The Movie Is (Sometimes) Better Than the Book: Adaptations as Literary Analysis

By Flowers, Mark | Young Adult Library Services, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Movie Is (Sometimes) Better Than the Book: Adaptations as Literary Analysis


Flowers, Mark, Young Adult Library Services


This Spring, I was in a Barnes & Noble and noticed a display titled "Read the Book Before You See the Movie," advertising the novels of various movie adaptations released this summer: Beastly, Jane Eyre, and Atlas Shrugged. The one that caught my eye, though, was Red Riding Hood--not an edition of the Grimm fairy tale but a novelization of the movie) The absurdity of asking customers to "read the book before seeing the movie," when even the author of the book itself had not done so, got me thinking about what a bad name film adaptations get in our culture. We constantly hear that "the book is always better than the movie" or that some particular movie didn't "live up to" the book. So, in honor of this year's Teen Read Week[TM] theme of "Picture It," I thought I'd make a plea for movie adaptations of books, short stories, and other literature.

The Movie Is Better Than the Book

For the past year or so, I've been compiling a list of movies I've seen which are better or equal to their literary source. The list is already at almost 150 titles. Tastes differ, and I don't want to start an argument about specific movies or my own tastes, but I do think it is clear that Hollywood in particular, and filmmakers all over the world as well, have a penchant for making great art out of relatively minor, or even trashy, material. Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, David Cronenberg, Orson Welles, and Roman Polanski, to name just a few examples, each made many, many films based on the works of such literary "giants" as Roland Topor, Norbert Jacques, Patrick McGrath, Georges de La Fouchardiere, Cornell Woolrich, Robert Bloch, Sherwood King, and Whit Masterson. Again, we could argue over the specifics of a few of these cases, but the general trend is clear: novels and short stories which have either been completely forgotten, or are remembered only because they inspired film masterpieces.

The premise that the literary source of a film is more valid, important, or valuable than the film not only is patently false but also does an incredible disservice to all parties involved. It shortchanges the artistry and critical thought of filmmakers. It shortchanges the intelligence of the people being fed the line, and especially in the case of teens, it has the potential to belittle them for preferring one art form over another. And ultimately, it backfires on the cultural "guardians" (teachers, parents, and librarians) who make the claim, when audiences realize they are wrong.

This is all the more disheartening because, as I will attempt to show below, film adaptations, besides being entertaining and artistic in their own right, also have the potential to act as a powerful critical lens through which to view their literary source, a lens which we forgo to our own detriment.

Adaptations as Critical Commentaries

Google "the movie was better than the book" and you will find plenty of examples of people arguing that their favorite movie surpassed its source. So rather than spend this article ranting about how great some Cronenberg picture is, I would rather write about a somewhat different topic which I think has not been given much attention: film adaptations which act as critical commentaries on the works they are adapting (regardless of the artistic merits of each). Filmic critiques are (at least) doubly interesting because they can not only be great fun in and of themselves but also be great pedagogic tools for teachers trying to get their students to think critically about literature. (2)

Below, I take a look at three adaptations: a short comic based on a fairy tale; a short film based on a short story, and a feature film based on a novel. Each of these offers separate ways of looking at the ways in which adaptations can illuminate their sources. I start with the fairy tale that began this article.

Red Hot Riding Hood

In "Red Hot Riding Hood", directed by cartoon genius Tex Avery, a narrator begins to tell the traditional story of "Little Red Riding Hood," but gets only a minute or so in before all three main characters object. …

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