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Wednesday, March 22, 2006
The book vs the movie
I'm a book-a-holic. (Nothing new there....we've covered this ground many times).

I read a wide variety of books and from time to time, a book or two I've read will get made into a movie, miniseries or television version of the original material. If the book interested me enough or was enjoyable to me, I will sometimes seek out the movie version, TV show or miniseries and watch it. It's interesting to see how the characters that are described on the printed page and then translate into the theater of your imagination are realized on-screen. Sometimes they come very close like the Harry Potter novels/movies and sometimes they are so far from the descriptions in the book and the mental picture in your head that it can completely take you out of the series such as The Inspector Lynley Mysteries.

Of course, I'm a book snob and will tell you 99 times out 100, the book is better. In fact, the only movie I've ever seen that is better than the book was Forrest Gump. That one they took the few good parts of the book and lost the majority of the crappy parts that included Forrest becoming an astronaut and Jenny loving Forrest because he was well endowed.

I'm even enough of a book snob that should I be aware of a movie adaptation of the book existing, I will avoid seeing who stars as which character so I won't be tainted by what Hollywood says this character looks and sounds like. A good example of this is Hannibal Lectre. I read Silence of the Lambs before I saw the movie, but when Hannibal came out, I kept seeing and hearing Anthony Hopkins in the role of Lecter, no matter how hard I tried to see otherwise.

Generally if I enjoyed the book, I'll see the movie.

Which is what happened over the weekend. A few weeks ago, I read Greg Iles' book, 24 Hours.

It's the story of a trio of people who commit the perfect kidnapping--one per year with a large payday. Basically what happens is you have a trio--husband, wife and the husband's cousin who ain't the sharpest knife in drawer. The husband and cousin kidnap the kid, who is taken to a remote location. Cousin has a cell phone as done the wife. Husband stays behind with the mother to keep her from calling the police while the wife stays with the husband to make sure he does exactly what is told. The operation takes 24 hours, during which the husband makes a call to the wife and cousin on a prescribed clock to make sure everyone is playing their role and no one is going to the police. The money is transferred to an account, withdrawn and given to the wife who then disspears with it. Husband takes victim mom to a McDonald's where cousin drops off kids and mom and kid are re-united. The kidnappers plan this to target a doctor and his family each year and around a convention where the doctor will be away from his family. The plan has worked without a hitch in four previous occasions and now our trio has moved on to the fifth victim. After this one, they plan to retire. But as the story unfolds we find out that Hickey, the mastermind of the kidnappings has a bigger stake in the kidnapping this time than just money. He's got a personal stake in this.

The novel was made into a movie called Trapped. Apparently the title was changed when it came out to avoid confusion with a little new show called 24.

Movies are an interesting entity. More often than not, when we think about movies, they are defined by the star in front of the camera or the star behind it. It's rare that we pay attention to who wrote the movie. Sure, if it's from a big book like something by Stephen King, his name will feature in the title or marketing and he may even have a cameo. But more often than not, we tend to give the credit or failure of a movie to the director or stars. More often than not, the director.

When you think of suspense films, you think of Alfred Hitchcock. But you don't always think--wow, Robert Block wrote Psycho. It's Hitchcock as the artist and director that we think about, study and give the credit to.

It's also rare that the author of a novel will adapt his or her work to the silver screen. More often than not, they sell the rights to the book to a studio or director who brings in someone to adapt the story to the visual medium. In some ways this can help becasue the screenwriter isn't as close to the material and can make the hard choices of what to cut out or what to leave in. The screenwriter and director can decide if they want a pretty much visual interpreation of the every scene in the book (the first two Harry Potter movies) or if they want to get the overall story and not have to include every tiny scene and character even if it annoys some fans (the third Harry Potter film).

So what's interesting about Trapped is that the novel was adapted for the screen by the author. So if something is changed, we can't say--well, they certainly messed up Iles' vision of the story because he was, ultimately, the guy who did it. For example, in the book Hickey and his family carry out the plan once a year, while in the movie it's six months between kidnappings. The movie drops a subplot where last year's victims start to feel bad about this year's victims and call in the FBI. The movie even changes one of the hiccups in the plan--Abby, the little girl taken has diabetes in the book but asthma in the film. Probably because it's easier to convey as asthma attack on film.

But the big points are still there. Iles does a good job, though the cutting out the previous victims of the plot contacting the Feds does bring up an odd point late in the film when the FBI shows up for little or no good reason. (They try to cover it, but it makes less sense than the book).

What I found interesting were the choices Iles had to make. He is telling the same story and he's adpating his own work. I wonder if that made it easier or harder for him. He does have a commentary on the DVD and I listened to some of it, but he never really addressed these questons--the ones I wondered about like, how do you decide what stays and what goes? How do you find the essense of the story without losing what made it so compelling and interesting in the first place?

Now, Iles did have the advantage that his book isn't quite as beloved and read as, say Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. I think part of that is that those are books that work best in the theater of the imagination and until the movies came along, everyone had their own image of how Harry looked and what Hogwarts looked like. It's a fantasy world where the only budget limitation is what you can imagine. In the movies, we're limited by money and time and sometimes in a fantasy or sci-fi movie, something has to give or else the budget will be that of a small third world nation's GNP.

Nor is 24 Hours the strongest work I've read from Iles. His Turning Angel is far more complex but it's one of those I think they'd be hard pressed to make into a good film. Or let me put it another way--a film that would do justice to the book. It could be done, sure. Should it be done--that's an argument for another time. I will say this--24 Hours was the story of Iles's that I've read that lent itself most to becoming a movie with the least amount of difficulty.

Of course, I liked the book more. I think part of that was I saw Hickey in my mind as a bit scruffier and more red-neck than Kevin Bacon. Also, the story is moved from southern Mississippi to Seattle. I think the southern Mississippi setting helped give the story some of its character and made us understand where Hickey was coming from as a character more. It explains his motive more effectively from a character standpoint. Also, the movie drops the tension in the marriage of our heroes and the doctor's health issues that affect things in the story. These are things that help increase the tension and keep the pages turning, but again they are a more pyschological thing and easier to show on the printed page than to show on the silver screen.

So, I guess the final answer is--yes, the book is better.

posted by Michael Hickerson at 3/22/2006 02:37:00 PM | |
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