Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Princess Bride

Question of the Week: Is it true that bad books make good movies and good books make bad ones?

Maybe generally. 

Susan Shea wrote a well-argued post yesterday in favor of the truth of this statement. She highlighted the Stephanie Plum, Jack Reacher, and Inspector Lynley series and showed why the movies and TV series not only didn't rep the books well, but didn't suck her in on their own merit either.

In the comment section, Meredith Cole made an interesting point: that the ingredients that make great reading and great watching are entirely different. A great book gets behind the eyes of the characters for emotional depth. A great movie is more action than reaction; more doing than analysing.

The exception to the rule is (for me) The Princess Bride by William Goldman. The book and the movie sucked me in equally. Characters aren't particularly deep (okay, they're downright stereotypical!) but the action in the book is compelling, and the dialogue is quick, fun, and unique enough to pique my interest in a literary way. The movie rocked. Pure and simple. For the same reasons the book did—it was fast-paced and compelling, and original in its farcical sterotypes.

And what's most interesting of all (to me): William Goldman wrote both the book and the movie. Turns out, he's a bit like Criminal Minds' Meredith Cole: he knows the ingredients that keep us flipping pages, and he knows the ingredients that keep us glued to the screen.

I read another book of his, Boys and Girls Together, and I loved it. But it was longer, slower and deeper, and I don't think I would have loved it as a movie.

Oh, and totally irrelevant aside, for just because: Robin Wright plays the lead in The Princess Bride in her
very first role onscreen, and she's also the female lead (Claire Underwood) in Netflix's House of Cards, to which I am completely addicted.


Kristopher said...

I couldn't agree more Robin. The Princess Bride is excellent in both formats. Just pure fun and a delight to experience.

And yes, Robin Wright's performance as Clair Underwood is just one part of a largely addictive show.

House of Cards is a good example of how to make unlikeable people compelling.

Dana King said...

Goldman also wrote both the novel and screenplay for MARATHON MAN. The problem with using him as an example is, he's William effing Goldman, maybe the greatest screenwriter ever, so the characteristics that bind others don't apply to him.

I think a good book can make a good movie, so long as the screenwriter remembers his job is to capture the feel and sense of the book. Not slavishly copy it, and not do what he thinks the author should have done. Elmore Leonard's a good example. A lot of bad movies have been made from good books he wrote, but HOMBRE, GET SHORTY, OUT OF SIGHT, and JACKIE BROWN (from the novel RUM PUNCH) are as good as the books, though they are not too literal copies.

Susan C Shea said...

There are people in my family who watch The Princess Bride almost as a ritual. I didn't even know it was a book but I'll make sure my movie fanatics know since they're also readers (and writers). Thanks for the heads-up, Robin!

Meredith Cole said...

I love Princess Bride, too! And it is an excellent example of a story that works on many different levels (and formats).

Dana has a great point--movies that capture the "feel and sense" of a book are better than ones that try to just copy the original work.

Bill Cameron said...

Perhaps I'm an outlier, but I found the book version of The Princess Bride rather too precious. To me, it read as if it was being told with a smirk, while the movie—for all it's knowing self-awareness—is infinitely more human and genuine.

Marathon Man is much more effective as a book, perhaps because it's a straight thriller. It lacks all that William Goldman patting himself on the back for his cleverness.

I'll commit a further sacrilege by saying I enjoy the film versions of Elmore Leonard's work more than the actual novels. Don't get me wrong—intellectually I understand and recognize Leonard's brilliance. But in reading, I often find him stylistically off-putting. Does that mean I think the movies of his work are objectively better than his books? Not exactly. But with a couple of exceptions, I find them much more interesting and entertaining. (I hearby submit myself to the torch- and pitchfork-weilding masses.)

Another movie I quite enjoy is Payback, based on the Parker novels. I also agree with most folks who are critical of Payback that it's a pale shadow of Parker at best. I feel the same way about The Watchmen movie. Both movies are flawed, and neither, I think, could be argued are better than their source material. But they're also two movies which are unlikely to get a particularly fair viewing from folks who view the originals with reverence. When I saw Payback, it had been so long since I'd read a Parker novel that I didn't make the connection at first. And I'd never read The Watchmen to begin with. I subsequently read it, and revisited Parker, and do prefer the originals. But neither movie is bad, and both have much to recommend them—if we allow ourselves to view them on their merits rather than on how they compare to their sources.

Two movies which I think put their sources to shame are Jaws and The Godfather. If you haven't read The Godfather, don't bother. It's clumsily-written dreck doing everything in its power to hide the characters and a germ of a good story. Coppola did Puzo a huge solid. Jaws is more readable, but the movie transcends what is little more than stolid prose and adequate character development. Performances and direction can accomplish so much, which is also something I think The Princess Bride demonstrates.

Art Taylor said...

I LOVE The Princess Bride! ...though have never read the book, I'll admit.

But Dana makes a good point: Goldman may be the exception to whatever rules we're establishing this week.


Robin Spano said...

Bill, I love outliers. Bring on the sacrilege anytime.

Thanks for all the discussion from everyone else. Makes me wish we were all sitting around a Bouchercon bar for these conversations. Then again, maybe we're better chatting from our happy place. (Alone at our desks!)

McKay L. said...

I really enjoyed this post! Thank you for sharing! I agree, I think both are equally engaging. I, however, wonder if they affect each other? Do you think that seeing the movie first will make the book better or worse for you? Or vise versa? I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on this.