Friday, January 4, 2013

"They even turned it into a movie"

by Scott Rhoades

Twice in the last couple weeks I've read printed statements about books being so good they were even turned into movies. Both were worded in ways that strongly suggest that being turned into a movie is the height of success for a book, that there's something so intrinsically superior about a movie that books must aspire to become films.

Obviously, as far as the author's bank account is concerned, a movie contract is a very good thing, and it's even better if the movie is actually made and is successful. Depending on the contract, the success of the movie version doesn't necessarily mean more money for the author, but it can be huge when it comes to spawning book sales, and more book sales are always a wonderful thing.

Does that mean a writer's ultimate goal should be to see his or her story on the big screen? I guess the answer is, as is so often the case, "It depends." It depends on an author's goals. I know writers who write as if their books are movie treatments, in the hopes that their stories will be turned into films. Because of the popularity and power of movies in our culture and the potential financial rewards, I can understand that. And those writers are certainly in good company. One of my favorite writers, John Steinbeck, sometimes wrote so that his stories could be used as scripts. Of Mice and Men and The Pearl are prime examples.

Personally, I love books more than I love movies. When I do go to a movie, which I do fairly infrequently, it's often to see the movie version of a book I loved. It's also almost always a bit of a disappointment.

Is there really something wrong with enjoying the book for the sake of the book? Can a book succeed on its own merit today, or does it have to be turned into a movie to validate its greatness? I like to think that a great book is great in its own right. A brilliant book stands on its own, much like a great piece of music or a beautiful poem.

Books and movies are, to state the obvious, different. To make a book work on the screen almost always requires changes. The movie versions that work best are the ones where the changes make a better movie and still maintain the integrity of the book. The amazing film version of The Grapes of Wrath is a good example. This is a case where if you know the book, you know the movie, but if you only know the movie, you have only a vague idea of the basics of the book. And yet, the movie is a classic piece of American cinema, and can be fully enjoyed even if you've never read the novel. There are many other classic movies that started as books and succeeded in both formats.

In recent years, The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books resulted in entertaining, even great, movies. One of the Harry Potter movies, the fifth one, is a rare case where I liked the movie better than the book. I almost gave up on the books after number 5. But to fit the format of a successful movie, those stories had to be altered considerably, and many people who didn't know the books had a hard time following the film versions.

Some great books have been turned into movies multiple times without the film ever approaching the greatness of the novel. I can't think of a completely successful movie treatment of Twain, for example. I can think of some that were entertaining, but none that even came close to affecting the viewer the way the way the books affect the reader. Many people refer to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the (or least a) great American novel, but none of the attempts to put it on film make the lists of greatest movies ever. You'd think Twain would be easy. His stories are funny, meaningful, and are about regular people doing things that can be filmed without a lot of special effects and other movie trickery. But it is apparently impossible to make a truly classic film version of a Twain story.

The bottom line, I think, is this: whether your ultimate goal is to write a book that becomes a successful film, or simply (right, like it's really "simple") write the best book you can, your book needs to succeed. Few literary failures become successful movies. The book must be able to succeed on its own. No matter how many beta readers tell you your book would make a great movie, you have to write the book first, and make it good enough to be noticed. So, while there is nothing wrong with desiring the financial success of a film contract or dreaming of seeing your great story become a great movie, your goal should be centered around the book.

I like cake better than I like frosting. In fact, I love cake so much that I often scrape off the frosting. A book is my cake. If I ever write something that is eventually made into a successfully realized film, that will be frosting, sweet validation that my story works in two very different media. But I'd be thrilled to write a very good book that never makes its way to a 3D IMAX screen.

No comments: