Thursday, February 21, 2013

Books and movies

I'm reading The Green Mile, by Stephen King. I haven't read a lot of Stephen King, but I've liked what I've read. I'm reading this one because it was originally published as a serial, and that's something I've been thinking about a lot.

Anyway, one always talks about books and movies, how the book is almost always better, but of course that's not true. As Howard Hawks said, often a good book will make a bad movie, but a bad book can make a great movie. High Noon came from a Saturday Evening Post story which no one remembers. Shane is from a Western novel that no one reads any more. Maybe genre fiction has a better chance at becoming better on film.  I read somewhere that Clint Eastwood acquired The Bridges of Madison County specifically because he wanted the challenge of turning a perfectly awful book into a good movie. Maybe he succeeded...I spared myself reading the book, and the movie was watchable. David R. Slavitt, poet and translator (his version of Ovid's Metamorphosis was not loved by some critics, but they were wrong -- it's brilliant), translated The Fables of Avianus from Latin. Are they an overlooked masterpiece? I asked him. No, he said. Avianus was a terrible writer. That's why I chose him -- so all the literary credit for the translation can go to me.

The Wizard of Oz is regarded by many as one of the greatest movies of all time, and although the books are beloved, it's hard to imagine anyone putting them on the best books of all time list. Still, I can imagine someone saying, "The book was better."

What about movies that are pretty nearly exactly as good as the book? I'd put The Green Mile on that list.

Lots of novels are written these days with the idea that they'll be made into movies, and the novels are written almost like screen treatments. They generally make serviceable novels, and serviceable movies -- neither is likely to stand out.

An odd exception to this generalization: Grahame Greene's The Tenth Man. Quoting from Wikipedia: "In the introduction to the First edition of his novel, Graham Greene states that he had forgotten about this story until receiving a letter about it from a stranger in 1983. Greene had first suggested it as an idea for a film script in 1937, and later developed it whilst working for MGMduring the 1940s. Nothing came of it and the rights were offered for sale by MGM in 1983. The buyer allowed Greene to revise and subsequently publish the work."

So The Tenth Man was actually written as a screen treatment, but it made a wonderful short novel. Interestingly, when it was eventually filmed with Anthony Hopkins, it wasn't a very good movie.

But back to The Green Mile. The book basically is the movie. The prose is straightforward, the story is the same in both versions. The one literary device that King uses, which is interesting and unobtrusive, is the moving back and forth in time by the first person narrator. The narrator places himself in a nursing home, maybe 40 or 50 years after the action of the novel, which is in the 1930s. So although he's essentially narrating the story as it happens, he's narrating a story that he knows the ending of, so he can jump forward in time and tell you what's going to happen.