I’ve Seen the Film, I’ve Read the Book*

As this is posted, it’s 77 years since the release of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. There are differences between the film and the Dashiell Hammett story on which it’s based; and, for many people the film has eclipsed the story. When a lot of people think of Sam Spade, they think of Humphrey Bogart, and the events in the film, rather than the original story. And there are, of course, many people who’ve seen the film, but haven’t read the original story. For them, the film is the story.

And that’s not the only case where that’s happened. There are many stories and novels where the film adaptation has become at least as well-known and well-regarded as the original story – in some cases, even more so. In the hands of a skilled director, the characters can come alive for viewers. And, if the director evokes the story effectively (even if some things, or a lot of things, are changed), the effect can be a very strong film. For those who prefer to experience their crime fiction on screen rather than in a book, this can make some of those classic stories more easily available.

For example, Alfred Hitchock’s 1963 film The Birds is based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same name. While many people have read Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and perhaps some of du Maurier’s other work, that particular short story was arguably eclipsed by the film. Millions of people have seen the film, and some consider it one of Hitchock’s best efforts. It’s said that du Maurier didn’t like the adaptation at all, and the adaptation is quite different to the original story. Even though it isn’t much like the short story that inspired it, there was something about that screen version that captured people’s attention. And Hitchcock fans know that that’s not the only example of his paying tribute to a novel or a short story.

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film The Godfather is, as you’ll know, based on Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel of the same name. The Puzo novel was very well-received and remained a top seller for quite a long time. The film adaptation had, perhaps, an even wider reach. It’s been said that it’s one of the greatest films made, and it’s certainly become a part of our culture. For many, many people, when they think of Michael Corleone, they think of Al Pacino. When they think of Don Vito Corleone, they think of Marlon Brando. That’s especially true if they’ve seen the film, but not read the book.

We might say a similar thing about Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel, The Silence of the Lambs, and Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film adaptation of the same name.  The original novel was well-received, to quite a lot of critical and commercial acclaim. But, for many people, Hannibel Lecter ‘came alive’ when they saw the film. Arguably, the film medium allowed for several ‘jolts’ and visual impact that the book didn’t. And plenty of people believe that Anthony Hopkins had the role of his career as Lecter. And perhaps that’s part of the reason for which the film, as much as the novel (perhaps more?) has become a big part of our culture.

Several of Stephen King’s novels (Carrie, The Shining, and Misery, to name just three) have been adapted for the screen. Of course, the novels themselves have been critically praised and commercially successful in and of themselves. But the films have also garnered very wide audiences. This might be one of the cases where the film and the book are about equal in terms of their followings. Even so, it shows how much reach a well-done film can have.

I’m sure that you can think of many other examples – more than I could – of films that equal or eclipse the book in terms of reach. Even if, like me, you generally prefer the book to the film, there are some cases where the film medium allows for nuances that the book may not. There are also cases where the film gets to the heart of the story in the way that the book may not.

But there may be other factors, too. For example, an actor may be an inspired choice to play a character and may carry off the role brilliantly. I’ll bet you can think of several cases where a particular actor is a character to you. I know I can. This has a way of making a film memorable. Or, there may be a certain scene in a film that’s a bit harder to depict in writing, and that makes a film stay with the viewer.

What do you think? Are there films you’ve seen that eclipsed the book for you (if you’ve experienced both)? Have you seen films that then inspired you to read the book? Certainly, The Maltese Falcon is an integral part of film culture, and it’s gotten woven into the larger culture, too. How do you think that happens?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jigsaw.


Filed under Alfred Hitchcock, Daphne du Maurier, Dashiell Hammett, Francis Ford Coppola, John Huston, Jonathan Demme, Mario Puzo, Stephen King, Thomas Harris

24 responses to “I’ve Seen the Film, I’ve Read the Book*

  1. This is something I think about a lot, Margot!! 🙂

    Hitchcock’s Rear Window takes a pleasant Cornell Woolrich short story and turns it into a masterpiece. But most of the time, I think filmmakers are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to adapting a book. Either they have to miss/cut all the internal stuff that the characters go through, or they fail to depict action scenes that burst into life within our imaginations. The biggest problem is that these are such different artistic mediums that translating one to another becomes extremely difficult!

    • You’ve nailed it, I think, Brad! Film and books are very different. So it’s very hard to translate from one to the other. I think it takes a skilled director to turn a novel into an unforgettable film like Rear Window (And thanks for mentioning that one!). It is hard for a filmmaker to show things like character growth, internal angst, and tension between two people. And that’s the basis for a lot of suspense in novels, so I see your point clearly. 🙂

  2. Ah, one of my favourite subjects! I do think Hitchcock often bettered the book – he seemed to take the original as inspiration rather than blueprint. Last Sunday I watched his 1935 version of The 39 Steps. OK, that book is very famous too, but I bet far more people have watched the film, and I thought the film was vastly better even if it does look a bit creaky now. The other one that springs to mind is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – certainly nearly everybody of my generation saw the film in the cinema (in my case, eleven times!) but most of us weren’t even aware there was a book – maybe that’s a US/UK divide. I did read the book after about my fifth viewing and thought the movie was much better, but I suspect I was just disgruntled that they were so different. I’m planning to read the book again soonish now that my love for the film has abated a little (though I can still quote entire scenes verbatim 😉 ), in the hopes of giving it a fairer chance…

    • It’s funny you’d mention The 39 Steps, FictionFan. I think you’re probably right that a lot more people have seen the film than have read the book (although, as you say, the book got plenty of acclaim). And it is interesting the way that Hitchcock used stories as inspiration. Perhaps that’s part of what made him such a successful director? He had a sense of what would work on screen, and what wouldn’t, even if what worked on screen was different to what was in the story. He did that with Strangers on a Train, and, of course several other stories as well. I’ll be interested to know what you think of the original One Flew… if you do read it again. Sometimes the years change our perception, and so does seeing the film. I know it does me!

  3. Even for someone like me who isn’t a huge film watcher can be surprised to find out that a film was actually a book first – as FF says One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest springs to mind. I’ve never read The Birds although I have seen the film…

    • It is interesting, isn’t it, Cleo, how many films have their origins in books. I’ve had that experience, too, of seeing a film, and only finding out later that it was originally a novel. If you ever read the du Maurier version of The Birds, I wonder what you’ll think of it…

  4. Spade & Dagger

    The problem with the film versions of books is that they reflect the film director’s (producers, casting staff’s etc) vision of the fictional characters, which can be so different from your own mental pictures created during reading. Hence, I often don’t even recognise some films from the book as I envisaged it, and tend to treat them as separate entities.

    The best film/TV adaptations capture the ‘essence’ of the book as imagined by the reader (either in an edited or expanded form of the original book!). So, I enjoyed the first Reacher film (despite Tom Cruise being physically different to the book description); the TV adaptation of Cormaran Strike (as the actor was a good fit for him); the TV film version of Nero Wolfe; and the TV film versions of the Sharpe books (the author Bernard Cornwell found the actor Sean Bean so like his character that he apparently wrote future books with him in mind!).

    • That’s a really interesting point about reader expectations, Spade & Dagger. People do form mental pictures of what characters look like, or how they’ll behave. If those essentials are there, then an adaptation can be very successful. If the two are very different, it probably is better to treat the film/TV adaptation as a separate entity. And thanks for mentioning the Cornwell novels. I need to get more familiar with them…

  5. Hitchcock is indeed a great example of taking a story and turning it into something much more (and often at great odds with what the writer envisaged but making for a very good film). Vertigo is also based on a book and is far better known than the book. I also had nightmares when I saw the film version of Don’t Look Now (Daphne du Maurier seems to be adapted very often for films…) – although I liked the original story, I thought the film did an excellent job of conveying creepiness and discomfort.

    • Hitchcock really did make the stories he adapted very much his own work, Marina Sofia. Very often, the result wasn’t very much like the original story. But most of the time, it made for an excellent film story. And that takes a lot of talent. You make an interesting point about du Maurier’s work, too; I hadn’t thought about it, but her work really has been adapted quite a lot. Then, of course, she was quite talented…

  6. Great examples for the theme in question, Margot. I have seen most of the films you mention though, conversely, I haven’t read any of the original stories. I keep mentioning Jack Higgins but I thought both his THE EAGLE HAS LANDED and A PRAYER FOR THE DYING were made into fine movies. And then there’s always the Harry Potter films, which, while not eclipsing the books, certainly stood out for their visual and special effects.

    • They certainly did, Prashant. And they’re a great example of the way a book’s reach can get expanded. I have to confess, I’ve not seen the film adaptations of the Higgins novels, but I have heard very good things about them. There is just something about certain film adaptations that really makes them memorable.

  7. I usually like a book better but I thought the Swedish film adaptation of Let The Right One In was a vast improvement on the book.

    • That’s interesting, Cathy. Now you’re intriguing me about that film. Usually, I’m with you in preferring books. But sometimes, there is a remarkable adaptation made.

  8. When I think of great film adaptations, Margot, apart from those you’ve mentioned, LA Confidential comes to mind. Also a highly acclaimed novel, I thought the script and casting of the film were brilliant – and not just because the leads included an Australian & a New Zealander 😉.

    • I have to agree with you, Angela. And I’m very glad you mentioned both the book and the adaptation; that was one I ought to have thought of, but didn’t. Both, I think were excellently done. And the fact that the leads were an Australian and a New Zealander just adds to it all 😉 .

  9. Dark Passage is a classic, iconic film starring Humphrey Bogart. I only found out recently it is based on a book of the same name by David Goodis. Our good friend Tracy over at Bitter Tea and Mystery enlightened me with a helpful post!

    • Oh, yes!! You (and Tracy) are right, Moira! Thanks for the reminder. I’ll admit I’ve not read the book, but the film is, as you say, a classic, and Bogart does his thing very well in it.

  10. Keishon

    It’s well documented that Stephen King hated the film version of The Shining and I understand why after reading it this year. Jack Torrence was a fascinating character but he wasn’t a lunatic from the start. I didn’t know that The Birds was based on a short story so I learned something new today. Often I’ve watched the movie and learn latter, it was based on a book. The film can fix the shortcomings of a book or enhance it as you’ve shown in your excellent post like The Godfather.

    I went back to read books after watching the movie. I loved loved loved The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I could talk about this for a long time. This topic never gets old.

    • I’m glad you enjoy the topic, Keishon. And you’re right, of course, about Stephen King and his views of The Shining. I think it’s very difficult to convey the depth of character on film that a novel can, although it does happen sometimes. Reading a book after one’s seen the film is a good habit; I confess I ought to do that more than I do. It certainly lets one see the story from different perspectives.

  11. Well, considering what I’ve just commented on your other post, I couldn’t resist reading this one 😉

    I do agree that sometimes a film can pin down a story better than the book. Because – as you said – maybe an actor is paritcularly cut out for the part (I think this is the most usual circumstance) or because (like the case of L.A. Confidential, I believe – at least for me) the film recreated the world of the story so beautifully that you really get the sense to be there, more than the book does.

    But the cases that I find more fascinating are those where the book and the film are equally effective. One has to wonder what it is, in that story, that inspires so many creatives: writers, deirectors, actors.
    Such an intersting topic.

    • Now that’s a good question, Sarah! What is it about some books and films that make them equally effective? There’s something about them that inspires film-making professionals, and draws in readers, too. And you don’t always get that magic where the film and book are both really appealing.

      You make a good point, too, about the way films can create a sense of place and time in a way that a books may not do as well. Perhaps it’s the visual aspect of the media? In any case, I do know what you mean.

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