It isn't often that I can state that I saw a movie that was better than the book on which it was based. In many ways, it makes sense that this would be true; in a novel, even a short one, the writer has the means to present information in ways that are not possible in a movie. Narration in a book can change from one chapter to another. The point of view of different characters can be explored. Background information can be provided. Description can be given that allows the reader to create in his mind what a character looks or sounds like, to envision how a place looks, smells, feels.
In a movie, all of this information is given through more limited means: the camera and the words and actions of the character. I don't think that movie viewing necessarily is less interactive than reading, although I think in our media-saturated culture, it is easier to be less attentive to the manipulations of the camera, to be less aware of what might be happening that we aren't told and how that might influence our reactions, set us up for a surprise, convince us to sympathize with one character over another. Although film offers the discerning viewer the opportunity to enjoy or to analyze on various levels, such as the cinematography, movies can be enjoyed only on the action level, if that is only what the viewer chooses to give to her viewing. While there are books that are mainly plot-driven too, it is more likely that a movie will live or die by its plot.
To translate a book into a movie is difficult because of the length that is afforded the novelist. A screen writer must be more concise because of the medium. The interpretation that is offered is that of the director. Translations of short stories, because of the compactness of the narration may be more suited to film. An obvious example that comes to mind is Brokeback Mountain. All that is in Annie Proulx's compact but lush story was in Ang Lee's film. Only one additional scene in the movie is added to indicate the passage of years and to convey what directions the lives of the main characters took. There is little difference in the story-telling between the two forms of the tale; the chief difference between the two forms comes from the dazzling scenery of the mountains in the film. The length and compactness of the story aided the adaptation to film; a longer story or novel would have contained more and something would have had to have been omitted to fit the film format. In this case, however, the movie is truly a re-creation in a different medium of Proulx's short story.
It is because of the differences between a novel and a movie that I think that I almost always prefer the book to the movie adapted from the book. Too much needs to be cut out of most books, leaving the movie a sad empty shell, barely reminiscent of the book. Characters are eliminated or morphed into one. Places are changed. Details that serve as the glue to hold the book together are omitted. Overall, although I love the movies, I am almost always disappointed in an adaptation from a book, even if I read the book after I've seen the movie.
A few days ago, the Hobgoblin wrote a review of P.D. James' The Children of Men. Generally, he found that the characters were lacking and the book, overall, disappointing. I commented on his post that after seeing the movie, and having read 1/2 of the book, I was perplexed that anyone had read the book and even considered it for a movie. It isn't that the book is unfilmable; it is because the book, although it suggests some thought-provoking ideas, is just not that interesting as a novel. The characters are one dimensional and the ideas are not fully developed.
This is the first P.D. James' book I have ever read. I've always heard great things about her works, but who-dunnits are not my usual reading fare. Had I never heard of her, I'd be unlikely to read anything else by her. I have promised some of my James-loving acquaintances that I will still read one of her mysteries, but I did not like this book at all. Had I read it before I saw the movie, I wouldn't have seen the movie either. But, having experienced both the movie and the book, I will say that the movie was much better.
In the book, the author introduces many ideas that are not elaborated upon. Many of the characters are one-dimensional. Few serve a purpose other than to advance a small piece of the plot, and sometimes their behaviors are incongruent to the character previously introduced. The motivation of the main character Theo is not clear, whether it is in writing a diary describing what he sees as the last of his days on the planet even though he knows there will be no future generation to read his memoir, or his falling in love with the first woman on the planet to become pregnant in 25 years. Why does he love her? Is it because there is something remarkable about her other than her pregnancy? Is it because he is attracted to her physically or psychologically? Is it because she is fertile -- something that his character should be smart enough to realize but never does. Why does Theo dislike his cousin Xan, the dictator of England, so much? Why did Theo abandon his governmental post? Why is Xan his enemy -- or is he his enemy? Xan is portrayed as being devoid of feeling, only interested in power. But, is Theo much different? The reader never really knows.
P.D. James brings up many interesting ideas in this short novel. She depicts a world devoid of hope. She suggests that as a dying race there would be no interest in religion. For a book full of religious symbolism as well as a few outwardly religious characters, she does little to suggest that the people in her imagined world need religion. The faithful and the religious fanatics seem to not care much if others don't agree with them, even when they have changed religious practices such as christenings into social occasions for celebrating their pets, keeping a ritual that is suggestive of life, but which plays into the insanity of not having children to love and nurture. She suggests that the government is evil, yet its Stepford-wife citizenry seem not to care as long as they are safe and happy. But, when James suggests that the government is abusive and murderous, she does little to indicate why. There is a lengthy scene describing the state-sponsored suicide ritual. In this scene, one character, introduced earlier as someone who wouldn't willingly participate but now senile and probably incapable of such a decision, tries to abandon her suicide attempt. She is attacked by the state police and killed. But there is no reason why the government would do this. With a dying population not yet having exhausted its resources, there is no reason to kill its citizenry except to be brutal.
Initially Theo becomes involved with the radical group because he is politically convenient as the nearest relative to the dictator. But the group's goals change once there is a pregnancy. This change suggests the corruption of power, but the idea is never fully explored. That hope for the future doesn't die when the father of the child dies is not convincing. Theo's eventual triumph and conversion to faith and hope in the future is so foreshadowed that the predictable climax loses its power to be suspenseful and a fulfilling conclusion for the reader.
So why is the movie better? The same characters in the book are in the movie, although there are some significant differences. The character of Theo is still a cynic but his motivations for becoming involved are different; Julian is still a radical, although her character is less significant in the movie. The radical group, the Five Fishes, is still pivotal to the plot, but in a much different way. The self-absorbed Omegas, the last generation to be born, are hardly discussed in the movie. The world of the movie teeters on the brink of chaos as in the book. There is no hope in a world of a dying human race, little reason to plan ahead, many reasons to be suspicious.
But, where the narration of the book fails, the movie succeeds. By changing the world to be more recognizable as our own-- a future that could be 2008, not 25 years in the future as James' book was when published in the early 90's -- the world becomes believable. The nationalistic fervor that pervades England in the movie is frightfully understandable for any country struggling with culture wars taken to the extreme: anyone who is an outsider is to be feared; anyone who fights against governmental policies is a terrorist and should be hunted by the police and deported to the chaos outside the borders of the country. In the movie, the birth of the child is heralded in a refuge camp. In an unforgettable scene, warring factions stop fighting at the sound of a wailing baby. In the movie, the pregnant woman is little more than a child herself, both excited and fearful of giving birth. The corruption of politicians and the police is more believable; without family to care for, self-interest, whether expressed as pleasure or power, is paramount for most. In a polluted, toxic waste environment, cynicism is abundant. In the movie, Theo is a hero who abandons his self-absorbing cynicism when he realizes that he can make a difference in the world; in the book, although he becomes involved in life-altering activities, he never rises above his own self-interest to be considered a hero.
In the end, the movie is better than the book, but not because of the medium. It is better than the book because the plot is more coherent, the characters better crafted, the world depicted more believable. Sometimes, it is the writing after all, not the medium, that makes a work successful.