Sidestepping the Book vs. Movie Debate

“That’s not how it’s supposed to happen.”

“She was much more likable in the book.”

How could they leave out James Potter’s backstory?”

When it comes to watching a movie that is based off of a book, there’s nothing worse than being in a room with a disgruntled reader who constantly feels the need to point out the differences between the two. And yet, admittedly, I’m often guilty of being that obnoxious, disgruntled reader.

While friends watching with me may be blissfully unaware of the details left out from the book, I struggle to stifle my complaints about the discrepancies. Given that the director is not privy to my subconscious screenplays, I guess it’s to be expected that the movie version is often drastically different from how I imagined the scenes while reading the novel. Yet somehow I still feel like he or she has personally let me down.

Whether from distractingly over-the-top production choices (looking at you, The Great Gatsby (2013)) or from being primarily focused on its perfect-looking cast (every Nicholas Sparks adaptation, ever), the full essence of a book is often lost in its conversion to the big screen. Nothing was more horrifying than when one of my favorite children’s books was turned into a film with a grotesque, feline-version of Mike Myers clad in a red and white striped hat. Even the Harry Potter film franchise— despite the fact that I honor Harry Potter Weekend marathons on ABC Family as something close to religious holidays— left some gaps that I may never totally come to grips with.

I know that often this criticism is not wholly deserved. Directors and screenwriters have a huge disadvantage in capturing what authors can fit in as many pages as they desire to an appropriate length film. Still, my aggravated chirps continue to spout unbidden from my mouth. If you’re like me in this aspect, I’ve found a substitution, though not a real solution. Some movies that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed are ones that are very loosely based off of books, but aren’t intended to follow the same plot line at all.

A prime example lies in Jane Austen adaptations. I love all of her novels, and yet for the most part I’ve been disappointed by the films. While I’m a fan of Keira Knightley and Gwyneth Paltrow in general, their depictions of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse did not live up to my (admittedly high) expectations of the characters from reading the novels. My preferred substitutions? Bridget Jones and Cher Horowitz.

The modern day adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Emma come in the comical forms of Bridget Jones’ Diary and Clueless, respectively. While serious Austen scholars may spurn me for praising such frivolous comedies as satisfactory performances of her acclaimed novels, these were two films that did not, if I’m channeling my inner Mrs. Bennet, upset my poor nerves. The fact that they were so obviously intended to be only inspired by the novels made them easier for me to accept than most movie adaptations, as rather than looking for differences, I instead noticed the similarities. They bring Austen’s understated humor and clever societal critiques to the forefront. By replacing corsets with mini skirts and the dignified world of Highbury with 1990s Beverly Hills, Clueless makes the storyline of Emma more applicable to modern audiences while still following the transformation and revelations of an overly confident and meddlesome young woman in the form of Cher Horowitz. Similarly, Bridget Jones, while a messier and perhaps more alcohol-dependent version of Elizabeth Bennet, demonstrates a woman’s hasty judgments about two males contending for her affections, one of whom is her very own Mr. Darcy.

Another film adaptation that’s even more of a stretch from the novel but still worth mentioning is The Scarlet Letter-esque movie Easy A. Like most highschool students, I suffered through the required studying of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s celebrated novel as a ninth-grade English student. I have to admit, I’d take Emma Stone’s witty banter over Hawthorne’s stuffy language any day. Though in the form of a slapstick teen comedy, on a deeper level Easy A still deals with how female promiscuity is received by society. The continued double standards that Olive, like Hester before her, faces make us question whether we’ve really come that far as a society from 17th-century Puritanical Boston, at least when it comes to the hypocrisy in the way sexuality of women compared to men is viewed. Besides, anything’s better than the 1995 film version with Demi Moore, which boasts a nude bath scene, a different ending than the novel, and, by no coincidence, a Golden Raspberry Award for “Worst Remake or Sequel.”

At the present, I’m still working on being able to withhold my indignant comments and reserve my judgment when watching book-based movies. In the meantime, however, I’ll always opt instead for freely adapted versions of novels when they’re available. If listening to more of Cher’s shrill “As if”’s or Bridget’s drunken wailings of “All By Myself” is what it takes, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

-Emily Cole


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4 Responses to Sidestepping the Book vs. Movie Debate

  1. Laura Calhoun says:

    I like this interpretation of movies and books! I always find that separating the book and movie adaptation from each other help me to better appreciate both. This way, I can still revel in the best parts of the book while recognizing that the movie, as a stand-alone entity, is also good. Easy A is one of my favorite movies, and actually made me want to read The Scarlet Letter after I watched it the first time. I definitely enjoy the similarities, but still judge them separately.

  2. Virginia Kettles says:

    Emily, I had absolutely no idea “Easy A” was partially based on “The Scarlet Letter,” past the fact that the protagonist decides to emulate Hester by putting a red A on her new, provocative wardrobe. I’ll definitely see about reading the book.

    I do agree with you on how easy it is to be at least a little disappointed with the release of a movie based on a book you love. As the daughter of a filmmaker, my mother never ceases to stress that films are a whole other medium, and an element that may be perfect in a book does not always translate well on the big screen. However, there are cases where the film only adds to the book, such as “Schindler’s List,” “Gone with the Wind,” even “Jumanji.”

    The way I see it, some stories are great onscreen, and some are best to be left on paper.

  3. Sierra Terrana says:

    This is a great piece, Emily! I often forget that movies should be appreciated as their own art form, separate from books. With this in mind, I find it easier to accept and appreciate slight differences between movies and the books upon which they are based. I also never noticed the similarities between “Clueless” and Jane Austen’s Emma! I am eager to
    re- read Emma with this in mind.

  4. Laurel Myers says:

    Separating books from their movies has always been difficult for me as well! The movie adaptation I griped about the most was “Eragon” because it was one of my favorite books and the movie was just plain awful. I guess the great thing about books is that every person has a different image in their head of the characters, their mannerisms, the surroundings, and how the whole story unfolds. This nuance is lost in movies because we are watching someone else’s interpretation.

    I used to have a rule where I had to read the book before watching the movie, but, like you, I am learning to appreciate the movie for what it is and to appreciate the book for what I make it.

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