The Godfather: Peter Corris on books into film
‘The film wasn’t as good as the book.’ How often have you heard it? The phrase set me thinking that there should be three categories for the discussion – film worse than book, film as good as book and film better than book. Off the top of my head I can propose three examples in each category.
‘Film worse than book’ is easiest. I nominate Papillon, Lucky Jim and The Big Sleep. Papillon the film has none of the existential grit of Henri Charrière’s book. It’s Hollywood bright and Dustin Hoffman is all wrong for the character he plays.
Kingsley Amis’s comic masterpiece Lucky Jim is rendered as inane farce in the film, with none of the book’s wit and irony present. Ian Carmichael plays Jim Dixon more or less as Bertie Wooster.
Bogart is good in the Howard Hawks version of Chandler’s classic The Big Sleep, but the Bogart/Bacall love intrusion tends to turn the story to mush. About the later version, with Robert Mitchum far too old to play Marlowe and the quintessentially Californian story unaccountably set in England, the less said the better.
‘Film as good as book’is also pretty easy. The film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold chillingly catches Le Carré’s Cold War atmosphere and Richard Burton is exactly right as seedy, disenchanted Leamus. Claire Bloom and Oskar Warner are also good.
The creepiness Thomas Harris provided on almost every page of The Silence of the Lambs comes across well in the film. Anthony Hopkins brought Hannibal Lecter to life superbly and thin-lipped Jodie Foster was just right as Clarice Starling.
When you read the mysterious B Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre you are right there in early twentieth century Mexico with its dangers and joys, its effects on the minds of men. The film captures all of this.
‘Film better than book’is tougher and likely to be contentious. Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is too long and has too much boring commentary on the state of America. The film cuts through this and Jack Nicholson turns in the performance of his life. McMurphy lives on in the imagination long after the credits roll.
James M Caine’s Double Indemnity is two-thirds of a hard-boiled pulp classic until it runs off the rails with a long coda following the journey of Walter and Phyllis to a silly ending. The film sticks to the guts of the story, remains memorable and has been much imitated (for example, Body Heat, The Last Seduction etc).
I was unable to finish Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, bogged down by a couple of hundred pages of non-action and boring commercial detail. This is scrapped in the Swedish version of the film and Lisbeth Salander, an absurd caricature in the book, is credible on the screen.
Feel free to disagree with every statement. That’s the fun of talking about books and films.