I’d like to teach a class. I don’t want to be a teacher for a living – I’ve seen what they have to put up with, and that’s not for me, thanks all the same – but there is a dream class I’d like to teach. I’d take books that have been made into movies and have the students read them, a book a week. Then we watch the film version. Then we talk about what one did better than the other and vice versa, and what constitutes art, and so forth. The class would be called “I Liked the Book Better: Novel vs. Film” or some such. If nothing else, it would be a great way to ensure that the kids read the book and didn’t just use the movie as CliffsNotes.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a good class if the same point (BOOK GOOD! MOVIE BAD!) is hammered home week after week. Besides, there are more than a few movies that are better than the book. So I’d try to mix up the syllabus a little, mix some treasures in with the trash and not tip my hand on which is which.
I thought it’d be fun to share some of the titles I’d like to have the students read/watch over the course of the course. There are thousands to choose from, tens of thousands maybe, so don’t think this baker’s dozen or so are la creme de la creme. They just happen to be my creme. I wish I could have included a William Goldman work (either novel or screenplay), and I had to leave out a lot of good ones for being too long and/or complex – The Grapes of Wrath, The Godfather, Catch-22, L.A. Confidential, Gone With the Wind… the list goes on and on. But this is a course, after all, and some of the kids might not be the best readers…
MASH. This has always been one of the key books in the course for me, as I consider the movie to be far better than the book. Written by Richard Hornberger (under the pen name Richard Hooker) and W.C. Heinz, the book is a series of technical medical talk punctuated by hijinks (or is it the other way around?). Director Robert Altman made the book’s plotlessness an asset rather than a liability, making the characters freewheeling as possible, with much ad-libbing amongst the actors becoming the rule. Result: an anarchic picture that made Altman’s name, inspired the long-running TV series, and superseded everything about the text.
Slaughterhouse-Five. This is another key text in the class, as the book’s a classic, and one that would seem to me to be unfilmable. How do you visually portray a character becoming unstuck in time? Well, George Roy Hill pulled it off. Billy Pilgrim goes to the showers in WWII Dresden, and by the time the water falls on him, he’s a boy at the YMCA. When he gets shock treatment, the blast of electricity corresponds to the blast of a work whistle back in WWII Dresden. It’s very tricky, and perfectly carried off. Author Kurt Vonnegut called the movie “flawless” and said that “I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”
Jaws. A beach read turned into a hugely entertaining flick; it marked Steven Spielberg’s arrival as America’s cinematic storyteller, and it kicked a lot of sand at Peter Benchley’s novel. Students reading this will be surprised to learn that Hooper, the character played by Richard Dreyfuss, not only has an affair with Chief Brody’s wife in the book, he also gets killed by the shark. This should lead to to some great talk about what to leave in and what to take out, and why.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe to play Holly Golightly, but she thought playing a prostitute would be a bad move and passed. Audrey Hepburn made the part her own, but Capote hated what happened to his heroine. She’d gone from cautionary tale to Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and at the end she gets together with George Peppard, whose character is homosexual in the book. Oh, and let’s not forget Mickey Rooney’s offensive yellowface performance. Plenty of material here.
Dolores Claiborne. I think I have to put a Stephen King book in this syllabus, as there are so many movies made from his writings. I could have picked Different Seasons, his collection of novellas, and shown three movies (Apt Pupil, Shawshank Redemption, and Stand By Me). I’m choosing Dolores Claiborne because it’s one where Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter adapting the book, changed Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character of Dolores’s daughter from a secondary one to one on equal footing with her mother. King said later that he wished he’d thought of it. Well worth classroom discussion.
The Color Purple. This list is unfortunately heavy on white male authors; here’s what I’m choosing to break that up. It also serves as a way of looking at our second Steven Spielberg movie. How has he grown from Jaws? Was he the right choice for a director of a movie about African-Americans in the 1930s? The movie was nominated for 11 Oscars and won none – why? Again, much to talk about here.
The Silence of the Lambs. The film has become part of the American fabric, yet I’d be surprised if any of the imaginary students in this course would have read it. Is it possible to read about Hannibal Lecter without hearing Anthony Hopkins’ soft burr? More to the point, director Jonathan Demme is able to make points in subtle ways that the book can’t – think of Jodie Foster as the smallest one in the elevator – but he can only go so far into the characters’ heads. The power of imagination can be discussed to great effect here.
Fight Club. Chuck Palahniuk is on record as preferring the ending of the movie to the ending he wrote for the book. That’s reason enough to feature it here, though it’ll also be interesting to see how hints about the identity of Tyler Durden are dropped in one medium versus the other.
Out of Sight. I’m a big fan of writer Elmore Leonard, so I wanted to include one of his books in this syllabus. Out of Sight is the best of many Leonard adaptations (with Jackie Brown being a very close second), and it’s adapted in a very creative way. Director Steven Soderbergh plays fast and loose with time in this, from random freeze frames to starting in the middle of the story before flashing wayyyy back. There’s also a new ending that feels very true to the book, even if it’s a hundred eighty degrees different.
Fantastic Mr. Fox. I wanted to put in a children’s book, and Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic was the top choice for me. The book takes up the middle part of the movie, with much prologue and epilogue added on, along with a complicated father/son dynamic that seems quite at odds with where Dahl was coming from. How much should an adaptation stray from author to writer/director? Discuss.
Fletch. The book by Gregory Mcdonald won an Edgar Allan Poe award for best first novel and spawned many sequels and prequels, but today everyone remembers it as a star vehicle for Chevy Chase. I’d like to talk about how much of the character of Fletch was a smart aleck before Chase got to it, and how the character and the book were altered to play to Chase’s strengths. What happens when a book is subsumed for the actor’s benefit? Does the book itself benefit?
Point Blank / Payback. Both of these movies are based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark, a.k.a. Donald Westlake. One could watch them both and not realize that the source material is the same, though both are most violent and contain magnetic performance by Lee Marvin and Mel Gibson, respectively. Here we could talk about what the original book inspired and what each movie brought to the story, perhaps even compare the movies to one another – not so much to decide which is better, so much as how much the differences reflect the times the movies were made (late ’60s vs. late ’90s) and whether either was truer to the book, or perhaps to each other.
Presumed Innocent. John Grisham’s books would seem to be the go-to for a movie adaptation of a courtroom thriller, but without Scott Turow’s novel to lead the way, Grisham might still be a lawyer himself. The book needed a lot of telescoping to get into movie form; Turow said in an interview, “There were three large narrative problems to solve. Point of view (getting around the first person narrative); time sequence (it’s all flashback and Hollywood doesn’t like that); and then just an awful lot of plot. I have to give Alan [J. Pakula, the writer/director] a great deal of credit as both director and as a writer.” We’ll discuss why.
Jesus’ Son. Here’s something you rarely see – a collection of short stories made into a movie. Does Denis Johnson’s collection have enough of a throughline to make the movie not feel too episodic? Is it a problem if it does feel that way? Does the movie succeed in finding the depths of character in the book? If so, is that due to the actor? the screenplay? the visualization?
It’s a start, as far as syllabi go, and may not even be the final one, but I know for a fact I would enjoy taking this course. I’d even be okay with shelling out all the money for the books. And I guarantee the students will encounter at least one text they’d never read and one movie they’d never seen, and become lifelong fans of them both.
What books/movies would you like to teach? Let us know in the comments.