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.