I’ve written on here before about how film adaptations of books are usually (though not always) unsuccessful, because the stories told in books are usually optimized for book form, and so don’t work as well on screen.  But what about books adapted from movies? Do they have the same problem?

Again; yes, usually.  But sometimes they can complement the movie well. I think it’s actually easier for a novelization to enhance a movie than for a movie to enhance a book.  You can probe the motivations and details of the characters more thoroughly on the page. But with movie adaptations, it’s more likely you’ll lose content rather than gain it.

An example of a bad novelization is the Star Wars: Attack of the Clones book by R.A. Salvatore. The whole thing feels off. It lacks much of the quick pacing of the movie, and when we get to “hear their thoughts”, as it were, the characters don’t really match up with how they seem to be acting in the film.

You don’t have to look far for a much better novelization, though:  Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Stover is a great adaptation that does a very good job illuminating other aspects of the story and fleshing out the characters in a way not possible in the movie.  One thing that’s not communicated in the movie, but which Stover includes, is the point that Anakin is very sleep-deprived during the events of the story. This helps make his decisions much more understandable.

I read a novelization of the movie The Mummy Returns, and it was about what you’d expect for a novelization of a popcorn action-adventure flick.  It’s entertaining on the screen, but dire on the page.  I think many novelizations really are nothing more than cash-ins.

One question that occurred to me as I was thinking about this issue: between books and movies, which medium do you think is more conducive to nuance and subtlety in storytelling? My first inclination was to say “books”, but then it is true that you have to spend a lot more time describing something in a book than in a film. “A picture is worth a thousand words”, as they say. What do you think?

“The fans are all upset. They’re always going to be upset. Why did he do it like this? And why didn’t he do it like this? They write their own movie, and then, if you don’t do their movie, they get upset about it.”–George Lucas

I was thinking a bit more about the Mass Effect 3 ending.  I may do a post later on with my thoughts on it specifically, but while I was thinking about it, the idea occurred to me that it was so disappointing because it was so anticipated.  Fans had years to think about how the Mass Effect series would end; and so whatever happened would likely disappoint them.  It is an intrinsically bad ending, don’t get me wrong, but its badness was amplified by how much everyone had been thinking about it.

The same thing happened, for me anyway, with the Harry Potter series.  A big plot point, discussed by fans and even used in the advance marketing of the last book was “is Snape good or evil”?  Everybody had two years to think about this question, and we all knew what was going to happen.  Even if you bet on the wrong outcome, chances were you’d heard alternate theories that turned out to be correct. It may have made it sell better to promote the debate, but it weakened the book’s dramatic power.

It’s hard to surprise your audience with twists when you are telling a story with long intervals between each installment.  The only way out is to not leave clues to what’s coming, but then the endings or plot twists will feel unsatisfying; like they just came out of nowhere.  The best plot resolutions have to have been logically set up beforehand.

Sometimes a writer can stumble on some good twist in the middle of a series.  For instance, few people see the famous twist in The Empire Strikes Back coming, unless someone has spoiled them on it.  I’ve heard that this is because George Lucas only decided to do it after A New Hope was released, so he hadn’t left enough clues to give it away before hand, but was able to satisfactorily retrofit his twist on to the second film with the vague setup given in the first. But he was very lucky.

Lucas also didn’t have the internet to contend with.  If he had, some random fan probably would have accurately guessed the ending by pure chance while speculating on some forum.  I see this as the inevitable fate of the Half-Life video game series: if they ever do release Half-Life 3, there is no way someone won’t have already guessed what the deal is with the G-Man and posted a huge essay about their theories to be discussed on some forum.

There’s no question that internet fandom has intensified this problem; for it enables like-minded people to interact and ponder their favorite series.  I don’t think this was as much of a problem before the internet, even though there were stories that appeared in installments in magazines and the like.

This problem is lessened a bit if you are not doing a sequel that directly continues a particular story.  J.J. Abrams was very smart to come up with the alternate timeline business for his new Star Trek movies, because it pretty much allowed him to do whatever he wanted.   And although it still does not really live up to its title, I think a lot of criticism from Fallout fans of Fallout 3 was blunted because it was set far away from the other games.  In other words, it’s easier to do a series that is a loosely-related group of stories in a certain setting or around a set of themes than it is to tell one coherent story over installments. And it’s easiest of all to just tell your story in one shot.  To bring us back to Mass Effect 3, I’m convinced that had they condensed the story of the whole series into one game–with the same endings–they would have gotten way fewer complaints.  On the other hand, they also would have made less money.

A few days ago, a friend of mine was recommending to me that I read some John Steinbeck books.  Then, a few days later, my blogger friend Thingy also mentioned him.  So, I guess I better get to it. I’ll try Grapes of Wrath, even though I admit the setting doesn’t appeal to me.

Another famous book I’ve never read is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which I see they have just adapted into a movie.  I’ll have to read it too at some point.  It’s also considered a great book.  It should make for an interesting contrast: Grapes is about poor Westerners in the 1930s, and Gatsby is about rich Easterners in the 1920s.

There are surprisingly many famous books that I have never read…  Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, everything by Charles Dickens that isn’t A Christmas Carol. (Actually, I’m not even 100% sure I read that–I may have just absorbed by seeing the many thousands of adaptations.)

I did recently read Dracula, by Bram Stoker.  It wasn’t very good, to be honest.  It was very slow-moving and except for Dracula himself, most of the characters were thin as paper.  Add in that it was surprisingly violent for a Victorian novel, and I didn’t care for it at all.

UPDATE: Thank you for the award, Thingy.  (I still can’t comment on your blog, BTW, but I’m glad some comments are back.) Gone With The Wind is another one I want to read, even though I fully expect to hate it from what I know about it.  It’s what the critics like to call an “important” book, so I should probably  see what all the fuss is about.

I recently read a book called The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson.  It was a forerunner of what we would call  “Lovecraftian” weird tales, in that instead of relying the stereotypical monsters, it instead used a weird atmosphere and strange alien creatures to be frightening.

That part of it is pretty cool.  Unfortunately, it’s also a forerunner of Lovecraft in another respect:  the story goes on way too long.  I think it’s partly a dramatic device to have it drag on like it does, but it’s still too long.  The feeling of weirdness and dread can’t really be sustained over a story of that length.

Even with that serious flaw, though, it’s a very good story, especially the first half of it.  Some of the science of the science-fiction elements were surprisingly well done.  The author does as good a job as one could expect of describing what seems to be the end of the universe as many astronomers predict it.

I guess that’s kind of a spoiler—but actually, it’s also a good way of conveying how long the book is: the universe ends—and then the book continues after that!

Weird article in The Daily Beast by a writer called Frank Bill.  Idea is that men are not manly enough these days, so there are fewer manly novels about manly things.

What I don’t know is what he means by “masculine writing”.  Does he mean subject matter–wars and hunting? There are books about those things. Or choice of words–short, blunt sentences?  Like Hemingway, who did both.

Tough to gut it out through lots of words.  Have to fight your way through dense jungles of adjectives and adverbs, hunt down the meaning.  Cut out useless bits.  More manly to use short sentences, or fragments.  But that has drawbacks, too. Can be hard to follow the logic.

Probably, fewer men read than women. So topics are chosen accordingly.  It’s tough, but you have to man up, grit your teeth, and realize that probably, they’ve already won the war for dominance of the bookshelves.

Thingy had a great idea on her blog last week. The idea is to take one basic scenario and then write it in the style of different authors. Be sure to read her post first. I loved it, and I just had to try a few of my own. But read Thingy’s original post and get the aforementioned “gist” before you read mine.

H.P. Lovecraft (Cosmic Horror)

Into the blasphemous January gale stepped Jack Wilmarth.  By the banks of the inconceivably ancient Massachusetts river, he surveyed the queerly-shaped yews.  At length, he selected a log and aimed with his axe a blow at it, but the bizarre atmosphere of that eldritch locale distracted him, and he chose an unfortunate angle and wounded his thumb.  As the wound spread onto the snow, he turned to behold a strange motor approaching along the ancient mountain paths trod in antiquity by the native tribes…

P.G. Wodehouse (Humor)

“What ho, what ho—it seems young Jack has made a frightful fool of himself!”

“Indeed, sir?”

“Well, the young buffoon seems to have gone out for a bit of a ramble and thought to himself he’d try his hand at wood-chopping—you know, like those frightful blighters who go about in check shirts and great hats do—but it seems he rather gave the wood a bit of miss and hit his own hand instead.  Caused a bit of a scene on the snow, I mean to say!  Must’ve looked like the first scene of A. Christie’s latest, I should think!”

“Most distressing, sir.”

“Yes, well, if his fiancée hadn’t happened by in her car so they could biff off to hospital, I think we might have found ourselves reading about the poor fish in tomorrow’s obituaries.  Still, all’s well that ends well, what?”

“Indubitably, sir.”

Ayn Rand (Objectivism)

The weak, contemptible looter Jack was far too incompetent when he stepped out of the cabin to chop wood.  He was weak-willed, and incapable of realizing Man’s natural superiority over nature, and so foolishly cut his thumb and bled deservedly in the snow.  For he had failed to comprehend the eternal philosophical truth that…

[5,000 similar words omitted.]

…he raised his head to see a beautifully-made automobile approaching through the wood, demonstrating Man’s mastery of metal to conquer the Earth.

Thomas Hardy (Tragedy)

Jack made his egress from the small-gabled forest cabin of round logs, with a view to perhaps building a fire to warm him and heat his comestibles.  But alas, it is often the case that Fate will frustrate the efforts of mortals endeavoring to improve their situation, and so he was dismayed to injure his thumb on the instrument he used for the task.  He saw the snow around him turn crimson, and glanced up to see a vehicle in the lane beyond the cabin, but it passed him by.  It is ever so that cruel Fortune will present to us the means of salvation, only to just as quickly snatch them away…

(A Role-Playing Video Game)

[Set Player Name.  Player name = “JACK”]

[You see a door inside the cabin. Open it? Y/N]

[JACK chooses “Y” Exits to snowy morning scene.  You see an “Axe of Unbeatable Strength” Use? Y/N]

[JACK chooses “Y” Damage: self = 10 x 2 CRIT. Damage: Log = 0.  HP – 20]

[Play cinema scene of car pulling up.]

I posted about the movie The Haunting the other day and Thingy confirmed in the comments that the remake wasn’t very good.  That’s so often the way with remakes.  The great director John Huston was right when he said:

They can’t make them as good as they are in our memories, but they go on doing them and each time it’s a disaster. Why don’t we remake some of our bad pictures – I’d love another shot at ‘Roots of Heaven’ – and make them good?

I found out the other day that they’ve remade the famous N64 video game Goldeneye 007again!   And today the “Black Mesa” Half-Life mod was released. Granted, that’s just a fan-made effort to satiate the demand for a new Half-Life game, so it’s a bit different.

Huston said it–they should do remakes of lousy movies, books and games.  Not necessarily the worst of the worst, but the ones that had potential and fell flat.  The game Daikatana was actually a good concept, it just didn’t work out.  They should take another try at it.  Alfred Hitchcock remade his own film The Man Who Knew Too Much.  And I think many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories could have benefited from a reworking, especially The Shadow Out of Time.

Oh, well.  I guess it makes economic sense that only popular things get remade, but it makes no artistic sense.

With the season getting started in earnest today, Dan Kois writes in Slate about good football books.  I’ve actually never read most of the ones he mentions; I probably should.

Some of my personal favorite football books:

  • Paper Lion by George Plimpton.  Plimpton was a journalist and essayist who decided to write about what it was like to play football.  He went through training camp as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions, and got five plays in a scrimmage at the end of camp.  It didn’t go well, but the point of the book is mostly about the fascinating personalities in football at the time.  It’s very well-written, and for someone like me, who was abysmal at sports in their youth, Plimpton’s experience is easy to relate to.
  • The Education of a Coach by David Halberstam.  It’s about Bill Belichick’s career and his knowledge of football.  Sort of a biography, but it also contains some important points about strategy and tactics.  I would recommend supplementing it with…
  • Patriot Reign by Michael Holley.  This book is not terribly well-written, but it does contain some very interesting information about football coaching.  If you’re into the strategy of the game, I recommend it for chapter on how they stifled “The Greatest Show On Turf” alone.
  • Where Else Would You Rather Be? by Marv Levy.  The memoir of the great Buffalo coach.  Levy might have been the greatest pro coach never to win it all, but his tone is light and not at all bitter.  He recounts many amusing stories from his long career.  I don’t think you even need to be a football fan to enjoy this book, although it helps.
  • Football Physics by Timothy Gay.  This book is fun; it’s an introduction to basic physics using examples drawn from football. I suppose it’s more a “physics” book than a “football” book, but it still makes the subject matter easier to read about.

My blogger friend Thingy mentioned reading and enjoying Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 awhile back.  I’d never read any books by him, so I decided to give it a try.  I’ll try not to spoil it here, but it’s about time-travel and the unintended side-effects thereof.

It’s quite good, all in all.  You can tell he made an effort to research the styles and vernacular of the 1960s, and he also does a pretty good job of presenting  both the good and the bad aspects of that era.  There was also a lot of the hint-don’t-tell kind of cosmic horror in certain parts that I really liked.

The ending was a bit weaker though still good.  Again, without giving away too much, there was a part of it that reminded of the book A Clockwork Orange, and that felt kind of cliched.  The ending was… I guess, “bittersweet” is probably the best word for it.

I might analyze it more in-depth later, but for now, I just want to recommend reading it.

Poster for stage version of “It Can’t Happen Here”.

My previous post set me thinking about various alternate history and dystopian future fiction where real places and countries are depicted.  I think the authors of the Tea Party Insurrection article referenced in the last post should have presented it as a short story or novella or something instead; it might have been less controversial that way.

I thought about the 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.  It was a “what-if” kind of book based on the idea of a Fascist takeover of the United States government.  The dictator who rises to power in the novel was based on the Louisiana Governor and U.S. Senator Huey Long, who tried to challenge Franklin Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination.  Many accused him of harboring dictatorial ambitions and of creating a cult of personality.

I admit I haven’t read the whole book, just the first chapter or so.  I found the writing style irritating.  The satire was very heavy-handed, to the point of making Ayn Rand look subtle in comparison.  Also, the characters’ names were so comical as to make the whole thing ridiculous.  The dictator is named “Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip”, for example.  I’m sorry, but in my opinion someone named “Buzz Windrip” wouldn’t get elected mayor of Podunk, let alone President.  (No offense to the mayor of Podunk.)

But that said, it was a pretty interesting concept for a story, although I suppose Huey Long and his supporters were not huge fans of it, any more than the Tea Party are fans of the Benson and Weber article.   But I can’t find much evidence to suggest it was very controversial at the time.  Not surprising; like I mentioned the other day, Marxist philosophy cropped up in the middle of a major Hollywood movie at the height of the Red Scare, and nobody cared.  I think Benson and Weber’s article would have been less upsetting and offensive as a work of fiction than as a creepily matter-of-fact strategy paper.