When a film adaptation surpasses its source material…

“Any adaptation is a translation, and there is such a thing as an unreadably faithful translation; and I believe a degree of reinterpretation for the new language may be not only inevitable but desirable.” – David Mitchell

I almost always make myself read the book before I see a film adaptation. Sometimes, I find out after enjoying a movie that it was based on a book. I usually fall into “the book was better” camp. Either my favorite scenes were (often understandably but still disappointingly) cut or the book was changed so drastically that it is hardly recognizable. But every once in a while, those movie people turn a mediocre book into a film that surpasses its source material. Just a warning, there are spoilers ahead. This is, after all, a comparison and some of the biggest discrepancies are plot related. So, you’ve been warned. I must also say that you should read these books, if only to increase your enjoyment of or appreciation for the films.

Big Fish by Daniel Wallace

This is one of those books where there is absolutely nothing wrong with the book itself. What makes the movie stand out so much more is the approach Tim Burton took to the material. The vibrant visuals* of this sentimental tall tale and the way he pieced the story together merge in a way that the novel simply doesn’t. The flow of narrative is seamless and the jumps in time and place, the story and the family’s history are easier to follow on the screen. The heartwarming, hilarious, and tear-inducing performances from the cast make it difficult not to enjoy this movie.

*The visuals are like those used for Pushing Daisies where the vibrant color saturation can make you want to adjust the color settings on your TV for everything else because you’ve been reminded of how bright and cheery things can be.

Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer

There are so many aspects of Meyer’s final Twilight installment that manage to bother me, and on so many levels that it can be paralyzing. However, the biggest complaint about Breaking Dawn that anyone and everyone who has read it seems to have is the cop out, everybody lives ending. Reluctant, hesitant, or just plain scared, Meyer could not bring herself to kill off any of her main characters, good, bad, or in between. But it’s boring to build up to a lot of nothing. And the film cleverly found a way out of the corner Meyer wrote her characters into. It is not a very good movie (they relied too much on the novel for it to be really good), but it did fix the biggest problem I had with the book and for that, I give them props (but just for Breaking Dawn Part 2; I don’t want to go overboard).

 Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Like Big Fish, I don’t have any major complaints about this novel as it stands. But it doesn’t stand out the way the film does (at least in my mind). The descriptions of chocolate in the book are almost as mouth-watering as they appear on screen but there’s something about the visual combined with the score that epitomize the “a picture is worth a thousand words” concept. It’s mesmeric, as though people could be speaking but everyone is too wrapped up in chocolate to hear what’s being said (which is what the best chocolate on the worst day can accomplish). Having Johnny Depp thrown in with the chocolate doesn’t hurt either. More seriously, the biggest difference is in the resolution and the fact that there is something about film Vianne’s ability to let go of the past and settle down that is more satisfying than book Vianne’s decision to keep moving on. I usually like open-ended, ambiguous endings, but it didn’t add enough to Chocolat to justify it. The film’s character development is more engaging.

Jaws by Peter Benchley

The decision to ditch some of the clunkier aspects of the novel’s plot helped to streamline and focus this classic thriller. Keeping the shark as the focus of the film, several smaller plot lines were cut from novel to script, including Mrs. Brody’s tedious infidelity. Perhaps the biggest change from the book to the screen was originally included in the script. Richard Dreyfuss’ marine biologist, Hooper, falls victim to the shark in the novel and was supposed to follow suit on screen. However, while a secondary filming crew was working on those final scenes with the shark cage, the camera crew got an unexpected treat when a great white attacked the cage just after it was lowered into the water. Before the dummy diver was put in the cage. The footage was so good, the script was adjusted and Hooper lived.

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

While Wicked has not yet been adapted (at least, not to my knowledge), it is probably only a matter of time before the musical makes its way to the big screen. I thoroughly enjoy Maguire’s fresh perspectives on classic fairy tales and other popular novels. As a fan of the original Oz series, I appreciated the way that Maguire incorporates more elements of L. Frank Baum’s books than the 1939 classic but this first installment of his Oz-inspired quartet, however, hit quite a few bumps along the yellow-brick road. Some portions of Wicked still don’t seem necessary or are too weird, even for Oz. The best decision in writing the musical was focusing on and developing the relationship between the novel’s two most recognizable characters. I love that they dabble in the politics of Maguire’s world, but the musical doesn’t get bogged down in it.


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