October 8 – 14: “The book was better than the movie. Does this maxim still hold true?”

This week we discuss the book vs. the movie: In the early days of motion pictures, people used to say: “The book was better.” Does this maxim still hold true? Join ITW Members C.E. Lawrence, Michael W. Sherer, Michael Sears, Albert Ashforth and Larry D. Thompson for a Roundtable you won’t want to miss!


C.E. Lawrence is the byline of a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright and poet whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). SILENT SLAUGHTER and the eBook SILENT STALKER are the most recent stories in her Lee Campbell thriller series. Her short story SILENT JUSTICE appears in Mystery Writers of America’s 2012 anthology, VENGEANCE, edited by Lee Child. Her short story THE VLY will appear in the MWA 2013 anthology WHAT LIES INSIDE, edited by Brad Meltzer. Her other work is published under the name of Carole Bugge. Titan Press recently reissued her first Sherlock Holmes novel,THE STAR OF INDIA.

Larry D. Thompson has drawn on decades of experience in the courtroom to craft page-turning legal thrillers. A Texas native, he tried more than 300 lawsuits before scratching the itch to be a novelist. He continues to be a trial lawyer. His latest thriller, DEAD PEASANTS, will be released on October 2nd.

After serving overseas in the US Army, Albert Ashforth graduated from Brooklyn College. He worked for two New York City newspapers, was an instructor for the University of Maryland’s Overseas Program, trained NATO officers at the German Military Academy and served as an instructor at 10th Group Special Forces headquarters in Europe. As a military contractor, he has done tours in Bosnia, Macedonia, Germany, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Mr. Ashforth is now on the faculty of the State University of New York.

Michael Sears is the author of BLACK FRIDAYS, a thriller with a financial twist, and the first in a series featuring Jason Stafford and The Kid. Mr. Sears was a Managing Director for two different Wall Street firms, where he worked in the bond market for twenty years. Prior to attending Columbia University for his MBA, he was a professional actor for eight years.

After stints as a manual laborer, dishwasher, bartender, restaurant manager, commercial photographer, magazine editor and public relations executive, Michael Sherer decided life should imitate art. He’s now an author and freelance writer. Mike has published six novels in the Emerson Ward mystery series and ISLAND LIFE a stand-alone suspense novel in addition to NIGHT BLIND. He’s now working on the fourth book in the Blake Sanders series as well as BLIND RAGE, a thriller for young adults. Visit him at www.michaelwsherer.com.

  1. I think there is a built-in danger of comparing a movie to the book on which it is based. This danger exists, I feel, mostly for the reader who has enjoyed the book.
    Reading a book is a solitary activity in which our imaginations transform the writer’s words into pictures within our own minds. We can readily visualize how the characters look, how they act and the scenes in which the story takes place. Where movies are concerned, the job of transformation is done by the director and the director’s team. Actors and actresses are cast to embody the book’s various characters. Locations are found for the scenes in which the story unfolds. After having read the book, you have a lively mental picture of how people look, talk and move, and also a picture of the scenes and places in which the story takes place. I think readers who see a movie after having enjoyed the book are in danger of being disappointed when the film, no matter how good it is, turns out to be different from the picture of the book which exists in their imagination.
    F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been filmed six times, which means there exist six different director’s interpretations of the novel. I have a feeling that not every film-goer is going to agree on which version is best. Much will depend on a person’s opinion of the book. Readers who feel the book is a classic novel would probably want a faithful movie adaptation. I fit that group. I enjoyed the 1974 film with Robert Redford, but I was disappointed when the movie omitted Nick’s concluding words regarding the first explorers and their thoughts about the promise offered by the new continent. On the other hand, readers who don’t know the book might like a fast-moving film which focuses more on the book’s larger-than-life characters and dramatic events.

  2. Albert,
    You make so many good points in your comments! I’m so glad you pointed out the need to separate the experiences, and the differences between the genres, which are immense. You do it so well that I don’t feel the need to add anything there.

    I do think there is nothing as intimate as reading; to me it’s far more personal than viewing a movie, where there is so much between you and the writer’s original vision. I think the trickiest thing to capture is tone. I’d like to mention a book that was so well translated into film that I still think of it today.

    The film is the German version of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum), 1974, by the great Heinrich Boll. The 1975 German film so captured his dark wit and irony that it took my breath away.

  3. Every truly great adaption will have its detractors. I remember the reaction of some critics to Peter Brooks Midsummer Night’s Dream, a production which opened up exploration of the canon to a generation that was busily rejecting any art form older than the previous weekend. And for every movie adaption that failed to capture the essence of the novel from which it was derived, some disastrously so, I can name some transcendent minor masterpiece. Is Yojimbo truly a lesser work of art than Red Harvest?
    The rise of the auteur filmmaker – directors and or producers – has allowed for some brilliant adaptions that reveal the art of the original and of the adapter. We may already have reached the end of this era. What director today could afford to take a stand against the marketing driven corporate culture? But while it lasted there were some real beauties.
    My personal favorite? Altman’s The Long Goodbye with Elliot Gould. The updating of Chandler’s masterpiece is done with great care. Sterling Hayden’s reeling, blustering alcoholic is a heart-breaking homage to the late Chandler himself. If you haven’t seen it, get it.

  4. “The book was better.” Is the maxim still true? Anyone who saw the movie V.I. Warshawski would say, “Absolutely!” Then again, millions of Harry Potter fans flocked to theaters and loved what they saw.

    Books and movies are completely different media. Books allow readers to imagine what settings and characters look like, to create the world that the author described in words in their own heads. Books can take readers wherever authors want to transport them. Movies are more limited in the time they have to tell a story, and also visually define settings and characters for the viewer. And often, a movie director’s vision of a book is quite distinct from the author’s.

    That doesn’t mean one is better than the other. Just different. At the first (and to-date only) Edgar Awards dinner I attended 20 years ago, Larry Block addressed this very subject, citing his own experience as an example. When the second book in his Bernie Rhodenbarr series, Burglar in The Closet, was adapted for the movie Burglar, Whoopi Goldberg was tapped for the role (though Bruce Willis was offered the part).

    Block didn’t like the film and thought it ridiculous that a large black woman played the role of his small white Jewish character. But what was done was done, and Block said it was better to take the money because the book would always be there.

    So, book or movie? Which is better? In my opinion neither, both, and depends. Maybe that’s a cop-out, but it’s true.

  5. Carole
    “Intimate” is the perfect word to describe the activity of reading. The communication taking place is between the writer and reader and is so personal the reader sometimes feels the way she might feel reading a letter from a friend. I’m not sure a film, no matter how personally involving, can ever quite capture that feeling of intimacy.
    You got me so interested in The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum that I went and ordered it from Netflix, and now can’t wait to see it.

  6. I agree with all that my co-panel members have said. Personally, I think it nearly impossible to translate a book faithfully into a movie. The reader’s imagination is gone. A book that takes ten to twenty hours to read is condensed into two hours. The screenwriter reads the novel and comes up with a totally different take on the characters and the scene, even the plot. For example, my first novel actually made it to the screenplay stage (not beyond that, at least not yet). I wrtie legal thrillers and one of my lawyers was a larger-than-life plaintiff lawyer who lived in a small town in East Texas and drove a pickup. The screenwriter transformed him to Denny Crane from Boston Legal and had him living in a high rise in Houston and driving a Ferrari. Changes like that may be why the screenplay went nowhere, but, then, again, most screenplays rarely make it to the big screen. Still, I think it can be done. I remember reading all of the earlly James Bond books and thoroughly enjoying the movies that followed (well, later, of course, some were not so good).
    My brother, Thomas Thompson, was a famous writer who died way too young in the eighties. He sold three of this books to Hollywood. His attitude was to take money and run. He believed that after the screenwriter, the producer, director and actors got through, the movie would be similar to his book in name only.

    Still, having said all of the above, if I read the book, I am usually going to see the movei (unless the reviews are universally bad). And, most often, it is two hours well spent.

  7. Albert,
    Thanks – yes, I think that feeling of intimacy is because it’s more of a give-and-take, where the reader supplies a lot, as Larry points out.

    So psyched you’re getting that film – I hope you enjoy it! Make sure it’s the German version – I haven’t seen the American one, so I can’t recommend it.

    Then, if you like it, check out Heinrich Boll’s work – he won a Nobel for Group Portrait with Lady (Gruppenbild mit Dame). But so many of his other novels and stories are worth reading! One of the greatest postwar writers to emerge from Germany.

  8. Everyone is making so many good points I’m not sure where to begin. One I would like to mention, though, is Larry’s about novels nearly always being condensed when they reach the screen. Novels are generally too long and too complex and have too many scenes to fit a two-hour screenplay. And novels will generally develop character at length, which is difficult for screenwriters to do. Books can take you into a character’s mind and, as Carole points out, deal intimately with an individual’s thoughts. The best a movie can usually do is resort to voiceovers to tell the audience what a character might be thinking. First-person narratives, I’ve noticed, often use extended voiceovers when they reach the screen..

    I think the ideal length for dramatizing is a short story. Short stories can readily be turned into screenplays which don’t omit scenes from the original story. And short stories mostly deal with just one aspect of an individual’s character. Among my favorite movies are a number which began as short stories — The Illusionist, The Shawshank Redemption, Minority Report. And another, Graham Greene’s The Third Man, began as a novella.

    I think movie people like to dramatize bestsellers primarily because they can piggyback on the widespread attention the book has already received. And of course once you’ve read the book you become curious about the film — which often means even when you’ve heard it isn’t all that good, you go see it.

  9. Shane, directed by George Stevens, is one of my favorite movies, definitely my all-time favorite western. It too is based on a short book with a straightforward plot.

    I saw the movie first and was surprised when I finally read the book and saw how down-to-earth the story is: a mysterious gunfighter turns up to save a family of homesteaders from a land-hungry cattle baron. In the movie, the relationships intrigued me. Marian, Joe’s wife, had had an affair with Shane but left him because he was a gunfighter, which for her was a socially unacceptable occupation. The movie concentrates so much on Shane’s relationship with Bob, Marian’s son, I felt that Shane was the boy’s father. The boy seems to sense it and that’s why he’s so reluctant to let Shane leave. Because of Marian, Shane has given up his guns, and it’s a real twist that he has to fall back on gunfighting to save Marian, her husband and their farm. The final scene — Bob calling “Shane come back” — is one of the greatest movie scenes ever. I think it was the development of this element of the story which made the movie so special.

    But I was in for a surprise. When I read the book, I saw no indication in the story that Shane was really Bob’s father. I guess we’ll never know whether he was or wasn’t. It’s the open-ended stories that have the most lasting impact.

  10. Carole
    You’ve gotten me interested in another film about magicians, The Prestige. Have you read the novel on which it was based? I’m putting it behind Katharina Blum on my Netflix list.

    Another film I remember seeing after reading the book was Mystic River. Thinkng back, I’m surprised the film was as good as it was. The book was, to a large extent, psychological, an exploration of the minds of the three guys affected by Dave having been kidnapped when they were kids, and it had a claustrophobic feel. These guys were locked in to their Boston working-class neighborhood and unable to break loose from the attitudes they’d absorbed growing up. Later, after Jimmy’s daughter was murdered in the park, they’re still there, in the neighborhood and still haunted by the kidnapping. And because he thinks the kidnapping might have turned Dave into a murderer, Sean, now a cop, undertakes the murder investigation.

    In the film, the gloomy trips into the guys’ psyches were pretty much replaced by gloomy pictures of the neighborhood, which effectively conveyed the pressures and circumstances preventing these guys from ever escaping their past. The mystery surrounding the murder became the focus of the movie and was very involving.

    I thought both the book and movie were very good, but each emphasized a different aspect of the same situation. I’ll steer clear of trying to say which was better.

  11. Albert,
    Yes, I agree with everything you say about Shane – my good friend Marvin Kaye (horror writer, anthologist, publisher of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine and Weird Tales) has seen it about a dozen times. It too is his favorite movie! I think that father/son archetype is very potent, especially for men. I have not read the story it is based on – sounds like the movie was a fuller experience.

    I too thought Mystic River was excellent, and captured the dark, brooding tone of the book so well. Those endless grey skies and depressed men…..

    I have not read The Prestige, though I heard a fascinating interview with the writer that made me want to read it. He invented the term “prestige” – ! You’ll know what I mean when you see the film – it’s part of the opening monologue about magic, and also it’s a central motif of the film.

    Here’s another one for you: I HAVE read the two stories Akira Kurosawa’s great crime drama Rashomon is based on. They are in a small collection by the great Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, considered father of the modern Japanese short story. I have to say that Kurosawa really created his own original work of art. So while I can’t say the film is “better,” I certainly wouldn’t say the original is better either.

  12. What about movies based on Lehane’s books? “Mystic River,” for example. Lehane has written so much for television, one might think his books would be easily adapted to the screen. Any take on which is better, movies or books?

    Or how about Elmore Leonard? His prose is so much like a script, they also seem very adaptable. I loved “Get Shorty” as much as the book, but didn’t like “Be Cool” nearly as much as the book. The characters seemed to be sleep-walking through the second one. Also thought “Out of Sight” with George Clooney made a terrific film.

  13. I also saw the “Get Shorty” movie after reading the book. I don’t know exactly how the movie managed it, but it conveyed the same nutty feel the book had. Leonard has the ability to take the reader into the minds of his characters just by listening to them talk. Unlike Lehane’s people, his characters don’t brood or do much thinking about things; they act on their impulses. I wonder how Leonard might handle a situation like the one with which Mystic River began.

    1. I’ve never tried that. I think I tend to view the two media as so separate that I accept them for what they are and don’t draw a lot of comparisons.

      Besides, who has time to reread books? There are too many, and so little time.

  14. Carole
    Thanks so much for mentioning the two stories Rashomon is based on. I’m definitely interested in seeing how they connect to the film. And thanks for mentioning Marvin, who is a great editor. I enjoy Sherlock Holmes magazine. I’ll definitely mention Shane the next time I see him. I think you’re right about the father/son theme appealing to men. Do you think that, speaking generally, men may be more sentimental than women?

    I offered Shane as an example of a film that is better than the book. Although another such example is The Third Man, the film could not have existed without Graham Greene’s novella. Greene’s story provides the unforgettable background — post-war Vienna when the city was still under Four-Power control — and a great situation — a deceased criminal, Harry, who is still alive. Then, in the film, Joseph Cotten, falls in love with Alida Valli, the woman who loves Harry. While the zither resonates, the Viennese streets, the ferris wheel, and the sewer provide a great noir atmosphere. The final scene is the perfect ending. As in Shane, the hero doesn’t get the girl. Come to think of it, Humphrey Bogart didn’t get the girl in Casablanca either. Maybe those are the best endings.

    What could be done with this screenplay situation? The hero is madly in love with a woman whose father has killed the hero’s father and who is planning to kill him.

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