My 11-year-old daughter Alice and I, during a before-school stop in a coffee shop this morning, were discussing books that have been made into movies: specifically The Hunger Games, which won several People’s Choice Awards last night.
“Why are the books always so much better than the movies?” asked Alice.
A question for the ages.
That’s certainly one problem people have with movie adaptations of their favorite books. It’s the problem I have with The Lord of the Rings movies. We watched those together just after I finished reading the books out loud to Alice, and maybe because the books were so fresh in my mind, I found the changes made for the movies more glaring and annoying than when I saw the movies in the theatre. (The treatment of Faramir, the decision to make Gimli comedy relief, the absence of the Scouring of the Shire, the Army of the Dead coming all the way up-river with Aragorn instead of Gondor’s human allies arriving in the black ships, the ridiculously giant elephants, etc., etc.)
But I think that’s just a symptom of the real problem.
What it really comes down to, I think, is that books are active, and movies are passive.
Books consist of nothing more than words on paper (or on a screen): just words. The author has, within his or her mind, ideas, images, characters and emotions he or she wishes to convey to other people, and has chosen the words he or she thinks can accomplish that task.
But the author cannot control, or even really know, what ideas, images, characters and emotions those words will conjure in someone else’s mind. I know exactly what Mara, the lead character in Masks, my next book for DAW, looks like; I can see her world clearly in my mind, I know how she feels about things and how she will react to the people and events around her.
Yet when you read the book (you will read the book, won’t you?), you will have a very different image of her and her adventures. To you, your mental images will be the “right” ones.
Well, you know what? You’re absolutely correct. They are right. That’s because the story in a book is created not only by the author who writes it, but by the reader who reads it. It’s a collaboration—no matter how annoying that collaboration may sometimes be for writers who discover, from the reactions and comments of readers, that what people got out of the book wasn’t really what was intended.
(I remember a story from one of Isaac Asimov’s autobiographical books—probably Opus 100—in which he described sitting in on a university class in which his class science fiction story “Nightfall” was being discussed. After the class, he went up to the professor and said, “That was very interesting, but I’m Isaac Asimov. I wrote that story, and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there.” To which the professor replied, “I’m very glad to meet you, but just because you wrote it, what makes you think you know what is in it?”)
Movies, of course, are also collaborative, but in a different way. In movies, the collaboration is among the writers, director, actors, set designers, makeup people, costume designers, etc., etc. The end result is a combination of many different people’s ideas of what a particular story should look like…but once that result is produced, it is static. That movie will always look that way (unless George Lucas made it and decides to stick in new special effects somewhere down the road…and, yes, Han shot first!), and it will look the same to every viewer.
So the biggest reason books are almost always better than movies? The story in your head can run as long as it needs to, has an unlimited special effects budget, is filled with real people rather than with actors pretending to be those people…and best of all, is produced and directed by you.
It’s a rare movie that can compete with that.