Monday, April 27, 2009

Movies I liked better than the books they were based on

It's going to be a short list. Generally I like books as a medium more than movies, and the history of movie adaptations has been... spotty, to say the least. But there are a few, and I thought it would be worth looking at why they were successful (for me).

Joy Luck Club
Interview with the Vampire
Bram Stoker's Dracula
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

OK, from the top: The movie version of Joy Luck Club had a very powerful emotional impact on me. Oddly enough it wasn't any of the individual women's stories that did it, but the framing sequence of the big multi-family party that turns out to be a going-away party for one of the daughters who's about to go back to China to meet her long-lost half-sisters. I grew up with parties like that among my grandparents and their friends from China. That community is gone now: most of my grandparents' contemporaries have gone back to the Wheel and the kids and grandkids mostly moved away. Joy Luck Club brought that back for me.

The book didn't do it, largely I think because that framing sequence was absent-- or not as well developed? I don't really remember the book very well. But I also think the movie was better assembled in terms of connecting the women's stories together and especially the mothers to their daughters. The novel came across as being a series of unconnected vignettes.

Interview with the Vampire-- it's hard to regard that book now without being influenced by everything that resulted from it: the rest of the series, Anne Rice's meteoric career, the whole vampire resurgence of the 90s that has since devolved into romance/fantasy crossover. (Twilight, bleah.) I was intrigued by Interview when it first came out, because it really was a fresh look at a classic horror element we thought was long played out, and it deserves to be remembered for that. But I found the literary device of the novel-length flashback... just irritating: putting up with quotes and nested quotes and constant little vignettes of the interaction between the boy (Daniel) and the vampire (Louis).

The movie got rid of most of that, which I thought was a good move. And, while I'm not a Tom Cruise fan generally, I have to say his Lestat was a terrific acting job.

Frankenstein and Dracula both of course have a long, long history of being adapted for movies. Most of the early films based on these classic novels had little or nothing to do with the books, and while some were classics in their own rights, I'm referring here to the early 90s versions (1992 for Dracula, 1994 for Frankenstein).

To say that Bram Stoker's Dracula was better than the book it was based on is definitely damning with faint praise. Dracula is, by modern standards, tedious and annoying. Stoker's attitudes about women, foreigners and members of the lower classes are downright offensive, and the plot is weirdly inconsistent. Many of these flaws were highlighted in a novel called The Dracula Tape, by the late great Fred Saberhagen. It retold Bram Stoker's novel from Dracula's point of view, and was a brilliant and funny deconstruction of Stoker's Victorian moralisms and other flaws as a writer. Pick it up if you get a chance, used paperbacks show up every now and then.

Saberhagen also wrote the screenplay for Dracula. The movie screenplay stuck closer to the spirit of the novel, but captured a good deal of Saberhagen's critique: I especially like his treatment of the vampire hunter Van Helsing, played to creepy, sadistic perfection by Anthony Hopkins. Gary Oldman's screen presence, never less than intense, is riveting in the title role. It really makes you wonder what Mina (Winona Ryder) sees in Jonathan Harker (played by Keanu Reeves, as a dead fish).

Frankenstein may be one of the most misunderstood novels in English literature. You've probably heard that it's an anti-Prometheus story, a cautionary tale about "things Man wasn't meant to know". It's nothing of the sort. Fundamentally, Frankenstein is about a father who abandons his child, with tragic results.

Kenneth Branagh, who directed and starred in the 1994 movie, seems to be the only director who's gotten this right. Robert De Niro plays the monster-- at the very end, he weeps over Frankenstein's body. The captain asks "Who are you?" "He never gave me a name", says De Niro. "He was my father. He never gave me a name."

Interestingly enough, the press releases for Bram Stoker's Dracula referred to it by its full title. The press releases for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (yes, that is the movie's correct name) referred to it as... Frankenstein.

So, as to why I liked the movie better-- well, when all's said and done, Frankenstein is just not of my time. It's much better written than, say, the original Dracula-- but to my reading it seems slow and overly philosophical, and some of the 19th-century attitudes and mores just don't make sense to someone raised in the latter 20th. While the movie wasn't a "modernization", it also wasn't particularly "period" in the dialogue and the way emotions were expressed, so it's much more accessible. Also, some of the additions to the plot increased dramatic interest and made the movie a better ride for my money.

After the movie of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out, I went back and re-read the whole Narnia series. (Well, most of it. I could not get through The Horse and his Boy-- I had forgotten that book was so racist. Talk about Orientalism.)

You know what? C. S. Lewis was a lousy writer. He condescended to his young audience; his characters were some of the most wooden and unplayful kids I have ever read; his preaching was unsubtle and got more obtrusive as the books went on.

And yet. There's still good stuff in there. Silver Chair is mysterious and terrifying, and what I like most about it is that the characters repeatedly fail-- and then get right back up and back on track. Prince Caspian (I didn't see that movie, BTW) remains memorable for one image: the river god rising from the water to say "Unloose my chains!" Dawn Treader is fatally weakened by continual divine intervention, but the descriptions of the fantastic sights of the eastern ocean are some of Lewis' best writing in the series.

The movie of LWW did a good job of pulling the powerful essence of the story out from under Lewis' flaws as a writer. They stuck quite faithfully to the events of the book, but completely rewrote the kids' dialogues (a vast improvement). The characters, especially Edmund, were much better developed, and generally the writers seemed more sensitive to the demands of dramatic narrative. One small, but typical, point: in the book, the children are told that Aslan is really a lion long before they meet him, which destroys most of the impact of the meeting. The movie writers didn't make that mistake.

I didn't care that much for Coraline when I first read it, and this is speaking as a Neil Gaiman fan in general. It was a nice creepy little story, but the characters just weren't fleshed out enough for me to connect with. Gaiman's kids' books have tended toward a very detached style of storytelling, visible in Mr. Punch, The Day I Traded My Father for Two Goldfish, and The Wolves in the Walls. It works OK in these shorter books, which also rely heavily on Dave McKean's artwork, but in Coraline I really felt that it fell flat.

The movie featured some of the best facial animation I've ever seen. The range and subtlety of emotions featured by Coraline Jones and the other characters was outstanding, and succeeded in bringing the characters completely to life. There seems to be a fair amount of additional material, none of which detracted and some of which I think helped the story a lot. As an adaptation, Coraline was a definite win.

Just for completeness' sake, and because it's recent, I'll say I thought Watchmen was the best comic book adaptation I've ever seen and probably the best movie that could possibly have been made from the original. I still like the original better, but the Watchmen crew did the best we could have asked for.

Collection available! Knocking from Inside

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