Sunday, October 4, 2009

On the epic battle between the book and the movie

It’s an unfair competition – any booklover will tell you that the book is better than the movie in nine out of ten times. Well, this is the tenth time.

The only movie I know that I can – with all my heart – say is better in than the book it adapted, is The Talented Mr. Ripley. After having done some research for the purpose of this post (alright, I googled. It wasn’t hard work. It hardly qualifies as research. I should know), I now realize that there is more than one movie adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. The one I have seen, and hence the one I shall talk about here, is the 1999 version featuring Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jack Davenport.

The cast alone should merit that this is not just any dismissible movie. Add director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), and composer Gabriel Yared (also The English Patient, among many, many more), and it is easy to understand why the movie is a good one. However, it’s a long way from a good movie to a movie superior to its preceding book. How come I, of all people, prefer the movie?

Well, one reason I have already presented – the cast and the makers are top-class. Matt Damon delivers a superb performance, as does Seymor Hoffman and Blanchett. Jude Law’s performance is also very memorable – often I find that his acting skills aren’t necessarily why I appreciate his movies (but he sure is pleasant to look at) – however, in this movie the two go hand in hand. The part as a superficial dandy is perfect for him, but I also feel that he manages to take this to another level in this movie, as opposed to similar roles he’s played elsewhere.

Anthony Minghella’s way of setting the mood is probably why I tend to like his movies. It’s a poorly hidden secret that The English Patient is my favourite movie (and even less clandestine is my obsession with Ralph Fiennes as a result of it). What might surprise you, though, is that I don’t love the movie exclusively or even mainly for Fiennes, the story, or the fact that it has me in tears every time. I love it because of its visual beauty. That golden light, the single frames of the desert, the amazing scenery in both settings of the movie – it makes the little hairs in the back of my neck stand up just to think of it. You’ll find much of the same in The Talented Mr. Ripley too. The way Minghella and his team manage to convey the mood of the Italian countryside in the 1950s, the way they use light, shadow, camera angles and music to show the emotions of the characters – it strikes me every time I see it how brilliantly this is done.

In short, it is a good movie. However, this still does not explain why I feel it is better than the book. It is, after all, an acclaimed book, and it cannot have been completely horrid, since it made me read the subsequent four Ripley books (all five are known as “the Ripliad”, Wikipedia informs me). My main reason for preferring the movie is that for this story the movie format seems to be a better fit. Secondly, the movie has a more elegant structure. Finally, Minghella took the best elements from the book and left out the not-so-good ones.

While it’s been a long time since I actually read the book, and thus I cannot remember the specifics anymore, I do remember that I thought it started with explaining too much. The movie does this more cleverly – it starts with the end (though this is not evident until the actual end), and then it proceeds to introducing the main character, the setting, the problem which triggers the plot.

Apart from starting with the end (which can fail miserably, but in this case works), these are the absolute basics of storytelling. If done right, a movie has an advantage over a book here – while the book relies on words alone to tell its story, a movie can also use pictures, music, sounds and props. What I seem to remember from the book is that it tries too hard to introduce Tom Ripley. In the movie this is done so much more efficiently –the plot starts in scene one and it never halts, while Ripley’s character is defined in everything from his behavior to his clothes, his voice, his room, his job… It is a prime example of a successful “show, not tell” – which again naturally comes easier in a movie as opposed to a book.

I know that Highsmith’s novel has some standing within its genre, so it might be arrogant of me to maltreat it like this. Especially since I don’t actually appreciate the genre all that much. Thrillers, crime and mysteries – I personally have a fairly low tolerance for most books in these genres. There are some exceptions (Agatha Christie being the most notable one), and I’m not saying that I cannot appreciate others. It just takes more for me to read and enjoy these than general fiction. Ironically, though, I quite like movies within the same genres. It’s a matter of taste, and I simply seem to prefer my murders on screen rather than on paper. In this case, though, my criticism isn’t so much against the novel as it is one praising the movie.

The visual plays a significant role in the story – Tom Ripley’s transformation, his slipping into one character after another – this is something that is ultimately easier to show in a movie, and especially when you have a skilled actor like Matt Damon to do it. Highsmith’s idea is a good one, but a movie is a better format for execution of the idea.

Finally, I prefer the ending in the movie to the one in the book. This is where the movie leaves out some elements (possibly attempting to avoid a “Ripliad” of movies as well – though if this was the intention, it was not successful, since at least three more Ripley-movies were made, only one of which I have seen, featuring John Malchovitz as Ripley. Strangely enough I found this one terrible).

One thing I should point out is that I read the book only after having seen the movie (while I read book number two before I saw movie number two – can we see a pattern? If so I am ignoring it). While this affects how you read the book, I still think I would have preferred the movie (in fact, I think I might not have read the book if it hadn’t been for the movie, and even if I had read the book first I very likely wouldn’t have bothered watching the movie afterwards).

Bottom line – in this case there were a number of reasons why I preferred the movie. The most important one, however, was that it told the story better than I felt the original book did. This is almost never the case. Partly because very few movie makers employ all the possibilities the format has for great storytelling (it seems that entertaining is more important). Partly because many authors are great storytellers makes the most out of their format. And partly because, as a booklover, what I adore the most about a great book is that it gives me the opportunity to form my own pictures, my own details, my own soundtrack, even. A movie, even a very good one, does not allow me this pleasure. This is why the movie almost never can compete with the book.


M.J. Nicholls said...

I rather enjoy reading books-of-movies after watching the movies-of-books. Pointing out differences, nuances, things the director missed etc.

I'm in agreement about the suspense/thriller genre being more palatable on screen. I prefer Michael Crichton's movies, for example, since the directors involved paper over the cracks in his prose with visual effects and spooky things.

I thought "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (movie) struggled to end itself. Maybe I should pay Patricia a visit. :)

Cruella Collett said...

I can enjoy that too (as long as it is a book-of-movie-where-the-book-came-first - the other way around never seem to work), though I prefer reading the book before watching the movie. I'm probably just snobby that way.

And yes, in a way I can see how you'd feel that the movie-Ripple has an awkward ending. But the movie-ending still kicks the book-ending in the back cover, in my opinion.

M.J. Nicholls said...

Nah, I'm being diplomatic. I usually flee any movie-of-book. Ever since I saw the remake of "Lolita." That scarred me for life.

I like the sound of "The Talented Mr. Ripple." That's a much better title!

Cruella Collett said...

See, I'm feverish at the moment, and apparently this means that I a)cannot understand sarcasm or irony; b)cannot tell the difference between Ripley or Ripple (it took me a good long time to figure out what the hing you were talking about - I probably wouldn't have noticed if you had written "Mr. Nipple"); and c)I think there was a c here too, but I've forgotten. It might have had something to do with short attention span.

Hart Johnson said...

Mari-I think you've nailed something that I hadn't really identified in my own preferences before. I also LOVE mystery, suspense MOVIES and am much pickier in books. I think because the genres prefer short quick action stuff, and I like character development so much--but a SCREEN, because they can SHOW feelings, changes, etc. are able to do some of that instead of talking about it.

I'm not a giant fan of Ripple (going with that too) as a movie, but watching any movie with Bob can ruin it for you. He points out every flaw and tells you what is coming. He inevitably complains the whole time, announcing at the end "that was horrible, why did you want to see that?" I CAN see the visual thing though--it was gorgeous.

And I believe: almost always I will like the one I saw/read first (if I am going to like either)--book after movie can fill in gaps, where movie after book usually falls short. Funny that I still prefer to read the book first... but I do.

Cruella Collett said...

Tami - I though for sure that you would prefer Mr Nipple... I am beyond fever-delusional, apparently.
Any way that we as writers could learn from the movie format and reinvent characterization?

Hart Johnson said...

Nipple is too big a jump, but Nipley I can get on board with. *had absurd image of multi-nippled man*

I think In a Field of Darkness that I just read did a GREAT job of getting across characterization that would make a great movie in words and she did it through contrasts--there has to be a plausible reason to talk about it, or it is just dull description, but Cornelia Read used a character RAISED blue blood, but currently poor, married to a guy from a farming family, friends with a Vietnam vet--all over there was reason for the narrator to observe, and it made sense, because it was different from her own reality. I am almost never happy with characterization in a <300 page book, but this one pulled it off.

writtenwyrdd said...

I loved that movie, and haven't read the book. Don't really want to because like you I thought that Matt Damon's performance and the visual context told the story of a crazy guy taking on different personas was so much more real in a visual medium.

Something that I often find in movie adaptations of books is that the liberties taken with the storyline often don't make sense. And sometimes they do and the product is so different to the movie as to render them very different stories (the adaptation of the Earthsea trilogy comes to mind).

writtenwyrdd said...

LOL, that should have read "And sometimes they do and the product is so different from the book..."

Cruella Collett said...

Writtenwyrdd - I must still be a little feverish, because I didn't catch that little typo at all! And I agree with you on the Earthsea (even though I shouldn't be able to since I mysteriously enough haven't read the books... I have heard a lot about them, though, so I feel like I can relate)

Some movies I need to just tell myself "it isn't the book" and try to forget how the story is supposed to go. I can enjoy the Harry Potter movies, for instance, that way, but only that way.

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