Wednesday, June 26, 2013


This spring, I’ve been managing to keep up with some reading, thanks to my kindle.  Also during this time, a few movies came out which were based on interesting books.   Naturally I said to myself, ‘Since I want to see these movies, why don’t I read the books first and compare the two?”

I have to say that approaching entertainment in such a way is a very interesting exercise. 

See, it’s easy when watching a movie to zone out and watch it uncritically and unintelligently.  Often I choose to watch something when I’m tired, after all, and I’m sure I’m not alone in such a choice.  However, as a writer (or even just a lively-minded human being), it can be detrimental to fall out of the habit of absorbing entertainment with an attentive spirit.  Every story can offer ideas – or even just examples of what one should not do – so each book, movie, tv show, play, etc., should be observed attentively, in order to find the value. 

Well, it turns out that if you want to jumpstart your mind before watching something, so as to avoid the couch-potato temptation (something I yield to more easily than I should!), you should read the book it’s based on.  Obviously not everything is based on a book, but I do find that the best movies and shows are.  Just because one is an excellent director, after all, doesn’t mean one is also an excellent writer; that would be an unfair abundance of talent!  Often, therefore, the artists in the entertainment industry need to start with the seed of someone else’s idea, in order to produce their best work. 

Luckily, some very good movies have come out lately, based on novels. 

The first such which I watched was Life of Pi, actually, but since I read the book after the movie, it was a different experience than what I’m referring to.  My idea is to stimulate the mind before the film is seen.  I had two chances to do so in the past few months. 

The stormiest clouds have the brightest linings!
First of all, since The Silver Linings Playbook was such a success at the Oscars, I decided that I wanted to watch it, but at the time it hadn’t been released to home-video yet.  So I sprang for the novel to tide me over.  Frankly, I was very impressed.  The elements of the story were surprising – mental illness, exercise, dance, football, family dysfunction – but combined into a thought-provoking and harmonious whole.  I was especially impressed by the child-like simplicity of the main character and the relationship built on silent companionship which develops between him and a potential romance.  Since both were recovering from truly life-altering experiences, it only made sense that their relationship should be unconventional. 

Then the movie come out on video and I eagerly rented it.  When I finished watching it, my first thought was, ‘If I hadn’t read the book first, I’d have liked this movie a lot better.’  The unusual elements I listed above were present, but the balance between them was shifted into something more clichéd.  Two parts especially disappointed me: the novel emphasized what a strong, loving person the protagonist’s mother is, but since the movie cast Robert De Niro as his father, the emphasis was suddenly on him and the mother was overlooked.  The other disappointment was that the lead couple bantered loudly like any couple in a romantic comedy these days (apparently one cannot fall in love without a lot affectionate arguing).  Their relationship went from intriguing to expected.  On the other hand, the acting was very impressive overall, leading to a movie that was charming, but more typical than I hoped for. 

My second foray into reading and movies came with The Great Gatsby.

As improbable as it may seem, I did not read the novel in high school (I may be the only person in the USA who did not).  When I learned that  Baz Lurhman – a director I appreciate – was filming the book, I sprang on the chance to read it.  It is a beautiful and terribly sad novel, embodying so many American dreams and yet showing the danger they have of falling short of redemption.  

Fast cars are so American!
I read a work of literary criticism once, which pointed out that many American heroes are defined by their cars (or other means of swift transportation), by which they run away from loss and evil.  I thought it was fascinating that Gatsby’s car proved a trap for him, though.  He thought he could escape from everything, taking Daisy with him, but in fact human beings are bound to each other and cannot live in perfect freedom without consequences. 

I’m happy to say that Mr. Lurhman’s interpretation of the novel was much more impressive than David Russel’s interpretation of The Silver Linings Playbook.  Granted, there were some flaws – but they were more forgivable because the spirit of The Great Gatsby was preserved intact.  There’s a difference between disagreeing with how a director presents an element of a novel and feeling that he has simply told a completely different story!  I feel a little sorry for Matthew Quick; apparently, since his novel was not old enough and not enough read in high school curricula, no one felt that they had to stay very close to what he had written. 

Anyway, on the subject of The Great Gatsby, the casting was perfect and the music (much criticized though it was) conveyed so vividly the sense of wild novelty which infused the 20’s.  If there had been nothing but jazz, the story would have seemed distant – a period piece.  As it was, by using hip-hop, R&B and pop for the soundtrack, the story was brought alive and the watcher plunged into it as if part of the action.  I felt as though I was Nick Carraway, the narrator, whirled away into a vibrant, decadent world which I didn’t know whether to love or to condemn. 

So in short, by reading the novels and watching the movies in quick succession, I felt like my appreciation of the two stories was greatly enhanced, and that I appreciated the artistry of the films much more.  If you want a stimulating, literary experience, I can definitely recommend my method.  I think you’ll find yourself much more attuned to the story and much more inclined to consider the construction and presentation of plot and characters.  If you’re a storyteller of any kind, such an exercise would be not only enjoyable, but also useful.  

1 comment:

  1. While I have been writing more, I have been reading my online writer friends more than the year that I read over 40 books (or more). I think I finished three books this year. And they were quick fun reads at that.

    I enjoyed the book the Life of Pi - and had no desire to see the movie. I saw the 'play book' movie, and well have no desire to read the book. There are too many other books on my pile of 'read me next'... As for Gatsby. I didn't read it in High School either. But I think the paper's movie review gave me enough to thanks. There is just too much happening currently for me to worry about Gatsbys trials.

    I did get to travel with my husband - he on business. And we got to see relatives that lived in that state. It was nice having a different set of four walls. But it is also good to be home.