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To view or to read . . . Do screen adaptations satisfy?

by Robin Hansson, staff writer


Novelists and filmmakers, once uneasy bedmates, have realized what kind of profit a healthy relationship can make. Hollywood has seen that good writing is hard to come by, and most authors certainly understand the meaning of a fat check. In a period of two hours, Hollywood presents a movie based on a 500-page book that takes the average person 60-70 hours to read. Something has to give.


Readers are somewhat frightened by this. They ask, what will Hollywood do to this first-class novel? What will they change?

On the other hand, most moviegoers could care less. They don’t care about the scriptwriter let alone the novelist on whose work the script is based. They focus entirely on the experience of the film, the final product.

From J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, the list of novels that have become movies is long. We have all heard people ask, “Have you read the book?” And the common answer is: “No, but I have seen the movie.” What about the opposite? Have you ever read a book before it came out as a movie? Did you read David Morrell’s Rambo: First Blood or Thomas Harris’ Hannibal, for example? If you were one of those who did read these novels before they became movies, you might have been pretty disappointed. Both Rambo: First Blood and Hannibal were well written, cannot-put-them-down books. The movies were good too, but they can’t be compared to the real deal.

Today people often seem to prefer movies to books. It’s easier to watch a film, and reading takes a lot of time. One consequence is that they unintentionally overlook what an author is saying. Hollywood will do what it takes to fit on the big screen in a commercially successful way. This means, usually, a narrow focus on the main plot. For instance, in the movie Rambo: First Blood, John Rambo is portrayed as a lone warrior without friends or a clear purpose in life. Compassion is not his strong side and killing is what he does the best. The novel deals with his persona in a different way. Rambo has many friends in the novel, but not in this particular town. And he has a purpose in life too, saving prisoners of war in Vietnam. Even his name is changed: his first name, John, is a Hollywood product. In the novel, he’s simply called Rambo.

There is nothing wrong with going to the movies, but think about what your mind and imagination will miss. Details will be added and subtracted, nuances will disappear, names change, points get lost.

In the end it all boils down to personal taste. If you belong to the moviegoer category, you’ll probably continue to be impressed by expensive big-screen productions such as The Lord of the Rings and Gone with the Wind. But remember, a reader can always get closer to what the author meant when writing the book, and this gives meaning to the reverse of the cliché: “No, I never saw Rambo, but I’ve read the book.”


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