Resolved: The book was not *ruined* by the movie

I see a lot of posters bitching about how filmmakers have “ruined” the book with their films. The recent pit thread about Arwen’s expanded role in the upcoming Fellowship of the Ring film is one example.

I say this is not so, and I refer to ANY book and ANY movie.

Filmmakers and dramatists have always looked to literature to provide material. Would we say that the Iliad was ruined by plays like The Trojan Women or Iphegenia et Aulis? What if a really shitty actor, cast only because he was sleeping with the director, played the part of Agamemmnon or Hecuba? Is Homer’s work any less because of this one interpretation of the stories he told?

When you see a film based on a book, you are seeing ONE interpretation of how that story could be told visually, with actors and dialogue. The film version came into being because someone (screenwriter, director, producer) loved the story enough to gather millions of dollars, a cast and crew, and shepherd it through the years-long production process. When you see a film version of a book you love, you hope that the filmmakers loved the book as much as you do, and that they loved the same characters and moments that you do. But if they loved different characters, or a different interpretation of the event, it doesn’t take away your love of the book, does it? You are still gonna love the book when you get home.

The most common complaints I see are that the filmmakers left a certain character or incident out of the movie. Well, duh. They have two hours or less to tell a story in a completely different medium. So they focus on the most important characters. They marry together two lesser characters into one. They show you things instead of telling you. They try to preserve the spine of the story, the thing that made them love it in the first place. Some things that “work” in a book don’t “work” in a film.


Example #1: L.A. Confidential. The author of the book, James Ellroy, laughed his ass off when he heard that the book had been optioned. The movie leaves out the entire child-murdering Disney plot, numerous plot twists, Jack Vincennes’s marriage and personal history, among other things. In the book, you know who at least some of the bad guys are from page one. In the film it’s a huge surprise, you unravel it only when White, Vincennes, and Exley do. If you tried to make a movie that was faithful and true to the book in every respect, you’d have a 6-hour monstrosity. Ellroy, according to interviews, LOVED the film, and marveled at how faithful it was to the L.A. he recreated and his “Three Guys.” The book and film stand on their own as pieces of art.

Example #2: The English Patient. Great book, great film. The book concentrates on the four characters in the villa equally - Kip, Caravaggio, Hana, and Almasy each have their own histories and inner worlds revealed. Kip is a much more major character in the book, since in his character Ondaatje manages to show the fall of the British Empire in his loss of faith. Well, “inner worlds” are pretty damn hard to portray on screen. So Minghella went through the book and found the story that could be best told visually (Almasy’s love affair in Egypt and how he came to be burned) and fit the other characters around it.

Both the books mentioned were previously considered “unfilmable”, and both became great films simply because the filmmakers ruthlessly cut away anything that didn’t “work” onscreen.

Example #3: Bladerunner. Book and film encompass many of the same events and characters, but are COMPLETELY different in many respects. Yet when Phillip Dick saw the film, he said to Ridley Scott “How did you get inside my head like that?”

Really, think of all the times it’s gone well. The A&E Nero Wolfe series captures the style of the books perfectly. The PBS Sherlock Holmes series from years ago, with Jeremy Brett, was breathtaking in both casting and execution. So too, I hope, will be The Lord of the Rings.

I too panic sometimes when I hear a book I love is being turned into what sounds like, in the advance Entertainment Weekly reports, a celebrity shiteburger. Like when Nicholas Cage announced that he wanted to remake Superman, with an emphasis on the character’s “dark side.” Superman doesn’t HAVE A DARK SIDE, numbskull! Or Kevin Costner’s version of (shudder) The Postman, which trust me, is a decent novel. There have certainly been abysmally bad movie versions of beloved books, and when I hear a director has got hold of something I love I do hold my breath and pray that he or she got it “right.”

I think filmmakers who undertake to put well-loved material on the screen have a responsibility to love the material themselves - which by all reports is the attitude of Peter Jackson, director of Lord of the Rings. But if and when they get it wrong, it doesn’t change anything about the splendor of the original story.

Read the book as the book, watch the film as the film.

Thoughts? Discussion? Vehement disagreement?

I once worked for some artsy types who refused to watch the (then in it’s infancy) network MTV, because, as they said, “I can imagine better ‘videos’ than the ones they broadcast”.


I have a vivid imagination. I read copiously. The movie that plays in my head is ALWAYS better than anything a filmmaker can produce. The video that plays in my head is ALWAYS better than the one on MTV.

Does that mean the movie is bad? uh, no.
Does that mean that someone else’s interpretation of events might just be better, more on-point, or more amusing or dramatic? uh, yes. Does it mean it always is? uh, no.

Are bad movies made fom good books? Duh. With stunning regularity. Does that mean you shouldn’t watch them? yeah, if you’re likely to bitch about it, sure.

Why look at a painting of a bowl of fruit or a floral arrangement? You’ve seen the real thing, why bother looking at the painting?


Sheesh, this isn’t brain surgery.

Mags, I love LOTR, and I will see the movie, and I will miss a lot of the things I have come to love about the book, but it probably will be pretty good anyway. Though I’ll probably wait for the DVD.

And ditto for me on Sherlock Holmes. What a bummer we’ve lost Brett.


I agree with you to a certain extent, mag, but in some cases, filmmakers really do fuck up a good book. Bonfire of the Vanities is a good example. And some film adaptations, while decent movies, change even the most basic elements of a book around for no discernible reason (High Fidelity - did they decide to set it in Chicago rather than London because John Cusack couldn’t do a believable English accent? I liked the film, but the decision to Americanize it seemed arbitrary and pointless).
However, I think, in general, the whole “they ruined the book” argument is usually just made by snobs - literature is more sacred and “artistic” than film, which I don’t agree with at all. Still, for whatever reason, I think many directors don’t do as much as they could with source material.
Wow, it’s starting to hurt my ass, sitting on this fence.

I went to a four-author roundtable discussion on having their books adapted for the movies. James Ellroy was one of the authors, L.A. Confidential having just played at Bumbershoot here in Seattle shortly before its nationwide opening. (Another author was Dorothy Allison; I don’t remember who the other two were anymore.)

Someone asked about “movies ruining the books,” and Ellroy basically said that a movie can’t ruin the book, because the book is still there on the shelf, waiting to be read, once the movie’s made.

And that’s the thing – the movie can suck pet rocks, but it can’t do anything to the book except screw up the adaptation. They’re separate works, and they ultimately sink or swim on their own merits.

I’d also like to know why people always claim that movies ruin books, but don’t complain about novelizations ruining movies. Hypocritical much?

I said similar things as in the OP, though not as well, in the Arwen thread mentioned above, and in the “worst butchering in turning a book into a movie” thread. A few points I would like to add:

  1. Someone who has read the book isn’t seeing the same movie as someone who hasn’t read the book. Two different perspectives for judging.

  2. A movie should be judged on it’s own terms, not in relation to the book it was based on.

  3. A movie cannot ruin the book; the book remains the same.

  4. A badly made movie can ruin a good story.

  5. Different from the book isn’t a valid criticism of a movie. Changes are bad only if they hurt the story being told in the movie, which may or may not be the story told in the book.

  6. Stuff gets left out in time compression. A movie is a short story. A mini-series is a novel. To expect a movie to be the equivilent of a novel is unreasonable.


He stole that from James M. Cain, author of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and MILDRED PIERCE (among other novels). Who said the same thing back around 1948.

Magdalene was holding my interest there in the OP until I realized that she liked James Ellroy novels.

I always fear that if a movie adaptation of a book turns out to be totally botched, it will turn off some potential readers from reading the book in the first place. They may figure, “Oh, the movie was just terrible, so why would I waste my time reading the book that inspired it?”

So while a bad movie wouldn’t ruin the book, I can see how it may dampen the chances that the book would be read by those who were exposed to the movie.

Sometimes you got to steal an idea and run with it. Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key was better done by the Coen Brothers as Miller’s Crossing as it was in the original. But it diverges far from the original text.

Let’s take an example. Movie producer options a good book about a group of British POW’s in a forced labor camp and their resistance against a viscious camp commander. The entire book deals with the battle of wills, has virtually no action, and the work being done by the prisoners completely “off-screen”.

The director and producers decide there isn’t enough action, so write in a daring prison escape by a cynical malcontent, hire a big-name American actor to appeal to American audiences, and make the off-screen forced labor the focus of the main body of the movie, reducing the content of the novel to an introduction for the added material. Finally, they add in a big action sequence to end the movie with a bang.

Sound like a formula for disaster? This is the process that produced “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. A filmed version of the book would have been interesting, but it’s unlikely it would have been the masterpiece “Kwai” is.

In an ideal world, maybe. But in the real world, no. A really bad film can make people lose interest in the original work, which means it becomes harder to find and those that do find it figure it has to be as bad as the film. Some examples:

“Howard the Duck” The movie was a fiasco, but the comic still holds up as one of the best ever produced. Know anyone who has gone back to read it after the film came out?

“Man of La Mancha” Disasterous film, and the play never seems to be revived any more. That’s a shame.

Hi, my name is Pete and I liked Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining.

Why do I always feel like such a reprobate every time I mention that? This has got to be one of the prime examples people bring up about films ruining books. Okay, so Stanley took some liberties with the story. Well you know what? He paid King a handsome amount for the ability to do just that. This was not a Stephen King movie, it was a Kubrick movie. The two stories (book & movie) shared a lot, but then diverged in the woods. The film should have been evaluated on its own merits, but instead it was attacked by King ditto-heads. Could Stevie have done better? Two words: Maximum Overdrive.

Or eleven words. “That crappy teevee movie he made out of THE SHINING himself.”

So yeah, I spent a summer slumming. You wanna make something of it? You some kinda hophead or something?

Nahhhhhh…just a fourth-rate utility trombone.

About the best example I can think of where the movie was better than the book was Get Shorty, and the book was excellent. Elmore Leonard’s books are mostly dialogue; the movie provided faces behind the dialogue, and the actors’ facial expressions added dimensions that made the words funnier.

For instance, Michael Weir (Danny DeVito) is an actor demonstrating to Chili Palmer (John Travolta) his “you pissed me off” face. Palmer’s unimpressed, and says to Weir, “What are you telling me? You’re sleepy?” That kind of scene is better shown than described.

The movie had a better ending too, and it worked because it was so Leonardesque.

And used again by Alan Moore (who attributed it to Raymond Chandler):

In general, if an interesting-sounding movie comes out that’s based on a book, I try to read the book first. That way if the movie sucks, at least I’ve read something.

I think a lot of people are inspired to try new books because of movies. For example, a friend of mine who didn’t read “classic” books read The Three Musketeers because she like the dopey Disney adaptation. She loved it, and realized that the movie did suck compared to the book. . . and now she’s not afraid to read classics. She’s currently wading through The Idylls of the King.

Seeing a bad movie based on a book you love is a traumatic experience–even more so now that one team of butchers has mangled it, it’s unlikely you’ll see another adaptation of your beloved novel in your lifetime. However, unless the movie somehow renders you unable to recall or reread the book, well, I don’t see how it could ruin the book.

Yeah, we went over all this shit at least once before.

It was Cain. Moore, who isn’t often wrong, was wrong.

Ouch. I guess I didn’t phrase it as clearly as I thought. My point wasn’t that Chandler said it. Instead, I meant that it is one of those anecdotes that no one ever gets right.

Sorry for the hijack. :slight_smile:

In my opinion the movie “The Maltese Falcon” was better than the book. Of course, I’m not a great admirer of Dashiell Hammett so bias makes my opinion suspect.