Tis the season when Hollywood gets literate. Since the Oscar deadline coincides with New Year's Eve and a bookish pedigree is a sure way to get Academy members' attention, studios turn to acclaimed novels for their holiday fodder. But there's a risk involved. Ask any reader who has seen the movie version of a favorite novel, and the answer will usually be, "The book was better."
That's because readers of a novel have already made their own perfect movie version. They have visualized it, fleshed out the locations and set the pace as they either zipped through the book or scrupulously savored every word. Often they have even cast it. In the late 1930s, by the thousands, readers of Gone With the Wind demanded that Southern rogue Rhett Butler be played by that damn yankee Clark Gable. Readers are a very possessive bunch. So in taking a novel from page to screen, movie adapters must tread carefully, like a new visitor at Lourdes.
Carefully but critically, for it's simply not an option to be totally faithful to a fat novel. The movie version of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha takes 2 hr. 24 min.; reading his text could take weeks. Almost any novel's plot must be compressed into a black hole of incident and image. Then there's the challenge any movie faces of putting thoughts into words, emotions into gestures, descriptions into actions. And always the adapters must worry not just about satisfying those persnickety readers but also about pleasing the audience ignorant of the book.
The time has long passed when popular fiction was almost inevitably filmed by Hollywood and when, as in the 1940s, seven of the 10 Best Picture Oscar winners were based on novels. Today graphic novels inspire as many big-budget crowd pleasers as the old-fashioned unillustrated kind. Which means that somewhere someone is saying, of the Fantastic Four movie or even Sin City, "The comic book was better."
Books don't have to be serious to be adapted, as the many movie versions of Elmore Leonard novels attest. But since they're often how people experience a story first, debates will always rage over the merits of each version. We're here to add kindling to that fire. Six books, six movies, 12 constituencies. Which ones win? We'll say, but you'll decide.
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA -- Winner: Movie
CHALLENGES: The book detailed a seductive but alien world that the movie has to help the viewer navigate without having too much clunky exposition. The movie also has to be true to 1930s and '40s Japanese culture while shooting mostly in California with Chinese actresses in the lead roles, and it had to find cumulative power in an episodic story stretched over two decades.
HOW THE BOOK WAS BETTER: Both a coming-of-age love story and a treatise on geisha manners and mores, the very long Arthur Golden book reveled in its very novelness. Fiction is the ideal medium for a life story. It can span generations and take lots of scenic detours, and the reader will usually stay along for the ride. A movie has to keep on truckin' down the narrative highway.