Questions that are rarely asked

Richard Green writes to me:

If the likes of Hitchcock and others could turn works that were mediocre in literature into great films, I wonder what mediocre films could have been great literature.

The point is not to come up with a list (though some of you will) but rather to ponder what we can learn about literature as a medium.  He continues:

…literature adapted from films is almost (and this is a hedge because my experience says invariably) hack work, rushed and held in the lowest regard...Is it because literature is the elder medium, and has a higher status which would prevent condescension to recognising a prior from another medium? Is it because creation is more personal to a individual writer than the inevitable collaboration of film, and so they are loath to allow others’ work in?

Movies need (at least) a plot and a script and that can be taken from a book, with results of varying quality of course.  But I do not have an equal understanding of which factor of production is scarce to writing a good novel.  Do professional writers benefit more from showing originality in creating a world and also creating a language?  There is plenty of fan fiction based on Star Trek and the like but few professional writers take this same tack.

A simple default hypothesis is that movies are more powerful and more real than books.  So a movie based on a book won’t necessarily be overwhelmed by its source but a book based on a movie will be.  Of course there are many books adapted from oral tales so maybe it is the addition of the pictures that is so overwhelming.  I know only a few books adapted from paintings, most notably Gert Hofmann’s excellent Der Blindensturz.


Novels (can) have an internal voice of the characters, but using voiceovers in movies for the same effect is normally considered hackish. You should show instead of tell. So there's an extra dimension that the movie-adapter might add to the work that weakens it. Removing the internal voice of novel characters might actually strengthen the work.

Although I can't think of any off the top of my head, there are many great movies, which are really just great stories. It is the story that sticks with me and I forgive some of the actual moving making (such as sets, direction, acting, etc.). A lot of cult movies probably fall into the category. There is something "good" buried in them to be enjoyed by many, but too many flaws to become universally accepted as great movies.

It is easy to imagine these becoming good books. Books are a lot more forgiving to the surreal and fantastic elements of a story. Such things can look cheesy in a movie, but be quite amazing in ones head. But, since movie images tend to trump the imagination when reading books for movies you've already seen, these would probably only be great books to people who never saw the mediocre movie that inspired it.

I think the hardest part is finding someone who could get inspired enough by a bad movie to turn it in to a good book. The most likely candidates would be movies with great stories that were failed by their visuals. The most likely candidates would probably be stories that include quite a bit of the surreal, the supernatural, fantasy, the future (and/or science fiction) and other elements that don't exist in the real world (and translate poorly to the physical realm of film visuals). The big flying dog in the Neverending Story is pretty silly, but its not hard to see why children love the story being told in the film.

Another aspect is narration. Voice overs are often bad in film, but internal monologues are quite accepted in literature.

Although not quite appropriate because the movie version is actually pretty good, I think movies like Brazil and Eternal Sunshine could become great novels.

The novel "The Third Man" was published after the release of the eponymous film, but this doesn't really count since both the screenplay and the novel were written by Graham Greene.
The odds for seeing great literature of the caliber of, say, Borges and Nabokov derived from the kinematograph are worse than those for a macaque with wordprocessor to type Hamlet to the last comma.
Proof: denote by I the function "intelligence".
I(smartest director)/I(generic macaque)= o(1)

I can think of a movie (while not great, it was jolly good) that was made into a great book: the princess bride. Very swiftian adaptation.

"A simple default hypothesis is that movies are more powerful and more real than books."

My experience is exactly the opposite, and I am a child of TV and movies who has not finished 15% of the novels I've started over the last several years and still consumes a movie (minimum) a week.

Cinema does seem more real and provides much greater visceral thrills.

But I have always connected more strongly with novels. I spent my early 20's foisting Catch-22 on people and rambling about it when I was drunk. I connected with (and was probably shaped by) it's world view. Similarly, though I might've wanted to look like Mel Gibson back in the 80's, I wanted to be Gus McRae or one of James Ellroy's doomed badasses. And I still vibe out with Thomas Berger's narrative voice (may The Houseguest live forever).

The only movies that had as strong an effect on me were Star Wars and Raiders, and that was when I was prepubescent.

Movies at their best are great entertainment. I personally think the best filmmaker going is Mamet: Spanish Prisoner, Glengarry (yeah, I know he didn't direct it), State and Main--- watchmaker's should eat their hearts out. But flicks cannot give you the depth that a novel can.

(And it's worth mentioning that Mamet's attempt at a novel was not well received. I didn't try it. Might some day.)

All the published adaptions of films I can think of have been *plays* rather than novels - except where the screenplay & novel writer are the same person (as with blogging ape's example of Greene). Maybe the leap to a novel is too great a liberty to take with another's work OR perhaps anyone diligent & talented enough to make a good novel out of another person's work would be more inclined to change the names, setting etc. & claim it as an original work (perhaps siting the film as an 'influence'), rather than pay to licence it? I've heard of several novel writers earning more for the film rights to their book (even if no film gets made) than they made from royalties - so to licence a film into a novel would likely be prohibitively expensive.

Isn't mediocre source material a blessing for filmmakers? There are no legions of devotees waiting to pounce on every license taken. Great literature often perfectly renders a world in our heads, while mediocre literature would leave it open to interpretation. Finally, mediocre books give filmmakers the opportunity to add and improve, while great literature can be defined as not needing addition or improvement.

It's highly possible that a mediocre film could inspire great literature. I think many novelists today write while picturing the film. They can picture the film of their novel because they've frequently grown up on many more movies than books.

After you see a music video, any time you hear the song after that you can't help but have the music video replay in your head. The video taints the song. (At least, that's the case with me.)

And this is music videos we're talking about, 99% of which are abysmally stupid and add nothing to the song, yet you STILL can't get the stupid images outside of your head the next time you hear the song. Images are powerful.

Like a couple others said, the only way a book could be successfully based off a movie is if no one had seen the movie.

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was originally a radio series adapted to a book then a TV series, then a film. The book was good enough to come fourth in the BBC Big Read poll in 2003 giving it a pretty strong claim to be the best novelization ever. There wer no other novelizations in the top 100

A notable example of Book-film-book is the novel Red Alert became the film Dr Strangelove which became the novel Dr Strangelove, the first book was a straight thriller the film and subsequent novelization were satire. Both novels were by Peter George, who therefore novelised Kubrick's film based on his own novel.

There is a novelization of the Bond film the Spy Who Loved Me (James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me by Christopher Wood), but as the film took only the title from Ian Fleming's novel it isn't an example of book-film-book.

Good question and good answers

Rational writes about novels: "When we read ... we are ... required to use our imaginations."

WillJ adds about the picture in music videos: "The video taints the song." Our imaginations are actually not invited to attend.

Thirdly, Slocum finishes off almost any hope that book-from-film will be financially viable: "books from films are just additional elements in the merchandising of the film"

I'll add that the only music video I have ever enjoyed was the steam train plowing through deep snow in Pat Metheny's "Last Train Home". Perhaps the music without lyrics still allows the imagination to work. The drum brushes creating the rhythm of the steam pistons is fantastic.

An interesting use of the reader's imagination is Patrick Susskind's novel "Perfume", which engages the sense of smell in many of its passages. I cannot remember another novel that used my nose quite that much. Any other suggestions in that regard?

The screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey was written by Stanley Kubrick and SF author Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke then wrote a novelization expanding on the screenplay that was released more or less simultaneously with the film, but differed in many respects. Both are SF classics in their respective media.

"The big flying dog in the Neverending Story is pretty silly, but its not hard to see why children love the story being told in the film."

I'm not sure but this comment seems to imply that the Neverending Story is a mediocre movie that might be turned into a good book. In fact, it is a very good book in German called Die Unendliche Geschichte, upon which the movie was based. I'm not sure if it has ever been translated into English. The author was Michael Ende. One interesting thing about the book is that the magical/imaginary sections of the book are in red ink, while the frame story is in the normal black ink.

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