I Think I Liked the Book Better: Nineteen Novelists Look at the Film Version of Their Work

By Messenger, James R. | Literature/Film Quarterly, Spring 1978 | Go to article overview

I Think I Liked the Book Better: Nineteen Novelists Look at the Film Version of Their Work


Messenger, James R., Literature/Film Quarterly


Surely everybody-at least once- has gone to the movies and seen a film based on some book they've read and remarked, 'That wasn't anything like the book!" Many times there's a second statement attached to the first: "I think I liked the book better."

As a practical matter, there are many reasons for the discrepancies between what appears on the printed page and what one sees on a motion picture screen. Literature/Film Quarterly deals with this matter on a regular basis. Larry McMurtry, in his American Film column "McMurtry on the Movies" has touched on many of the key points on the subject. Or one can refer to studies such as George Bluestone's Novels into Film, or Geoffrey Wagner's The Novel and the Cinema for a more in-depth awareness of the problems involved in translating a novel into the motion picture medium.

But one thing has been noticeably missing from so much of the discussion about making movies from books and plays: The author's opinion of the screen version of his or her work. For every novelist, such as Mr. McMurtry, who speaks on the issue, there are many more who remain part of the literary "silent majority."

As amateur critics, we all make our declarations on the appropriateness of a novel in screen form. But what about the authors? Have they been consistently satisfied with what they saw or has there been more often than not a large measure of disappointment for them in terms of final result?

During my graduate school days a few years ago, I took it upon myself to look into the matter. I sent a questionnaire to as many authors as I could find addresses for. My only criterion was that the authors had had one or more of their novels made into motion pictures. Nineteen authors were kind enough to reply. They are, in alphabetical order:

William Armstrong

James Leo Herlihy

John Hersey

Evan Hunter

James Jones

Bel Kaufman

Sue Kaufman

Ken Kesey

Daniel Keyes

John Knowles

Helen MacInnes

Bernard Malamud

Irving Stone

Robert Penn Warren

Morris West

Thornton Wilder

Kathleen Winsor

Herman Wouk

Frank Yerby

My survey consisted of four questions:

1. Do you feel changes made in translating your work to the screen ultimately violated the thesis of your book?

2. Do you agree or disagree with the characters and/or segments eliminated? Is there an example of a character or segment you feel important to the development of your story which is missing?

3. Do you feel filmmakers should be obliged to adhere strictly to a literary piece when adapting for the screen in view of the differences between the medium of the novel and the medium of the film?

4. Were you consulted during the adaptation process?

Each questionnaire addressed itself specifically to one or two of the author's novels. Question #1 was intended to gather an assessment of the novel as a movie according to the author. This was the essential issue. Did the book make it to the screen or not?

Question #2 was a refinement of the first question. It attempts to move the author at least one step away from a "gut level" reaction, and to objectify what has caused the distortion of the author's work on the screen, if he or she sees it as such.

Question #3 probes an author's awareness of the process of adaptation. Does he have any -comprehension of the problems involved in going from words to celluloid? Does he, in fact, understand the basic "differences" between the two media? This question also was intended to reveal something of the degree of antipathy or acceptance on the part of the author to film form.

Question #4 was designed to establish the author's role in the adaptation process. Was the author "left out" of the adaptation process? If so, would this perhaps be evidence of a source of negative feelings towards filmmakers and/or screen adaptation of novels? …

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