It’s Complicated

I’m going to talk about something today that is on everyone’s mind and lips. I’m going to talk about that controversial event that is coming up that has some people cheering and gleefully grinning, with others “tsking” and shaking their heads and wagging their fingers at such an abomination and corruption of something pure and great.

Yep, I’m talking Mad Max: Fury Road.

I’m a visual kind of guy. I like to be shown everything and be aesthetically appealed to. I want to be slapped in the face with quality storytelling until I have to file a restraining order against a director or writer. I want to be yanked around similar to a magician working his stage: misdirection, sleight of hand, and then POW! comes the grand reveal, all of which are designed to make you think “Wow, I really should have seen that coming!”

You really should have, because in movies like Mad Max, there is a lot of sexiness in what the director and writers do.

“But Jason,” somebody over thattaway just whined, “I thought you were going to talk about the Hugo Awards?”

Nope. Tough cookies if this makes you displeased. I want to talk about books versus movies. Suck it up and march on, buttercup. This is my blog today.

I remember the first time I watched Mad Max. I was, well, both shocked and in awe. The storytelling was brutal and inconsistent, the visuals disturbing and not well-shot. However, there was a deep, pulsing vein of violence and anarchy of this dystopian future that resonated. I remember thinking “This is good, but I bet a book would do what they were intending justice.” But then I saw The Road Warrior and everything changed.

You see, the difference between the two movies is night and day. TRW scenes were well-shot, the timing was magnificent and the pacing puts even me to shame (I like to write fast-paced stuff). The editing was top-notch, and I really couldn’t see much that would translate better into a book. In TRW, they did a much better job of showing you what was going on, whereas in the original Mad Max (I typed that Mas Max twice, and then realized that it wasn’t really a huge difference), it tried to make the viewer put the pieces together. It tried to be an elegant film when it wasn’t. TRW was an elegant film, but only because it readily embraced what it was supposed to be and what was supposed to happen. It did not burden itself by pretending to put on airs. It was exactly what it was, which made it great.

Could a book make TRW even better? Well, anything is possible, but it would take one hell of a writer and a very patient reader (because if you’re going to try to make it better than the movie, it’s going to take a weaver with abilities beyond any living writing). Could a book make Mad Max better, though? Undoubtedly.

I was going somewhere with this… right, I remember now!

I almost always pick a book over a movie. A movie and director has a strict time constraint (except Peter Jackson, apparently) and thus is limited to what can go in the movie and what ends up on the cutting room floor. Favorite side character who makes random appearances in the book? Probably gone. Background info that can help build the world the characters live in? Gone, because we gotta get that love triangle worked into the story somehow (screw you, Peter Jackson).

But then, there are times when the movie outshines the books (again, this Peter Jackson dude is all over the place here). I’ll admit that I loved The Hobbit when I was younger, and actively despised The Lord of the Rings. So when the movies came out ten years ago or so (oh Lord, I’m getting older…), I was reluctant to see them because of how much I disliked the trilogy (I can hear the howls of anger now…. all I can say is everyone’s tastes are different). But I went, and thought that Jackson had done a bang-up job of it. He knew he wasn’t going to be able to fit all of a book into one movie, so he picked what could handle the pacing and excitement that viewers needed. The extended director’s cut was for the purists (disclaimer: while not a purist, I do own all three movies in extended director’s cut format on DVD). Harry Potter? Same issues.

Can there be a middle ground? Depends on who you don’t mind offending. Should there be?

Simple answer? No.

Long answer? It’s complicated and I’m not sure I can explain more than that. It’s just… complicated.


  1. Movies have the innate advantage in scene-setting; one sweeping panning shot during the title credits can set a time and place that’s hell to work in on the first few pages. They’re also much better for the omniscient point of view, where most books these days are tight third person, or first person.

    Books have an innate advantage in character, because they can tell you what the character is thinking and feeling. Good actors can show feeling, but that’s hit or miss by casting call – where a book can easily work in the inner turmoil beneath the outward calm.

    Books also have an unlimited set budget – where movies will have to narrow their locations to budget. (I still remember being disappointed at how many submarines were left out of The Hunt For Red October, as it was one of the first book-to-movies I watched after reading the book first.)

    On the other hand, movies can do things with special effects that your brain hadn’t imagined yet. (Though they may be dated quickly by better development.)

    Every now and then, there are movies that are better than the book, because the director and the scriptwriter don’t try to recast the book in visual form; they create a movie out of the source material of the book.

    Yep, it’s complicated.

    1. Re. movies better than the book. I’d nominate Bladerunner as one of the best examples. It is not _Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep_. But it takes what I consider the core of the novel and turns it into a fantastic movie that, IMHO, has aged well (original version. I have not seen the Director’s cut[s].) As you say, Dorothy, the writing and production folks took the source material and created a movie that captured the sense of the book without trying to film the book.

      That, and having both Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer didn’t hurt, either.

    2. Good actors can show feeling, but that’s hit or miss by casting call – where a book can easily work in the inner turmoil beneath the outward calm.

      *nod* Sometimes you can use translation trades– like how Snape became, well, Rickman for the movie version, and it worked because it was always obvious that Snape was up to something besides “being the villain,” even when the only thing we SAW in the book was evidence that “he’s the villain.”

      I gotta get a gif of him putting out his robe, sometime. 😀

        1. Rickman is amazing as most anything– I offer, as evidence, that I have had to have it pointed out that it’s the same actor for several of his roles.

          That is a good actor. No dis to, say, John Wayne, but some actors are “X as Y,” while he tends to be “Y.”

          1. Agreed. Like Johnny Depp, for example. Brilliant actor, but identifying different tics and quirks of each character and how they differentiate is impossible because they cross over quite a bit. Never noticed that with actors like Rickman,

  2. Reblogged this on Jason Cordova's Website and commented:

    I blogged today over at the Mad Genius Club and talked about Books versus Movies. Why that and not the Hugos? Well, two reasons.

    One: everyone is talking about the Hugos.

    Two: I wanted to talk about Books versus Movies.

    See? That is how it’s done. No fuss, just going out and doing something. Anyway, go take a look.

  3. Movies and books are very different media. In all but rare cases the book will be better than the movie when the movie is and adaptation of the book. On the other hand, if the movie is made from scratch to play to the strengths of the visual media, the movie may very well be better than the book. (All the above is IMHO).

      1. I like all three – “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and “The Silmarillion.” For *very* different reasons, so it is perfectly understandable that many like one and not the others.

        (BTW, I loved just about every bit of the LOTR movies – except the last speech of Theoden. Just did not have the same blood-pumping effect as the book.)

        1. Well, I first read The Hobbit when I was in 1st or 2nd grade. (I had to, because my elder brother read it. And then my younger brother had to read it, and he was a year younger than me.) It’s really kind of a terrible book for young kids to read, because it is so much more interesting than most kids’ books or adult novels. 🙂

          But The Lord of the Rings is about five hundred times scarier, or at least the Riders are. Plus the forewords are interesting but kinda confusing. So I didn’t read much past the Unexpected Party until I was a couple of years older. Then I read the whole thing, except that I skimmed a lot of Mordor. (I also seem to have managed to skip the scariest parts of the spider cave during that read and through at least 20 rereads — without intending it or noticing — which is a really impressive psychological feat of arachnophobia.)

          It’s so much broader that you really have no idea where you’re going on the first read, although as Diana Wynne Jones noted, the pattern of scary stuff and good stuff, adventures and rest periods, gives the book a very interesting structure (and then Tolkien keeps subverting it). When you go back, you can see that The Hobbit uses this structure also, but in a lot less complicated ways.

          Jackson didn’t really bring this out in either set of movies. He was always making rest periods scary and scary periods funny, and bringing out Sauron’s full fury way too early. He also had a fundamental mistrust of the powers of acting, which is particularly obvious in the Theoden and Bilbo/ring scenes. You don’t hire a great actor, and then use CGI instead of acting and makeup.

          OTOH, when he does a good job with Tolkien, it is very good. Also, it’s obvious that he did a great job making Tolkien approachable for people who had never read him or had bounced off him, and a great deal can be forgiven for that.

          1. “He also had a fundamental mistrust of the powers of acting,”

            This. There are a number of other scenes and roles – Galadriel, Gandalf – where this is true as well.

        2. I liked the Silmarillion because I approached it as a historical nonfiction piece. Once I had that frame of mind, it was quite enjoyable.

  4. I thought the Potter movies were extremely well done, to the extent that they had to split the last book into two movies just to retain the richness of detail.
    Of course I attribute a lot of this on the rare and precious anomaly in the book to movie business of the author retaining serious creative control of the material. Just about no one other than Rowling could have pulled that off.
    Authors need to be aware that a movie option on your work means a nice check, and usually that’s all it means. Some obscure movie development type buys the right to make a movie out of your book and shops it around to production companies to see if anyone is interested. Mostly nothing ever comes of it. Enjoy that little bit of extra income. Buy yourself something nice and don’t expect anything more from it.
    On rare occasion some agency with deep pockets may decide the story has merit (ie they think a movie would make them a shitton of bucks) and exercises that option. You’ve already been paid, so all you get at this point is bragging rights. The developers just may hire you to help with the story line and script, totally their choice. If you think this will give you any sort of influence on the final product just walk away now and focus your talents on your next book. You must understand, if your name isn’t J. K. Rowling you gave away creative control when you sold that option. J. K. got a sweetheart deal because by the time the movie folks got involved she was sitting on the hottest property in literary history and had already gotten richer than the Queen on her book sales alone so could hold out for a much better deal.
    So, if you want to play in Hollywood (figuratively speaking, nobody makes movies there any more) take the offer, but you’re probably much better off far away where you can’t see what they do to your pride and joy.
    And should the movie actually get made, whether success or failure, and that due mostly to the resources put into it in the way of funding, director, actors, and marketing, you will get that little item in the credits “based on the book by …”
    And so you will get that most precious of items, name recognition which spurs interest in your backlist and future works.

    1. Unless the movie becomes a notorious stinker and a flop, in which case being associated with it might become poison. Or even if the movie becomes a success, but it has been twisted into something completely different from your story (most likely) in which case its fans will probably decide you stink as a storyteller and the genius director managed to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear because the movie is obviously sooo much better on those rare times they manage to notice the movie actually is based on some other story, sorta kinda, and bother to check out the source story. Most times nobody probably will notice there is a source story. Or everybody who does notice there is a novel or short story or whatever will think your story is a bad novelization of the movie, and how come the owners of the copyright allowed this to happen… All of which might also be poison to your career.


    2. Michael Crichton (and everyone else) hated the movie ‘Congo”. Lawrence Bloch had a wonderful character in Bernie Rhodenbarr, a used bookstore owner who supports his bookstore by burgling; the movie people turned the Jewish gentleman with the lesbian dog-groomer best friend into Whoopi Goldberg with Bobcat Goldthwait as the best friend in the movie ‘Burglar” and there was nothing he could do about it; he had sold the character.
      On the other hand, I thought “Forrest Gump” was a great movie, and Winston Groom’s book was, at best, mediocre. YMMV.

      1. I thought The 13th Warrior was a better movie than Eaters of the Dead was a book, but for most of the other adaptations of his novels the books were better (Andromeda Strain is about even).
        I didn’t even recognize Burglar as being based on any of the Lawrence Block books.

    3. I think that Hollywood sometimes just buys the rights to a book because they want to make a certain kind of movie that is vaguely like it (*very* vaguely, in some cases) – and if it’s “based on a novel by” they have fewer legal complications to worry about. (Plus the title tie-in, that can pull in a few more unsuspecting customers.)

  5. I liked the original version of “Blade Runner” better than the Director’s Cut. I LIKED the voice-overs.
    Umm…I’m going to go out on a limb, here, and talk about a movie NOT based on a book.
    I just watched the BluRay “The Dark Knight Rises” on a big honken (60 inch?) screen. It STANK.
    Stupid motorcycle. Stupid ‘fusion plant with removeable explosive core.’ Stupid characters. With stupid motivations.
    Stupid heels on Catwoman’s boots.
    Stupid plot.
    Stupidly bad weepy scene of Michael Caine standing over Bruce Wayne’s grave.
    I only watched it because 10 year old Kenny wanted to watch it with me, and I’m going to make him watch and enjoy “Seven Samurai.”

  6. I’d disagree that the extended director’s cut of LotR was “for the purists”…at least, once we get beyond “Fellowship”. It seemed that the further we got into the books, the less Jackson believed in the power and truth of Tolkien’s original story and the more he obsessively replaced book and appendix elements with forced, lame Hollywood cookie cutter sub plots and twists.

    Saruman’s fate? The Scouring of the Shire?

    Nah, he just falls off the tower and dies impaled on a water wheel. And we’ll just have the shire hobbits looking kind of pissy for 1.5 seconds when the heroes get back!

    Faramir? He’s totally evil and stupid and stuff. And Elrond secretly hates Aragorn! And….and…the Ents are really lame and goofy…and…AND…


    This is one book purist who found enjoyment of the films significantly diminished by the extended cuts.

    1. Red Letter Media’s … unusual … movie review series points out a lot of why Jackson’s adaptation got further and further away from Tolkien.

      Cutting out stuff here or there didn’t necessarily unbalance the story. But once you make certain choices to change something important (or that is going to be important later), you end up forced to change more things in order to keep the story going.

      Sometimes this was done on purpose, to make a more Hollywood-understandable story arc. (Aragorn has to be made into a reluctant king, because Hollywood assumes a non-reluctant leader is a dictator. Hobbits have to be made more comic-relief than they are. Etc.) OTOH, a lot of changes were made because it would “look cool,” or because the screenplay writers were basically rewriting the movie as fanfic. (Aragorn falling and getting lost for five minutes of movie was the classic fanfic “Kirk falls into a hole, so we can angst and/or have action scenes about him.”)

      There were also some changes and additions which were basically a good idea in a movie. Aragorn’s entire romance with Arwen went over my head on my first read, until we got to the end and they got married. (Although the appendix telling the whole story is great stuff.) So obviously things had to be made a little more explicit in a movie. The problem was that the way they did it was so, so fanficky and tacky that it practically made me lose my cookies. The adaptation wasn’t subtle, and the implied premarital sex was pretty much a direct personal insult to Tolkien. (Which probably goes right along with not trusting the actors to tell the story. Heck, why care about the author’s religious beliefs and romantic aesthetics?)

      But fanfic of the tackiest nature can introduce an audience to a story; and without Jackson, we wouldn’t have the insane numbers of teenage girls who now know the Silmarillion by heart and have fallen in love with specific elves, Valar, and men. Creating a new mythology for the British Isles was Tolkien’s greater project idea, and it has succeeded. Jackson’s adaptations have helped that along. In this case, all things have worked together for good, even if the path there has been a weird one. 🙂

      1. Peter Jackson’s LoTR movies are about as good as you could ever expect Hollywood to produce. Unfortunately he is now a victim of his own success. He turned King Kong and The Hobbit, which are quick fun little adventure stories, into overly long epics with over wrought interspecies love triangles. (Kong – Ann Darrow – Jack Driscoll / Legolas – Tauriel –Kili)
        George Lucas is also a victim of his success with Star Wars. Red Letter Media deconstruction of the prequels is very profane but also quite illuminating why they are flawed and why Star Wars isn’t. (By the end I started to feel bad for George, he doesn’t any one that will tell him NO.)
        The Dark Knight and Casino Royal are both excellent. They are tightly plotted and everything in them happens FOR A REASON! In the Dark Knight Rises and following Daniel Craig Bond films however, things happen just because it’s in the script.

        1. My little brother has been watching the Clone Wars animated series commentaries. Apparently the success of the series was partly due to a lot of input by Lucas — but coupled with good creative professionals who could talk to Lucas about the input, and then wrangle his ideas into something that would work dramatically _and_ be cool. (And it didn’t hurt that the creative professionals included a guy who had a near-encyclopedic knowledge of all things Star Wars.)

        2. Michael Drout (English/Old English prof at Wheaton) has a funny review of Hobbit 3:

          “It’s as if [Peter Jackson] and screenwriter Philippa Boyens had heard an oral traditional version of the story of Bilbo Baggins, which they supplemented with information from some partially burned leaves of the text in a museum and a few chapters of a very old Chinese translation, but had never actually read The Hobbit for themselves.”

          Since he’s the kind of guy who does study all different versions of stories, he doesn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. 🙂

          1. Oh, and this part he really liked:

            “Thranduil is a Silmarillion elf. Arrogant, contemptuous of mere mortals, emotionally incomprehensible, deeply scarred and flawed… he’s [like] Curfin or Celegorm, one of the sons of Feanor in all their power, beauty and total jerkitude. I give Jackson for credit for making an elf different than those we have seen before. “

  7. Full disclosure : I love the Mad Max series, and i can get beyond Thunderdome.

    I think that anything can be taken from one type of media and translated in another type of media if the translator is capable. but he/she must be able to grasp the essence of what he is translating. He or she must take the heart and soul of the piece of media and preserve that, all else is secondary.
    This of course means that you must be willing and capable to grasp what the core of the book/movie is about.

    I think that is why people took issue with Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, because it kept the shell ( the bug war) , but lost the essence of the book.
    That is why I have no issue with the Visuals of the X-men movies, or the LOTR-series.
    I am watching Star Trek, into Darkness now and i can see J.J. Abrams trying to grasp the essence of the Star Trek franchise and failing at it.
    I think that is why most movies based on video-games are horrible, because most games have no essence besides shoot, jump or kill lots of people/zombies/aliens /mushrooms (not a bad thing per se).

    I keep asking about the essence of the Mad max series and most i can get to is that it is about the difference between living and surviving.

    There is a scene in the Road Warrior that makes me love this movie:
    After Max delivers the rig to the platform The Captain’s girl and the gyro captain try to flee, but she decides to stay. This allows the rescue of Max by the gyro-captain when Max tries to flee on his own and fails. allowing Max to drive the tanker at the break-out.
    Her decision could have been to flee with the gyro-captain. We know he still has some morals, as we see the horror and loathing on his face during the rape and murder of the scouts. She chose life and the risk of death with her family over flight and survival with the gyro captain.
    When nobody was watching she chose the right thing to do.

  8. I read (sometime ago) that what the average reader reads in the time that a movie runs is what was taken from the book to make the movie. And thats why comic books and short stories are easier to make movies from.

    1. There’s a very interesting discussion in Robertson Davies’ opera novel The Lyre of Orpheus, about how much plot an opera can get through vs. a movie, etc.

Comments are closed.