page and screen

thoughts on books, movies, and stories that travel across mediums

I’m trying to overcome the idea that I’ve missed out on something when I only watch a film adaptation of a book without reading the source material. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to stop thinking this. We often hear the phrase “The book was better,” or we learn that a film removed aspects of a novel’s plot in order to prevent the runtime from becoming too long.

The book isn’t always better, though. When we assess a work of art, we should engage with it on its own terms: which medium was used first is not important. Sometimes a film adaptation is near unrecognizable from its source material (see Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet). The audience’s reception, therefore, comes down to whether the work on its own has attained its goal.

Film and literature are two different mediums that each come with their own possibilities and limitations. A work of literature tries to achieve its goal through written language, which is both its greatest strength and weakness. Language is incredibly free and versatile. It can make time and space flexible; one paragraph can encompass what has happened in an entire city over the course of decades, while pages and pages can construct an incident in a single room in a way that feels like it’s in real-time.

One important dimension of language in a literary work is voice, which conveys the work’s content. In fiction, the voice tells the story. It can belong to a narrator, to one or more characters, or, through free indirect discourse, it can exist in a fascinating area between the characters and the narrator. In this last case, the voice is usually in the third-person, but it can move in and out of characters’ minds, tuning itself to different characters’ thoughts and perspectives. A unique strength of prose fiction, therefore, is direct access to the minds of the characters. When we read a story, we can know, either by what the voice directly says or implies, what the characters are thinking, what motivations are compelling them, and similar details.

A movie does not have the advantages that written language on its own has. But film can rely on other tools. One is the camera. The angles and perspectives of the camera can infuse a scene with particular messages or emotions. A shot of a person who is off-center can create a subtle sense of unease. In a similar way, the way different shots are edited together also adds to a scene’s impact. A match cut can powerfully convey a connection between two seemingly-different objects or events. A metaphor can achieve the same thing, but only if it’s well-written; otherwise, it can come across as confusing or silly. Furthermore, a film can rely on the performances of actors to bring characters to life through vocal inflections, body language, and other techniques, which add dimensions to characters’ dialogue and actions that are not easily conveyed through the page. For example, a subtle gesture by a character can keep more of its subtlety on the screen than on the page. On the screen, not everyone might notice the gesture. On the page, if the gesture is described, every reader notices it. Music, too, can be quite helpful in shaping the emotional dimension of a scene. It activates the auditory portion of the brain instead of the visual, sometimes arousing feelings more intensely than than written word can.

But because film has so many of these parts, these different factors all have to work in order for the film to be successful. Furthermore, though it seems that film has more tools at its disposal than literature, this does not mean that film is the more powerful medium. Film needs these tools because it cannot access the interiority of characters the way the books can. It has to find ways to somehow (through acting, music, cinematography) make this interiority external.

With these details in mind, let’s turn to a case study, which I think illustrates an example of how a movie can be better than the book: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Both the book and the movie resulted from the work of the same artist, Stephen Chbosky, who wrote the novel and later directed and wrote the screenplay of the film. The story of Wallflower centers on a high school student named Charlie and his experiences with his friends Sam and Patrick. In both the film and the movie, the story is supposed to be an emotionally-charged coming of age tale.

I came across the movie first, but I knew it was an adaptation of a book. I stumbled upon it while flipping through channels. I’d missed roughly the first twenty minutes, and I usually don’t continue a movie on TV when I miss the beginning. But I was gripped. The scene I began with takes place at a party. The yellowish color scheme invokes a sense of warmth, which sets a foundation for the characters’ intimate interactions. Charlie (Logan Lerman), is high from marijuana and talks in a rapid voice about good times with an old friend before he reveals that his friend recently committed suicide. Lerman’s performance is layered and nuanced; he rambles until he mentions the tragedy, then he slows down his speech and starts to choke on his words. Charlie’s intoxication, then sorrow and frustration, are palpable. The performance by Emma Watson, who plays Sam, is also moving. Watson, without speaking much dialogue, conveys through her countenance, through the care in her eyes, Sam’s compassion toward Charlie as she listens to him. From that moment, I was invested until the end.

After watching it, I decided to read the book. I haven’t been able to finish it, though. I’ve tried really hard, but I can’t get through it. I think it’s because I don’t find the voice in the novel interesting. The novel is a series of letters by Charlie, so the entire story is in his voice. But his voice is simplistic, dull almost. The way he talks about his friends makes them seem much less interesting and real than they seem in the movie. He describes his friend Patrick as a kind and funny guy, but I don’t get a strong sense of what exactly Patrick is like from the page. But, in the film, when there’s little voiceover, and the camera focuses on Ezra Miller’s charismatic portrayal of Patrick, Patrick becomes real for me. The novel is trapped by Charlie’s uninteresting voice, so the story, for me, doesn’t come to life on the page the way it does on the screen. After much effort, I finally decided to put the book on hold indefinitely, and I rewatched the movie, this time from the start. I thought the film was even better the second time I watched it.

For me, the Wallflower movie was better than the book. In my ultimate judgement, I didn’t focus on how the film interpreted the book. I didn’t care about the differences in plot and character details between the novel and movie. I didn’t care about what was included in the book, but not included in the film. I cared about how the book used its tools to try to reach its goal of making me emotionally invested in the characters and their difficulties, and I cared about how the movie used its tools to do the same. The book left me cold, but the film moved me. That’s why the adaptation succeeded.

I’m hoping to use my experience with Wallflower to guide my assessments of other book-to-film adaptations. Ultimately, I think it’s more interesting to focus on adaptations and source materials as separate works that happen to have certain similarities. These similarities, though, shouldn’t be the foundations of the audience’s reception. Each work should be evaluated on its own.