Dead Tree, Celluloid and The Hobbes Effect

With movies that are adapted from books, you find lot of people saying: The book was better. In many cases, I’m inclined to agree. With a well-written book, our imagination creates a more interesting experience than is usually captured on celluloid. Mind you, more interesting is usually just another way of saying different. Another factor is the use of a narrative voice: an author can spend pages describing what an actor has to convey through just a look. Few actors can do that, and fewer directors and screenwriters can set the scene up up so that it works. I’m sure there are more reasons, but I’m not inclined to explore it right now. Maybe later, in another post.

So I asked myself, are there movies I’ve seen that have clearly improved upon the book? So far, I can only come up with a short list of three. In no particular order, these are:

Train to Pakistan: I read the book just before I went to watch Pamela Rooks’ adaptation. And was absolutely blown away by it. The book is quite good, but the movie manages to create a sort of visual poetry that Khushwant Singh’s prose did not, in my opinion. The scene with the dead buffaloes floating on the river still gives me the chills when I think about it.

Ice Candy Man: Bapsi Sidhwa wrote a great book centered around a little Parsi girl growing up during the Partition. The only problem was, she ended the book where the story ended factually. On the other hand, Deepa Mehta ended the movie (1947: Earth) where the story ended emotionally. When you walk out of the movie hall, the scene of Lenny’s mistake is still fresh in your mind.

The Third Man: Quite a good book by Graham Greene. The movie manages to equal it with its sardonic voice-over, the visuals of a bombed out Vienna and Orson Welles’ scene stealing performance (not to mention the cuckoo clock speech) prove to be much better. The differentiator is the ending. Graham Greene copped out when he had Anna go to Holly. Carol Reed understood that, for the story to work, she had to keep walking.

If you can think of some more, do post your comments on this.

As to the term The Hobbes Effect, one of Bill Waterson’s objections to having Calvin & Hobbes stuffed toys was that it resolved the mystique of whether or not Hobbes was really just a plaything. He said something like: “The world sees Hobbes one way, Calvin sees it differently, and I’d like to keep it that way.” You can see the analogy, I’m sure.

Ashok has a term for this sort of gratuitous phrase coinage: Jilpa.

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5 thoughts on “Dead Tree, Celluloid and The Hobbes Effect

  1. hmm Ramsu as far as i know, its tough to make books into movies. When ur writing a book, u own it totally, u have the time, and u can explore the complexities in depth, as a movie maker u dont have that luxury.

    Soo i generally, dont tend to compare the movies with the books. For eg, if u compare most of McLean’s novels with the movie adaptations, there is a large difference, eg: Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navaronne. But the movies were enjoyable.

    Again there is no relation whatsover between the Bourne Trilogy and the movies.

    So I guess, both should be taken separately. One of the best adaptations i saw of Greene’s work was The End of the Affair.

  2. True. One reason why I did not want to pick up action-oriented stuff like Alistair MacLean’s work is because, with books like that, the challenge to make a really entertaining movie is not quite there. With Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone, I’m inclined to call it a tie.

    You’re right about the Bourne trilogy. Other than the premise, nothing else matches the books, so you can’t quite compare.

  3. LOTR definitely did better than I expected in terms of visualizing that world. The only complaint I have is that it was too faithful. In trying to do nearly everything that the book did, The Return of the King had way too long an ending. The only thing it missed was the Saruman and Wormtongue episode. Could’ve been shorter, I think.

  4. One of the primary rules in adapting books to movies is ‘Throw away the book’.

    That said, in answer to your posit;

    Papillon (Hoffmann and McQueen)

    Sophie’s Choice (Meryl Streep brought Sophie’s dilemna to bear far better than the slow book)

    Moha MuLL (Janakiraman’s novel of the same name. With Archana Joglekar in her only(?) Tamizlh movie).

    A few good men. Superior translation of Aaron Sorkin’s (West wing)play into the Cruise, Moore and Nicholson starrer. Unfortunately though it seems to be better remembered for everyone’s hamming of ‘You can’t handle the truth!’

    some stinkers that come to mind.

    Karayellaam shenbahappoo. Sujata’s book was good (with Louis L’amour’s influence in parts). Pratap Pothen/sripriya killed off the movie.

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