Sure it was. Except when it’s not. Some books have extraneous elements or plot holes or things that just don’t make sense. There’s also the inconvenient fact they they’re two distinct storytelling media. Some things that work in a novel won’t work on screen. This is often—maybe even usually—to the novel’s advantage, but not always. There are examples both ways, but today let’s focus on three examples where the movie is far superior to the book and one where the film is much different but at least as good.
The French Connection. (1971) Directed by William Friedkin. Screenplay by Ernest Tidyman. Based on the 1969 book by Robin Moore. Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.
What strikes one here is how the movie captures the aura of the book while making major plot changes. Take the famous chase scene. There’s nothing remotely close to that in the book. No plot reason to even have it. Friedkin and Tidyman (and producer Phillip D’Antoni) needed to show Popeye’s intense, even fanatical, focus on this case and they didn’t have the kind of time Moore had in the book to let the endless surveillances play out. So they took advantage of the visceral reactions to be inspired from an action scene to describe Popeye’s obsessed character as well in seven minutes as it is in the rest of the movie combined. (This is the example of the movie not necessarily being better, but much different and it still works.)
The Godfather (1972) Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Screenplay by Mario Puzo and Coppola, based on Puzo’s 1969 novel. I’ve heard The Godfather described as “the best bad book ever written.” I can’t argue with thOscars for best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
It’s actually two books in one. We all remember the romanticized gangster story, but there’s a loooong digression into life in Vegas that I’d call a soap opera but that’s an insult to daytime television. The movie cuts almost all of that shit, giving us just enough to let us know who Moe Greene is and why Michael has him shot in the eye, which was the only part of that subplot worth paying attention to, anyway.
Jaws (1975). Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screen play by Peter Benchley and Spielberg, from Benchley’s 1974 novel. (No Hollywood screwing around there. The movie appeared on screens 16 months after the book dropped.) No Oscars in the three categories we’re tracking here. Spielberg’s one failure was bringing Jaws out the same year as Cuckoo’s Nest.
The police chief’s wife has an affair with the marine biologist in the book and it’s stultifying to read. Absolutely not a goddamn thing worth knowing happens. Someone must have told Benchley the book needed sex. Spielberg had the innate good sense to know the real story was the three men on the boat that should have been bigger, so he got his movie onto the water as quickly as possible and changed movies forever. Not necessarily for the better in the long run, but that’s not his fault. Jaws is a masterpiece.
L.A. Confidential (1997) Directed by Curtis Hanson. Screen play by Brian Helgeland and Hanson, from James Ellroy’s 1990 novel. Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay; nominated for Best Picture and Best Director but lost both to Titanic, which is a travesty I’ll carry a grudge for to my dying day.
The only one of the four where I saw the movie first. It’s damn near a perfect movie and I was like a kid Christmas morning when I finally opened the book, which is a glorious mess. Ellroy’s at the peak of his writing power here, but the story is out of control. The last 30 or 40 pages are nothing more than two or three characters at a time standing around trying to explain to each other what the fuck just happened here, and it still doesn’t make any sense. Helgeland and Hanson ruthlessly cut unneeded scenes, plots, characters—whole books’ worth of shit—and pulled in little bits of the surrounding LA Quartet novels to create one of the great crime films ever made.
I’m sure you have your own favorites. Let’s hear them.