Free-Talking on Cinema, Movies, and Film (2)


Free-Talking Series: Next Post



A byproduct of attending old movie festivals and revival screenings is the ever-expanding wish list. That is, the “I wish that was on DVD so I could see it again” list. Some of the titles on my wish list are sound films, but most are silents. That’s not so much a reflection of a greater interest in silents (although I do love ’em) as it is a comment on how few silents have been released on DVD. Thankfully that situation is slowly changing with the small but steady flow of releases by companies like Image, Flicker Alley, and Criterion and the growing number of silents in the Warner Archives DVD-on-demand catalog. Even better, most of the current crop are high quality transfers with original scores.

In fact, this entry was inspired by today’s Criterion release of Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld, The Last Command, and Docks of New York. That strikes two movies off my wish list, and one off the related “if only” list- “if only that was on DVD so I could see it!” It’s surprising to me that it took so long for these to come out on DVD, and especially that it took so long to get a good quality DVD release of Underworld. (There was an adequate small company DVD-R release; the other two were only available, if you could track down a copy, in out of print VHS.)

Put aside for a moment that it’s incredibly entertaining and artistically significant. We’re talking about the original gangster movie here! The template! The starting point of a hugely popular genre that remains popular today!

I often wonder in the same way about other movies that aren’t on DVD, like the ones with big stars and big directors and still famous titles. Now I recognize that silent films can present restoration challenges, but that doesn’t explain all of them. Someone is sitting on these movies. Don’t these people want to make money? Maybe it wouldn’t be a lot, but money in the bank is money in the bank. There’s a commercial opportunity going unexploited here.



New polls! Vote now for the best film of 2000 and best film of 2001!

These polls are part of the Commentary Track “best of the decade” project- look for the introductory posts in the next few days.



I have an animal-lover friend who refuses to watch movies in which animals die or are mistreated, even the inspirational true story kind. I know a few people who stay away from certain stars like the plague. For me, it’s serial killer movies. I’ve seen some in the past, which is why I know I don’t like them, and now I resolutely avoid the genre. (I’m glad I didn’t know going in that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a serial killer movie, since the avoidance principle would probably have trumped my policy of supporting foreign cinema at the local arthouse, and I would have missed a really good movie.)

What category of films do you dislike?



Yesterday I really should have been running errands and doing housework after my week out of town. Instead I made brownies and settled in to watch four Hong Kong movies: The Five Deadly Venoms, Heavenly Mission, Sharp Guns, and Seven Swords. Seven Swords is a favorite, and no, it isn’t a remake of Seven Samurai like you’re probably thinking, but rather is an adaptation of a wuxia novel by Liang Yusheng. A marvelous film in my favorite genre. The other three I hadn’t seen before. Five Deadly Venoms was the best of that group, a Shaw Brothers classic with great real kung fu spiced with some wall-walking.



A couple of nights ago I attended a panel at the Indianapolis International Film Festival called “Critics vs. Filmmakers Cage Match.” It was far too amicable to live up to its name, but there was some good cross-talk discussion. The first movie thrown into the ring was Avatar. The panelists were generally in agreement with the prevailing critical verdict that the film is a technological marvel hamstrung by a story that’s poorly realized and highly derivative. One of the critics suggested that the film’s monumental popular success challenges critics and filmmakers alike to examine why.

Why does a bad movie not only sell so many tickets, but generate so much genuine enthusiasm? The 3D effects are the obvious answer, but not the whole story. I think the rest of the story lies in the title of this post. I can sum up Avatar as a misshapen hybrid child of Run of the Arrow (1957) and Princess Mononoke (1997), but those references mean absolutely nothing to the casual moviegoer. Most people haven’t seen A Man Called Horse (1970) or Ferngully (1992) either. Avatar played well to teens and twentysomethings. Today’s 23 year old was born in 1987. Dances With Wolves (1990) is a cinematic relic to someone born in 1987.

My larger point: Avatar re-works an archetypal story that has been told many times before, and in many instances much better told. But what if you hadn’t seen any of those other movies? Suddenly Avatar no longer suffers by comparison or feels like a re-tread… because in your moviegoing experience it’s fresh and original.

My full Avatar review is here.



A reader brought up a good point in the comments: Whether you see the movie first or read the book first can have a big impact on your judgment of which is better. The inherent massive spoiler can be fatal to a mystery, a favorite character or scene could be MIA, or the characters may not match the image we’ve already formed of them. Sometimes just having certain expectations, and seeing them not met, can make it difficult to make a fair evaluation.

I have friends who refuse to see a movie before they’ve read the book because they say it ruins the book for them. My personal rule is to not put them too close together; whichever comes first, I have to let some time go by before the next go-round. What do you think- is it important to you to read the book first?



As promised, two more examples of movies that are better than the good books they’re based on:

I really enjoyed Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), but there’s no getting around the fact that by all rights the other young woman really should have been the heroine and gotten the guy in the end. In the 1948 movie, she is and she does! I love that about it, and it’s why the movie is better than the book. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Sidney Greenstreet plays Count Fosco….

The Claim (2000) is an inspired re-imagining of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). As a case study in adaptation it would fill a monograph. It departs radically from its source in some very meaningful ways, yet it also locates and foregrounds the novel’s deeply buried, pulsing emotional core.

Are these idiosyncratic choices? Yes. Will everyone agree that these particular movies are better than the book? No. But the argument can be made, and that’s my argument here. (Readers have brought up some other good examples in the comments.) Let’s set aside for a moment the great books that no adaptation could ever possibly improve on. Most books are imperfect, and that includes the good ones. Therefore, the movie necessarily has the potential to be better than the book and sometimes is, even if most of the time it isn’t.



Part 1 covered movies that are better than the books they’re based on because the movie is good and the book isn’t very. The next group’s not such an easily identifiable category. It’s made up of movies that for different reasons and in different ways are better than the good (not great) books they adapt.

I’ve been citing Enchanted April for years in this debate. The 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Armin has been adapted twice, in 1935 and 1992. The 1935 black and white version is okay but not better than the book. I stress the B&W because color is the key to the 1992 film’s superiority. It’s an all-around well-made movie; among other things, it has a notably fine cast and a very good script. But the single attribute that sets it above the book is the the color photography.

The castle, the garden, and the Italian spring are abstractions on the page. On the screen, they’re real. Color transforms the work as the place transforms the heroines’ lives.

Next time: Two more films that improve on the good books they’re based on.



The declaration that the original is always better when it comes to movies based on books has been repeated so many times and in so many places that many people actually believe it. In fact, while it’s true that a lot of movie adaptations don’t measure up to the original, it’s equally true that a lot of movie adaptations are just as good in their own way or even outright better than the book.

To begin with, a lot of popular fiction of this and every age and country has plenty of room for improvement. The Hunt for Red October kept what was good about Tom Clancy’s novel and vastly improved on the rest. Jurassic Park is no filmmaking masterpiece, but it is highly watchable, in contrast to Michael Crichton’s nearly unreadable novel. George Du Maurier’s Trilby, the unsurpassed literary sensation of its day, is literally unreadable (I tried once); yet the villain’s part gave John Barrymore one of his best roles in Svengali. I could go on (and please do comment with your own examples), but you get the idea.

So, one strategy for producing a movie that’s better than the original is to start with a book with a decent plot and good characters, but low literary merit. Next entry I’ll write on some movies that improve on books that are actually good.


Free-Talking Series: Prior Post

30 responses to “Free-Talking on Cinema, Movies, and Film (2)

  1. It’s nearly impossible for me to think of a movie that is better presented the book it’s based on. I don’t read contemporary novels (Clancy, Crichton, Grisham) because I read books that were written before the 1950’s, for the language bothers me if it’s not grammatically correct and the dialogue coherent.
    I am currently reading Michal Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” (2000), which had won a Pulitzer but it takes place in the 1940’s and is written with respect to the genre and the era’s language. I’d also read the four Nightwatch novels, which were turned into two bad movies (although the second one, “Day Watch” wasn’t THAT bad) but I can’t think of boos better then the movies.
    I skip the bad literature altogether. :O)

  2. I mostly read classics myself but old isn’t the same as good (or readable). Trilby (1894) is conclusive evidence of that- it’s got to be the worst book I’ve ever started reading. I became curious to read it after finishing David Lodge’s fine novelized biography of Henry James, Author, Author (2004). James and Du Maurier, whose main career was as a successful cartoonist for Punch magazine, were close friends. Lodge plausibly portrays James as understandably baffled by Trilby’s runaway success, and frustrated by the lack of interest in his own work. Which of course has endured while Trilby is now a trivia question!

    Incidentally there are some good movies based on James novels, although none that outshine the original.

  3. I can’t say that I know Henry James, aside from what Wikipedia wrote on him. I have heard of “Wings of the Dove” and “The Bostonians” but alas, I have only HEARD of them…

    My fave authors are Poe and Wilde. :O)

  4. Start with Washington Square and The Turn of the Screw. They’re great, they’re short, and they’re from the first phase of his writing career (his late works are wonderful, but opaque and densely written- his reputation for impossible, paragraph long sentences comes from this last phase). Washington Square was the basis for The Heiress and The Turn of the Screw was adapted as The Innocents; both very good movies, although fairly free adaptations.

  5. If I had to choose between Bram Stoker’s novel, and the film Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary, I’ll take the ballet any day.

    • Ohhh, good one!

      • Anything by Canada’s Guy Maddin is awesome. I own “My Winnipeg” and it’s a wonderful film. And if you hadn’t seen his 6 minute short “The Heart of the World”, check it out here:

  6. Ring (Ringu) movie better than novel, others are
    Battle Royal
    Smilla’s Sense of Snow about equal
    Day Watch, although the book covers both day watch and night watch with an intermission
    Some could argue Kubric’s Shinning over Kings

    • The Nightwatch movies were atrocious, especially compared to the books. The stories in the books were written with depth and clarity, had fully realized characters that we grew up with, and each story kept getting better than the previous one. The movies took characters, mixed them up with others and left out many important ones, did not explain the other existing dimensions (why on Earth did they use flashlights?!) and ruined the possibilities or the rest of the stories.
      The movies house 2/12 stories. >:O(

    • I haven’t read the Night Watch/Day Watch books so can’t comment on the merits of the movies as adaptations, but taken on their own I enjoyed the first movie and loved the second.

      Other people have cited The Shining to me as a movie that’s better than the book, although usually with the caveat that it’s probably unfair to compare them directly because they’re so different.

  7. To be honest, I’d say that Fight Club worked much better as a movie than as a book. That may just be because I saw the movie before I read the book, though…

    • Which comes first, book or movie, can definitely make a big difference. I think I have the topic for my next entry. :=)

  8. Do made for TV movies count? ‘A Hazard of Hearts’, a BBC production of 1987 with an amazing cast – Diana Rigg, Edward Fox, Helena Bonham Carter, Christopher Plummer, and Stewart Granger! – is a hugely entertaining movie based on, of all things, the novel of the same name by Barbara Cartland. Just shows that a lot of talent can make something of the least promising material.

    I think ‘Laura’ the movie is better than ‘Laura’ the novel, though I enjoyed reading it. But I’ve watched the movie many times and read the book only once.

    • Indeed, who’d have thought it was even possible to make a good movie from a Barbara Cartland book? Yet A Hazard of Hearts is great fun!

      Laura is another good example. I enjoyed the book too, but the movie is definitely superior. It’s the acting that really does the trick, and that wonderful theme.

  9. “Laura” is a classic film, better than the book for sure.
    I should have mentioned Kubrick’s “The Shining” earlier, it definitely is great.
    And I’d read “Fight Club’ before seeing the film and love the film so to me they’re both on par.

  10. The novel Gone to Texas was the basis of The Outlaw Josey Wales, whole sections of dialog migrating into the film. For all that, the characterizations, the pacing, and the humor make the film the stronger choice.

    • Thinking of Westerns reminds me of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The book is quite good, but I would give the movie the edge.

  11. read book first or watch movie first there’s an advantage in each of it..

    many movie that adapted from the book is not popular such as the book and sometimes the story is not the same again like in the book

    but movie gives the imagination that maybe we couldn’t imagine

    • If it’s a classic novel or simply contemporary literature I read the book first. But I usually read the book first, in general.

      Fight Club, The Road, Shogun, etc. But at least the movies based on those books are awesome too.

  12. I think your point about an interval between is the important one, especially for the book first then movie pattern. Of necessity, the movie will edit, compress, and alter emphases of the book. This seems much more painful than the reverse expansion of story and themes when going from movie to book.

    I don’t often go looking for the book even when I’ve enjoyed the movie. Sometimes I’ve just missed it, like “The Assasination of Jesse James…”; that’s one that seemed so rich that I wanted to have more. “The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo”, on the other hand, is an excellent and enjoyable movie and tells me everything I want to know. If I’d read it first I might have been curious to see the movie but I feel no interest in revisiting the story in print.

    • I agree. It’s also pertinent that the great books stand up to- invite- re-reading for the writing, thematic complexity, psychological insight, etc. If a book is worth reading more than once, then it isn’t diminished by seeing the movie first.

  13. I like the people vs. critics approach and to answer your question I believe that film has been around for far too long to be appreciated like it used to be. Film had been around for 125 years and when one looks at the first 2 decades of it and compares it to the last 2 decades of it we can see a huge misstep.

    I’m only 28 years of age and still prefer black and white to color. I prefer that the camera is situated on a tripod and I prefer being able to read the language of the cinema instead of listening to drivel and expository dialogue (“Inception” excluded). But hey, that’s just me.

  14. “Five Deadly Venoms” is a classic and Seven Swords was awesome. Usually I dislike Tsui Hark’s film (especially Vampire Hunters) but this one was great.

    Onto the topic, I usually prefer watching movies at home than going out. Escapism is more interesting than the real world. 0_<

  15. I absolutely refuse to see an ‘evil child’ movie or a slasher gore fest. Actually I don’t much like horror movies but those are the worst. I make an exception for a few in the genre, like Carpenter’s Vampires, Ravenous, and Evil Dead 2.

    • I love those three films…

      I avoid romantic comedies because there’s a good movie every few years, at best. The formula has been tired since the 1990’s and the actors just don’t care. Plus, the glitz and glamor of our contemporary society is ugly, aesthetically. Look at one of the rom coms of all time: The Lady Eve. That movie works on every level because the story, performances, direction and cinematography are all great. When I hear about Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Garner (whom I greatly detest), and other such women that play in mostly rom coms I grow tired and upset at Hollywood. The genre racks up a lot of cash and will never go away and that annoys me even further.

  16. @Miriam: Those are good exceptions to make! Slasher films are on my no-see list also.

    @Nir: I love romantic comedies and I agree with you.* I look at contemporary examples and wonder if the people making them know what genre they’re in. There are the ones like Leap Year that are comedies of humiliation and the ones like the upcoming Going the Distance, which I just suffered through the trailer for, that aspire to be gross-out comedies. Then there are the ones like My Life in Ruins that know what genre they’re in but are just bad, bad, bad in every respect.

    *Except maybe about Jennifer Lopez, although the movies I’ve liked her in weren’t rom-coms….

  17. Movies I wish were on DVD? Where to start!! Can you believe The Big Parade isn’t available or several of Rudolph Valentino’s big titles like The Eagle. One I would love to have is Children of Divorce. Clara Bow, Gary Cooper in his first starring role, and von Sternberg directing a stunning conclusion. If big names like those can’t get a movie out what will?

    And then there’s the question of recent movies that are only available on miserable pan/scan video copy to DVD. I love Princess Caraboo but I refuse to buy it until a proper transfer is issued.

    • That’s a good point about poor quality DVD releases. Enchanted April is another recent film where the DVD has received a failing grade from fans.

      Add inaugural Best Picture winner Wings to the “I can’t believe it’s not on DVD!” list.


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