reading versus voyeurism: movies based on books

When I was younger I used to have read-a-long books that came with records. The majority of them were based on Disney cartoons. As I grew up I started to read books based on movies. The first book I read that a movie was based on was 101 Dalmations. I was confused because the book was not identical to the movie. My dad told me the book is always better than the movie. In my naivete I did not understand the difference between books based on movies and movies based on books.

I will admit that I have read many of the modern classics only after a movie was made and I saw the advertisements or the shiny glossy cover. I had seen John Irving‘s books for years but was never interested in the titles or covers. I saw a movie trailer for The Cider House Rules which prompted me to pick up the book. I read it quickly and have read every book he has published since.

I discovered Irvine Welsh because Trainspotting was made into a movie with the most amazing Brit-pop soundtrack. I didn’t read the book until after seeing the movie. This was helpful as Welsh writes in a Scottish dialect and the first time I read Trainspotting I was so lost that I continued to read only because I knew from the movie that the book was worth the effort. The movie version comes with a glossary of Scottish words with their translations. After reading a few of his books, I picked up the verbiage and cadence; it reads like poetry even though the words are “cunt, knob, hole, spunk, cowpin” and many of his characters are at best questionable but generally horrific.

Slumdog Millionaire, based on Q & A (which has since been renamed Slumdog Millionaire)  is directed by Danny Boyle (who also directed Trainspotting). The plot is brilliant and you are immediately immersed in a fast paced story. I really like the movie: the story, the characters, the soundtrack and the design. I read the book after seeing the movie and discovered there were many changes made. Relationships were altered and characters differed but the brilliant narrative set-up in the movie was from the author, Vikas Swarup. Even though many liberties were taken in the movie, I still enjoy it because it still maintains the integrity of the book.

I never considered reading Charlaine HarrisTrue Blood series because the covers featured flying coffins. My roommate insisted I watch the show – I balked because I’m an Anne Rice fan and suspicious of this new pop cult obsession with vampires. However, the show was great and I picked up the books. This is one of those rare cases where the show based on the book is better than the books. However, Charlaine Harris has created a wonderful world and uses the world of vampires vs. humans (and eventually werewolves and fairies) to explore racism and homophobia. Her women are wonderfully strong; perhaps they appear to be damsels in distress but they are fierce, aggressive women who fight back.

Based on the the weird wizard in a pointy hat, the short hobbit and the fat troll on the cover of The Lord of the Rings I assumed it was outdated. And then the fancy, shiny movie preview came out. Everything was slick, dark, dirty. And bright at the same time. I took a class at SF State that focused solely on the Lord of the Rings and its precursors. The professors teaching had both been reading LOTR every year since high school. They were both so familiar with their own visions that they refused to see the movies. The students kept questioning them – why won’t you watch it? Aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to compare? Don’t you? Won’t you? Why? Why? Why? And yet these professors stood strong: the book meant more to them than the interpretation. Bravo to them! They are better readers than me. I have seen the movies and I’m completely entranced; I own the extended versions on dvd. I’ll admit that once I saw the movies that I was unable to remember how I had initially pictured Middle Earth but I don’t mind. I’m glad to live in New Zealand’s version of the Shire. And I’m happy to picture Frodo and Samwise as Elijah Wood and Sean Astin.

I’m not sure that I would call Bridget Jones’ Diary a modern day classic, but I will admit it’s extremely funny. I only watched the movie because I was in London trapped in a rainstorm, an hour from the hostel I was staying at. So I went into the first movie that was showing and I was surprisingly happy that I did. The main character works for a book publisher and the movie has a guest appearance by Salman Rushdie. If it’s good enough for Sir Salman Rushdie, it’s good enough for me.

On that same trip I became aware of Nick Hornby. I had never heard of him before but every bookstore had major displays of his newest book, About a Boy. I read the description but for some reason it didn’t impress me (although in hindsight I can’t understand why). Eventually a movie was made with Hugh Grant and I saw the absolute humor. The movie is just as brilliant as the book. An irresponsible man pretends to have a baby so he can pick up single moms. One of them has a twelve year old boy who discovers his secret and they eventually become friends. The plot is ludicrous but Hornby creates very real characters and everything is plausible. I laugh every time I read the book and watch the movie.

As I mentioned before, I would never had read Stieg Larsson’s trilogy had it not been for the poster with the punk rock girl. After reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I watched both movies: Swedish and American. They both were great; the book is so long and so dense with so many different plots that each movie focused on different relationships and minor plots so in a way, the movies compliment each other. They both tell the same tale of Lisbeth Salander, but they focus on different aspects of the book because it would be impossible to include the entire novel into a single movie. I noticed that the American version focused more on Lisbeth’s revenge than the Swedish one.  I prefer the American version only for that reason.

Another book I did not read until there was a movie made (again both in Sweden and America) is Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. I haven’t seen the Swedish version of the movie but I’ve watched the American version. It’s pretty good but the vampire’s sexuality isn’t handled as well as it is in the book. But of course, the characters are or look like twelve year olds and to explore and hint at that visually would make healthy people uncomfortable (myself included).

Speaking of under-age sexuality, the book Lolita is said to be the greatest love story to the English language. I cannot find the source, but I think that it’s the best description of the book. Vladimir Nabokov was Russian and wrote this book about a sociopathic pedophile who molests a young girl repeatedly. He’s horrid yes, but the language that Nabokov uses to seduce the reader and pull him into Humbert Humbert’s world is magical. Nabokov could have written it in his native tongue, but he chose to write it in English. I have seen both movies but cannot recall too much of them except that I was extremely uncomfortable by anything that resembled or hinted at sexual relations between Humbert and Lolita. This story works only as a novel because you lose the language and descriptions in the movies. You are watching things happen as opposed to be sucked into them by Nabokov’s letters.

From one sociopath to another, I’ve read Bret Easton EllisAmerican Psycho and I love it but I have not seen the movie. The murder and rape scenes would be too vulgar to watch. However, when I saw Scott Disick’s photo I thought, he looks like Patrick Bateman and recently Ellis has said that he will approve a remake only is Scott Disick plays the lead. If that version is ever made, I’ll see the movie. (For those of you that are too cool to know who Disick is, he is dating Kourtney Kardashian. Sigh. I wish I didn’t know that but I do.)

I guess that’s the major difference for me between movies and books. Regardless of how violent or sexist a book is, if the writer is an artist you recognize the authorial voice hidden in the language and descriptions. You read the characters’ words but you see how others treat them and how they react to others. It’s much harder to get the authorial voice when you are watching a movie. Instead of art, it can come across as pornographic or sadistic. I understand that movies can be every bit of artistic as books but for some reason I just don’t enjoy them nearly as much as the books they are based on.

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