Although novels have a reputation of typically being better than the movies made from them, this reputation is only frequently deserved. Some cinematic adaptations are okay in their own terms, but best viewed by persons who are not also fans of the source material. But sometimes a movie is a fully successful adaptation, different but not dissonant. And sometimes the story told in the movie is not merely just as good as but even better than that told in the original work.
An example is Mario Puzo’s Godfather, so neatly re-visioned by Francis Ford Coppola in collaboration with Puzo. Singer Johnny Fontane, whose foiled ambitions as an actor result in the famous horse’s-head scene, gets a lot of storytelling time in the novel that is cut from “Godfather” the movie, all to the good. Michael Corleone’s reunion with Kate after his return from Italy is both translocated and trimmed, with much of what’s going on between them left implicit. Etc. Throughout the movie, the dialogue is more economical and powerful, more stylized, than the dialogue in the book. The movie is so successful in all its ambitions that we recognize it as a great work of art. Puzo’s novel is a great read, but not the perfectly wrought tale of a man’s moral downfall that the movie is.
Also better story-wise than the original is “House of Cards,” the BBC’s 1990 adaptation of Michael Dobbs’s tale of British political intrigue. One wonders how the print sequels in the Dobb’s trilogy could even have been written given how pivotally what happens in the BBC adaptations (three mini-series based on three books) depends on radically altering the ending of Dobbs’s first installment of his trilogy. (I’ve read only the first Dobbs novel so far.) In any case, in the mini-series, Chief Whip Francis Urquhart, as played by Ian Richardson, is more deliciously wicked and sure of himself than he is in the novel. And the women also loom larger on screen. Urquhart’s wife is a much more visible partner in his manipulations than she is on the page, and the relationship between Urquhart and girl reporter Mattie Storin is much more critical—they have an affair. Finally, in the mini-series, Urquhart periodically addresses the viewer directly, often while surrounded by other characters in a scene, to gloat or justify himself or disagree with the viewer’s supposed moral viewpoint, a potential wrecking ball of a gimmick that Richardson manages with aplomb. (The novel is in third person.) All in all, the novel is very readable but just doesn’t pack the same punch as the BBC production.
Amazon Kindle and the availability of free editions of many works in the public domain enabled me to recently re-read Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which I had last perused as a kid. The novel is nicely written, especially the early description of the grayness of the Kansas landscape and Dorothy’s household. Perhaps it was this passage which gave the makers of the 1939 movie the smart idea of shooting the opening scenes in black and white.
When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.
When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. When Dorothy, who was an orphan, first came to her, Aunt Em had been so startled by the child’s laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy’s merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at.
Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.
It was Toto that made Dorothy laugh, and saved her from growing as gray as her other surroundings. Toto was not gray…
Depicting the scarecrow, tin man, cowardly lion, Wicked Witch of the East and Wizard of Oz as dream versions of farm hands and other people Dorothy knows in Kansas is an invention of the movie, as is the notion of her adventure being a dream. There are many other little and big changes. In Baum’s tale, Dorothy spends much less time in Munchkin land before setting out on the yellow brick road. When Dorothy and company finally meet the wizard, they are required to do so individually, on separate days, which gives the wizard the chance to manifest himself differently to each member of the party. In the movie they all meet the giant Wizard-head at the same time. In the movie, the Wicked Witch of the East causes trouble even before the gang reaches Oz; in the book, she poses a threat only after Oz demands that they kill her as the price of his help. The movie wraps up pretty quickly after Dorothy and her friends report their success in dispatching the Wicked Witch of the East and discover that the wizard is a humbug. In the novel, after having killed the witch and watched the wizard leave Oz in a balloon, Dorothy and her newly endowed friends (now believing in the brains, heart and courage that they had from the beginning) must undertake yet another dangerous journey, to find the Good Witch of the South and see whether Dorothy can finally go home. This third road trip feels like a denouement that is dragging on way too long, given the fact that Dorothy’s companions have all gotten what they wanted and that their main nemesis has melted.
In conclusion, I think we may safely say that the job of adapting stories for the small or large screen sometimes results in the amplifying, inventing, condensing or tossing of story elements that could have been beneficially amplified, invented, condensed or tossed back when the original story was being concocted for print publication. Sometimes. To be sure, most novelists editing their work for publication lack the luxury of being able to compare what they’ve done so far to any movie version, let alone a transcendent one.