Saturday, January 29, 2011

Good Book, Bad Movie

A web site I belong to regularly suggests a "blog topic of the week." Most of the suggestions don't interest me. But one recent topic, "favorite movie based on a book," caught my interest.

I don't have one.

My favorite movies don't usually come from books. In my experience, good books seldom make good movies. That old saw invariably applies: the book was better.

It's always that way, isn't it? A book is (usually) the original execution of an idea, carried out by the one who conceived it. Reading it is personal, even intimate. The pleasures of the story and the prose that carry it are between you and the printed page.

Disappointment with what turns up on the silver screen, someone else's interpretation of that idea, is almost inevitable. They muck around with the story. They add or delete characters, usually for the worse.
I read an article once that argued Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange might be the best film adaptation of a book ever. And I agree it's a very good movie. But it's a fact – only a footnote, perhaps, yet true – that Kubrick based his screenplay on a shortened version of the Anthony Burgess novel.

The book, published originally in England, had twenty-one chapters. But that last chapter was deleted from the first American editions, and it's the American edition that first excited Kubrick's interest. "Audiences did not exactly clamour for their money back," Burgess wrote. "But they wondered why Kubrick left out the denouement."

Here's how Burgess described that last chapter: "My young thuggish protagonist grows up. He grows bored with violence and recognizes that human energy is better expended on creation than destruction."

Burgess was a little unclear on why his publisher cut that last chapter. He may not have known. But he was clear on why he acquiesced. "I needed money back in 1961," he recalled, "even the pittance I was being offered as an advance, and if the condition of the book's acceptance was also its truncation – well, so be it."

That book had always been a favorite of mine. So when, in 1986, an American edition finally appeared with the last chapter restored, it was quite a shock. At first it was hard to accept there was more beyond "I was cured, all right."

The novel remains a favorite, but less so the movie. Like little Alex, O my brothers and like only real droogs, I can't take the violence anymore.

The book was better!

It always is. Sometimes the filmmakers change the story, which always pisses me off. Sometimes the casting is all wrong. At bottom, it's that personal relationship with a book that I crave – getting lost in its story, seduced by the author's prose. That can't be replicated on film.

I suppose that in the case of A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick cannot entirely be blamed for basing his film on the shortened version of the novel – assuming it was an honest mistake. It is ironic, though, that he made the movie in England. You'd think someone on his staff would have noticed that the American edition wasn't the whole story as told by Anthony Burgess. Maybe someone did, but Kubrick thought cutting the last chapter made a better ending.

None of this has ever stopped me from seeing the film version of a favorite book. I'm a sucker for movies. But when it comes to film adaptations of books I love, I'm usually disappointed with what I see.

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