Why the book is better than the movie (With one notable exception)

I have always loved watching TV. Yes, I said loved. I watch far too much and I blame my mother for that. She limited my TV watching when I was a kid. For a while growing up we didn’t even have a TV. (My babysitters were very bored after I went to bed.) I never watched Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock. At my father’s house the television screen was six inches. It wasn’t even a color TV. The only thing I remember watching on it was Star Trek. Once I got into middle school and high school I watched a bit more, but my mom was still there trying to curb my TV time. I would watch TV standing up with my hand on the cable box, ready to hit the power button and scurry off to start my chores the second I heard her car pull in the driveway. Obviously I had to make up for this lack of screen time in my childhood by watching an obscene amount of television (and movies on TV) once I hit adulthood.

Despite my devotion to television — you should see my cable bill — I still love books more. Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why. I think a big part of it is the freedom reading a book gives you. I don’t mean you can travel to new places or whatever the libraries of America try to convince you books can do. I mean that when I read a book I can picture the story unfolding in my head. And just because the author gives a main character blue eyes and fair skin doesn’t mean that’s how he looks to me. I can shorten him a little below the towering height a writer describes. I can ditch the blue eyes and give him brown ones like the boy I had a crush on in grade school. I can picture his smile and his mannerisms. With a movie you get what the casting director wants you to see.

With a book you can slow down and savor well-written passages. You can be surprised that an object mentioned in chapter one has a great deal of importance in the final pages because there wasn’t a slow dramatic camera pan to it. You can create your version of the world the author created.

This is not to say movies are bad or of lower quality than books. They’re an entirely different art form. And I do enjoy watching movies based on books I’ve enjoyed. To stop myself from fussing about all the differences I try to see the movie as a detailed summary of the book. Minor characters are often lost, plot points are condensed, motivations aren’t always fully explained. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just what makes the book better. I will always cry harder when a character dies in the book than in the movie.

Sometimes filmmakers try to capture the entire book. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was made into two movies. The Lord of the Rings movies are all over three hours long. George R. R. Martin’s books are a television series on HBO and they still have to skip small details. I know making a book into a film can do wonders for the sales of that book. Finding out a movie I liked is a book often encourages me to read the book. What author wouldn’t love the boost in sales?

The notable exception to this rule is American Psycho (2000). The movie is fantastic, one of my favorites. A few years ago my husband bought the book, assuming that because he liked the movie so much he would enjoy it. I’ve been encouraging him to read more fiction so I proposed that we both read it for a little husband/wife book group. Neither of us made it past 60 pages. It’s awful. Obviously this is just my opinion, but I was shocked at the difference. I know one of the themes is consumerism and the movie touches that nicely. The book hits you over the head. I got tired of reading brand names somewhere around page five. It’s like half the text. And I felt like nothing was happening, the action was too slow, the characters too dull.

I wondered how this could be. Was I missing something? Was the novel better than the first read? I did a little investigating and I learned that Bret Easton Ellis, the author, wants to do a remake of the movie. Then I learned that Bret Easton Ellis is an idiot. He wants a shallow, rich, useless reality star to play Patrick Bateman, a role played impeccably by actor Christian Bale. First of all a remake would do nothing for this movie. Total Recall was remade with a different take on the story; Star Trek was set in an alternate reality. American Psycho was perfection in its first iteration; it needs no reboot. And you don’t need an insipid rich douche in real life to play one on the big screen. That’s the whole reason acting exists. A good actor can play a psychopath without actually being one. It’s actually amazing that Ellis didn’t ruin the movie. He didn’t write the screenplay and it shows. The director saw something in that book of his and polished it until it shown.

I’ve never fully understood that “exception proving the rule” phrase, but I think this nails it. Books and movies are each good in their own way and when they come together in capable hands magic can happen. I think it’s more often the case that a movie does a book a disservice – The Golden Compass movie was a wreck – than the other way around. Both are creative endeavors I will continue to enjoy, I’ll just always enjoys books a little more.

Kelly Hannon worked in an indie bookstore, is editing her first novel, and blogs about annoying people at www.letterstopeopleihate.com. Follow her on Twitter @KellyMHannon

2 Responses to “Why the book is better than the movie (With one notable exception)”
  1. theewhimsicalwriter says:

    I just had a conversation with a friend about this, and I tried to convince them that books were like that…thank god I’m not the only one who believes it!

  2. I just finished Silver Linings Playbook. Honestly I was hugely unimpressed. The screenwriter must have worked some magic because in text, the characters seemed not mentally ill, but mentally deficient. And the football references were tedious to read. I haven’t seen the film yet, but it was nominated for so many awards that I have high hopes despite how really boring the book on which it is based was. I will update you.

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