Is it true that bad books make good movies and good books make bad ones?
There's no hard and fast rule about whether good books make bad movies or bad books make good ones. There's only about a million factors involved, from the screenwriters to the director, the producer, cast and probably even down to the crafts services personnel. And let's not forget the source material.
Books and movies by their natures are very different beasts and require different aesthetics and elements. Movies have to convey a lot of information in a small amount of time, so overly complicated story lines can drag a movie down. Books can handle information in a more leisurely manner, description of places and people are more important, and you can get more into the heads of the characters, examine their thoughts and feelings. A book has to wrap you up inside itself because it can’t rely on a visual picture to get across the look and feel of the characters and settings. And a movie should grab the essence of the book, without necessarily being true to every detail of it (see LA Confidential below). These changes can – on occasion – make the movie better than the book.
So, some good books make good movies and some good books make bad movies. And some bad books make good movies and some make bad movies. Well, of course, nothing is true all the time. And I wouldn't venture a generality, but it works both ways.
It's hard to narrow it down to a few examples as there's so many choices of each combination. And it's also hard to distill down the essence of why this worked and that didn’t, as each one that I've chosen could stand an entire essay on that subject. Here's a sampling, though I'm sure not everyone will agree with my assessments. And I'm sure I'll offend somebody with each one, but here goes (in no particular order):
In a Lonely Place (Dorothy B. Hughes): Good book, great movie. This is tied for my second favorite movie after Casablanca. I like it for a lot of reasons, but especially the story of the angry and alienated screenwriter. And I know I may offend some people here, Dorothy B. Hughes fans in particular, but for me the movie version is a huge improvement over the book, and I liked the book, but I didn't love it. The book, as I recall it, is a pretty straight-forward serial killer story. The movie takes the basics of the book and adds an ambiguity that leads to a much more bittersweet and poignant story and ending than in the book. So this is a case where the filmmakers did change a certain essence of the story, but it works out for the better. And if you want to hear a really good song based on this movie check out the Smithereens' "In a Lonely Place," which even cops a couple of the film’s most famous lines: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ro6mucYQeN4
The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown): Bad book, bad movie. Sometimes bad books make bad movies. I know a lot of people like this, but in my maybe not so humble opinion, the book was very poorly written. It's a prime example of a great idea poorly executed. And the movie didn’t try to break out of the cardboard characters created in the book. It concentrated on remaining relatively faithful to the plot and didn’t stray so the movie remained as weak as the book.
Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe): Great book, horrendously horrible, piece of garbage movie: Why? Because, if I recall, as it's been a long time since I've seen it and I won't punish myself with wasting two hours of my life again, the producers didn't have the courage to do the book. The book is filled with various sensitive and controversial elements that deal with race and our perceptions of justice in society and the producers didn't have the courage to do that on the screen, so they turned it into a lame parody of what the book was trying to convey. And the movie was bad on every possible level.
The Godfather (Mario Puzo): Okay book, a fun and quick read, great movie. In fact, one of the greatest American movies of all time. The movie, through great acting, directing, cinematography, a haunting sound track and a terrific screenplay, took a pulpy story about gangsters and made it a saga about family honor, tradition, a way of life and the struggle for the American Dream.
LA Confidential (James Ellroy): Good book, great movie: Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland took Ellroy's sprawling novel, condensed it, pureed it and simplified it, making a tight, cohesive and powerful movie out of it, while still keeping the essence of the novel intact.
Mildred Pierce (James M. Cain): Good, maybe just okay book, good movie (the 1946 version w/ J. Crawford). Here the screenwriters and director took a major liberty with the book. SPOILER AHEAD: In the book the Monte character (Mildred's second husband) does not get murdered. In the movie he does. And this brings more tension, drama and mystery to the movie, without, IMO, messing with the basic integrity of the story line. And while the Kate Winslett mini-series follows the book more closely, to me it was more plodding and in a word, boring. Though I guess I'm in the minority here as on IMDB the Winslett version gets 7.7 out of 10 stars, and the Crawford version 8. So almost a neck and neck tie. Oh well.
The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler) – Great book, wretched movie. Okay, I know a lot of people love this movie, think it's some kind of cult classic, etc. To me the only really good thing about it is the location of Marlowe's apartment, the Hightower Apartments in Hollywood, where I once looked into renting a place. Really cool building. But Elliot Gould's Marlowe, despite what some say is a Marlowe for the times (the 1970s), is not Chandler's Marlowe by a long shot. And Chandler was, and probably still is, rolling over in his grave at this one. And now that I've pissed off a bunch of people, I've got the Kevlar helmet and flak jacket ready to take the incoming.
And now for a little BSP: in addition to my novel WHITE HEAT, just out is LA LATE @ NIGHT, a collection of noir and mystery short stories. So far available on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback. And other venues shortly too.