Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

The Book Is Better (maybe)

I’m in the “Book First, Book Better” camp when it comes to film adaptations. Of course, whenever we are adamant about something our paradigm gets firmly nudged to reevaluate our ideas. This happened not only once, but twice this month.

The first book was North and South by Gaskell. She’s been compared to Austen, but I would say she is a bit more outspoken and verbose in her approach to the romantic historical. Having watched the BBC miniseries when it first came out in 2004, I decided I had to read the book. I finally got around to doing so this year. Then I watched the series again. Yup, the film adap is better.

Actors: Richard Armitage is John Thornton, just as Colin Firth defined Darcy. The balance of brooding strength and vulnerability made each scene with Armitage riveting. This wasn’t as apparent in the book simply because Armitage made Thornton so vibrant.

Setting: the grime, noise, and poverty of a mill town is evident and doesn’t need pages of constant reminder of the deplorable conditions. A scene can speak pages of description.

Dross: all that extra writing emphasizing beliefs is neatly trimmed into edited significant scenes. More meat, less gravy.

Ending: much more satisfying than the book and much more telling than that would rate a spoiler alert.

The second book is a more recent connection. As a Sherlock fan, Doyle and Jeremy Brett (BBC series), I was curious of the chatter about Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, especially when I learned Sir Ian would play an aging Sherlock. I can imagine him channeling his Gandalf into the role. Devoured the book, mesmerized by the movie. The book is excellent, yes, you should read it. Yet, the adap, which is not 100% faithful to the text, is actually a stand   alone. It’s Cullin’s outline, his premise, of an aging Sherlock, but the story on screen is so poignant, the interpersonal interactions so much deeper, I’m going to reread the book and see if I missed it all the first time.

Characters: all the actors are steller and they play off one another in such a way that awards are surely going to be handed out. Sir Ian proves once again his depth and versatility. The young actor who is Roger holds his own–I’m hoping great acting parts for him.

Setting: England after two wars–Holmes would have been old enough to see both at 93. There is still the sense of loss, yet a rekindling of hope as life goes on. Brits are a tough lot. Never give up, never surrender. This Sherlock captures his country’s motto in his fight against dementia.

Ending: a radical change from the book, but it was so perfect, that even an absolutist like myself, who dislikes mucking about with the text when it comes to transferring the text to screen, left the theatre oh so satisfied.

I am thinking I should ease up on my penchant for purity of transfer and sit back and enjoy the show. The  book doesn’t have to be the movie–pardon me, that noise was my paradigm shifting.

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16 thoughts on “The Book Is Better (maybe)

  1. Oh, is that what the noise was? I like to see books faithfully adapted, but sometimes it’s just not possible to encompass all of that the book is in two or three hours. What I hate is when the special effects overwhelm the basic story or the adaptation radically departs from the book because the adapters didn’t think the original was sexy enough or violent enough to attract viewers.

    Pity. But at the same time, it’s interesting to see a good actor like Sir Ian or Richard Armitage play a central character — with a mere glance, smile or haughty sniff they can convey volumes about a character and make you see that character or their environment in a different way.

    • Yes, in the capability of a talented actor facial nuances can often replace actual dialogue or textual passages. CGI should not be a central character to a plot, agreed.

      • I will say that CGI can be a good partner in enhancing a plot. One of the most amazing CGI shots I’ve ever seen is when the camera follows the torpedo descending toward the “Arizona” in Pearl Harbor and causes the ship to bend upward upon detonation. You feel like you’re there as an eyewitness.

  2. I keep telling myself I should read North and South, but I’m anticipating exactly what you described and I enjoyed the mini-series so much that I just have no motivation to read the book.

    • Some parts were a bit slow, but it did give me deeper insight on the characters. I appreciated so much more how the series adapted her book that I watched the series again. Armitage absolutely captured Thornton.

  3. Ha, I think I felt your paradigm shift from here. 😉

    There have been a few movies I’ve preferred to the book, but of course I can’t remember them now. So typical.

  4. I know what you mean about preserving the purity of a story on screen, I hate it when they deviate, but I often see why because what works in print doesn’t always work on screen. I can’t wait to see this new Sherlock film.

  5. I wonder if I would have felt the same way if I had watched North and South before I had read it. I loved the book! I also loved the mini-series and watching the trailer just now makes me want to watch it again!

  6. Yes, they are too completely different art forms. That said, the only real comparison I’ve ever made is the one between The Talented Mr. Ripley book and movie. I read the book three times, saw the movie at least five. Then I wrote a seminar paper, comparing the two. Both were excellent, and I can’t say that I preferred one over the other. I know I’ve seen other book/movie combinations (like the first Harry Potter movie), but can’t recall differences. I found the first Harry Potter movie to be too disjointed, missing some of the critical elements of the book. But after the first movie, I gave the director a little more rope because it’s just so difficult to contain those books in movie that’s far more time restricted.

  7. North and South really is one of my favourite books, and give me John Thornton over Darcy any day. I think I prefer the film adaptation as well, but honestly that’s only because of Richard Armitage – he’s so lovely.

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