Adapting a book to screen is a very tricky business. Films are a medium of visuals, whereas books are a medium of the reader’s own thoughts and interpretations of words they read. A film (mostly) does all the work for you, while books are a far greater effort for the experiencer. Now this is not an insult against films, an art form that has a proud legacy of masterworks, but merely to display the two are very different in how each delivers their message. Since books rely heavily on the reader, often when they’re adapted to film it can be a very disappointing experience for a longtime fan.
This need not always be the case however. Sometimes the film can be better than the book on which it is based. Much better. This can happen a number of ways. For one, books are very rarely adapted by their original authors, so sometimes you can hand a book from a less skilled author to a more skilled director. This was the case with Psycho.
Many people don’t remember that Psycho, the classic thriller from Hitchcock, was adapted from a novel by Robert Bloch. There are a number of differences from the eventual film. For example, Norman Bates is a short fat balding man with thick glasses, far from the innocent and sad boy next door brought to us by Anthony Perkins. Hitch didn’t want Bates to be all monster, but show that he was a victim at one time in his life as well, a victimization that eventually drove him mad. Bloch’s Bates was an unsympathetic straight up villain, and couldn’t possibly nab the audience’s sympathies like Hitch’s Bates. This conflicted sympathy was an element not present in the book, and one example of how the film tops its parent manuscript.
Also important is the famous shower scene, which Hitchcock improved substantially in his film. In the book, Marion Crane is decapitated in the shower. Not only was this too gory for Hitch, it was not horrifying enough. The shower scene in the original 1960 film is one of the most iconic ever put to film, creating gore without few more than a few onscreen frames. The visceral and frightening sequence doesn’t focus on the blood, but rather on the fear and agony experiences by Marion Crane, making the audience squirm in their seats far more than Bloch made people squirm in their recliners. This displays how sometimes a skilled director can see something even the original author missed.
Another thing that can elevate a book is when a director has a desire to bring an adaptation further away from an author’s original intention and truly make it their own. Stanley Kubrick was such a director.
Red Alert tells the story of a bomber receiving false orders t drop a nuclear payload on Russia, threatening to start a full scale nuclear exchange. It was a straight and frightening thriller, and one of the more chilling examples of cold war fiction. Stanley Kubrick, being the character he was, saw an untapped potential in the novel. The potential for comedy.
Dr. Strangelove took Red Alert and turned it into one of the funniest movies ever made. In changing the genre of Red Alert, Kubrick gave himself an opportunity to invent, and along with his writers created a film that dwarfs the novel in every regard delivering many iconic lines, surreal and hilarious images, and quite possibly the definitive art piece on the horrors of nuclear conflict. The very threat of nuclear war is so simultaneously horrifying and laughable, Kubrick could think of no other way to make the film apart from a satire.
This was common of Kubrick to take books and make them his own in film form. Both The Shining and A Clockwork Orange aren’t good adaptations of their source material, but they are great Kubrick films, and Dr. Strangelove is no exception. But both of the above examples are of books changing out of some creative desire. Sometimes a change is just a necessity, but that too can have some advantages.
Roderick Thorpe’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever is a sequel to his 1966 novel The Detective, previously adapted to film starring Frank Sinatra. The titular Detective Joe Leland becomes caught in a terrorist siege of an oil company in a 40 story sky scraper and proceeds to pick the terrorists off one by one. Wanting to do a sequel to the original, Fox offered Sinatra the opportunity to reprise his role, but the aging star turned down the highly physical part. Now with their star off the job and still wanting to adapt the film, Fox had to find a new actor and create a totally new character. They took Joe Leland and turned him into John McClane.
Out of the pure inconvenience of not having Sinatra available, Fox reluctantly cast TV personality Bruce Willis in the lead of the drastically re-written script. John McClane is a much different character than Joe Leland, basically the whiniest action hero of all time. As a result, Fox created a tight, exciting, and suspenseful action masterpiece, all set in the confines of a single building.
Die Hard was a rousing success and set a new standard for action films. This spinoff of The Detective spawned its own lucrative franchise, spawning a series of sequels centered around the McClane character. Like Dr. Strangelove, its most iconic elements came not from the book, but from the ensuing re-writes that truly did outshine the original novel as a work of art. All because Sinatra turned down the job.
There are many other examples of books that arguably top the book, The Shawshank Redemption, Cape Fear, To Kill a Mockingbird, Forrest Gump to name a few. I’m in love with both films and books, and one thing that everyone must learn is the mediums are very different, requiring different sets of skills and ingredients to be a success. More often than not, those of us who love a good book can never have anything put onscreen compare to the images we conjure up in our imaginations.
But sometimes, if a book is flawed but given to a skilled director, if someone wants to make their adaptation their own, if inconvenience necessitates a change, or for any number of reasons, an adaptation can come out on top. Most of the books we love are solid houses that need nothing further to help them stand. Occasionally though you’ll find a book that on its own may not stand too tall, but may provide a solid foundation for something greater.