Me” is the only one where I’ve seen the film and read the novel. It shouldn’t even be on a list like this, because other than having a central character named James Bond and the same title, the movie’s plot is 100-percent different than the novel’s story. (And both were mediocre at best. Ian Fleming acknowledged it was one of his worst Bond books.)

I’m curious what you think about this subject. Do you agree that the movie is never as good as the novel it’s based on? Or do you think there are movies that are better than the novel? Feel free to contact me at and let me know. If you make a good argument for your point of view — or at least write something funny — I’ll include it in a future column.

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