Why does Hollywood take our favorite novels and turn them into crap?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 17 2009 2:04 PM

Great Book, Bad Movie

How Hollywood ruins novels.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road. Click image to expand.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road

Why does Hollywood take our favorite novels and turn them into crap?

This isn't an original complaint: Liking the book better than the movie is a middlebrow rite of passage. And novels are a constant, renewable source of stories for Hollywood, with ready-built brand appeal—from the kiddie franchises (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia) to the airport bangers ( Da Vinci Code, the Bourne etceteras). Nor are these always bad movies. It turns out that good plots and an epic dimension translate well from page to screen. But the attempt to scale this model by making midsize movies from literary novels has been an ugly disaster. In our post-The Reader world, I can safely say that I'd rather personally digitize back issues of Talk magazine than see another movie based on Harvey Weinstein's favorite book. Scott Rudin can fuck off, too.

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I once interviewed to be a literary scout for a respected producer. The job, as described, was this: find the best novels before anyone else does so they can be bought and made into great movies. This sounds admirable. But it rests on the idea that what makes a literary novel good can be translated with any reliability into what makes a movie good. Three of the films that will be feted come Oscar night are based on recognizable literature. And while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader are definitely terrible movies, Revolutionary Road is both the worst movie I saw this year and one of the best novels I've read.

What makes the book so good and the movie so bad? And why is this divergence so unsurprising? The answer is simple, but it has complex implications: Novels are long, but movies are short. It's impossible to encapsulate the tonal shifts of a book like Revolutionary Road  in a feature-length film, no matter how long those two hours feel.

Richard Yates was not an emotionally subtle writer, and yet he was able to implicate his readers in whatever judgment he passed on his characters. Revolutionary Road works through the inculcation of false hope, again and again. We're repeatedly told that things are going to get better for the Wheelers; we're promised, or we think we've been promised, emotional and artistic breakthroughs. And in these hopes—these feverish wee-hour plans and pledges—we see our own hopes, our own insistent belief in personal progress, squelched.

The movie replaces character with plot, and the result lands with a wet flop. It tells the story of Revolutionary Road and makes us see how thin the plot is: Self-identified creative souls must escape suburbia; maybe Paris would be nice; pregnancy is an unwelcome surprise. With the constant emphasis on what happens next, the audience is reduced to being spectators of fights and sex, dreams and dissolution. Interesting stuff, maybe, but it's their stuff, not ours. We'll never know these people; they're not us.

This is what the movies do to literature, typically: There's so much plot to get in that there's no time to tell the story. Perhaps it's the insecurity of Hollywood: Inflated by the borrowed prestige of books, producers and directors won't stray too far from the guide-ropes of the story. Revolutionary Road, for instance, feels less directed than curated. But in this bargain, Hollywood makes an unnecessary concession, in effect admitting that movies are dumber than books. How could we think otherwise when smart books are continually turned into witless movies? It's the ultimate head-to-head competition, and movies are the Washington Generals. Are there reverse examples, where a mediocre movie is turned into a good book? I can't think of one, though I've heard that the novelization of The Harder They Come is remarkably successful. No, until recently, I'd just about decided that film deserves its reduced reputation as the flashy, gelled-hair cousin to literature.

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