“So what did you think of the movie?”
“Well…I guess it was okay, but the book was better.”
This is the most insufferable kind of person to watch a movie or TV show with because all you want to do is talk about the movie and this pretentious asshat won’t shut up about how the book is so much better.
It’s me. I’m the asshat.
I’ve always been an avid reader and if I’ve already read the book, it’s hard to separate that from the film adaptation because the story has already been established in my head. Plus, in a book, you can take all the time you want to explore nuances and take detours whereas in a film adaptation, you’re constrained to a certain time limit. It’s become a trend in more recent years to adapt books into limited series or even multi-season shows which definitely helps give breathing room to some stories, but even then there are still limits and concessions have to be made. In a book, you can get the inner monologue of every character you encounter, but it’s much harder to do that on film because nobody needs that many voiceovers.
What’s more, not everything works on the screen the way it works on the page. One example of this is in Coraline (*light spoilers ahead*). During the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s book, Coraline searches for the first eye of the ghost children in the garden, which also doubles as her confrontation with the Other Father. It’s a great scene that manages to be both beautiful and eerie. However, in the book, Coraline finds a ghost eye hiding in the toy box in her room and her confrontation with the Other Father happens later when she ventures into the other, locked side of The Pink Palace. However, it makes sense to have changed it they way they did for the movie–capturing a ghost eye from the handle of the tractor in a big showdown is way more cinematic than opening a toy box.
This isn’t to say that the way it’s written in the book doesn’t work, because it does–Neil Gaiman is incredible and I’m a fan girl until the end. It’s just the difference in mediums and what works in one does not necessary work as effectively in another.
When you really love to read, it can be so hard to watch a screen adaptation of a book you enjoyed because what you’re viewing is another person’s impression of the book which does not necessarily line up with yours. Which isn’t necessarily wrong, it just is what it is–people view stories differently based on their own experiences.
In saying all of this, I will also concede that just because a book existed first does not necessarily make it the superior version of a story. As a writer, admitting that makes me feel a little bit like a traitor because how could I EVER say that an adapted version of a story is better than the original? But it happens and sometimes adding another creator’s input can transform it into something better. Of course, because I can’t just toss out a statement like that without support, so here are my three screen adaptation that I think are superior to the books they are based on:
1. The Devil Wears Prada
I read this book by Lauren Weisberger when it first came out and I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially since Miranda Priestly was reportedly based on famed Vogue editor Anna Wintour, for whom Weisberger used to work. I like to pretend I’m above all that, but bitter gossipy bullshit can be really fun to read. It’s the same reason why, as a longtime fan of the dumpster fire that is America’s Next Top Model, I read Jay Manuel’s The Wig, The Bitch, and The Meltdown which was “totally not based on real life.”
Apparently, when Weisberger got her book deal to write The Devil Wears Prada, the movie options were purchased before she’d finished the manuscript and a film adaptation was in development as the book was being written. As Weisberger turned in more pages, it became clear that some adjustments were going to need to be made if they wanted the main character, Andy, to be even vaguely likable. Andy comes off as whiny and entitled in the book while Miranda Priestly is a soulless monster who eats live kittens for fun. There really isn’t much in the way of character arcs because Andy never really learns anything over the course of the book, she just feels more and more justified in hating Miranda. Supposedly, the film studio shared similar concerns and they changed a lot for the movie, including humanizing Miranda (portrayed perfectly by the incomparable Meryl Streep), giving Andy some personal growth, and turning Andy’s boyfriend into the douchey foil to Andy’s earnest working girl. By the end of the movie, it feels like Andy is making a decision to leave Paris based on her own moral compass rather than a petulant child shouting, “FUCK YOU!” and Miranda in the middle of fashion week.
That being said, I still enjoyed the book and both of its sequels; I love a trashy catfight as much as the next person (remember, I watched America’s Next Top Model).
2. Little Fires Everywhere
Watching this limited series on Hulu was actually my first exposure to the story as this was one of the few times I did not read the book first (I know, shame on me). But I’d heard a lot about it and knew it was a hugely successful book by Celeste Ng, so I was excited to watch it. Plus, with a cast that included Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon, I was completely on board. The show is incredible and contains so many layers about race and economic class and sexuality and parenthood and I feel like I notice new details each time I watch it. All of the performances are exceptional, especially from the teen actors who bring so much depth and maturity to their roles.
The book, however, felt like a disappointment to me after watching the show. The book still brings a lot of layers in terms of race and class between the citizens of Shaker Heights, specifically surrounding the custody battle over May Ling/Mirabelle between Bebe, a working class Chinese woman who gave up her daughter at a fire station, and the McCulloughs, a wealthy white couple who is in the process of adopting the baby. In the book, Mia and Pearl’s ethnicities are never specified and in an interview, Celeste Ng said she’d pictured Mia as white. While the story already has a lot of complexities over the ways in which immigrants and Asian Americans are viewed and treated (a subject that has been brought more to the forefront of societal discussions with recent events), the show brings in further differences by having Mia and Pearl be black in contrast to the Richardsons’ whiteness. Sometimes those differences are highlighted such as in the beginning of the show when cops knock on Mia’s car window and Mia reminds her daughter to keep both of her hands visible–something Elena Richardson has clearly never had to tell her own children. Sometimes those differences are more obvious and in pointed dialogue, like when Mia tells Elena, “White women always want to be friends with their maid,” and “You didn’t make good choices, you had good choices.” Or it’s shown in the way that Elena makes a point to bring up Martin Luther King Jr. every time her daughter Lexi’s boyfriend, Brian, who is black, comes over for dinner.
The show also introduces an LGBTQ+ element by having Izzy identify as gay and by creating a relationship between Mia and her former teacher, Pauline. In the book, Pauline is still in a relationship with a woman, but nothing romantic ever happens between her and Mia. But having Mia’s more fluid sexuality present in the show creates an excellent element in the storytelling in which Mia is able to help Izzy and encourage her that even though she feels like she’s swimming alone in the ocean and it’s never going to end, Izzy won’t have to swim forever. I’m also personally a big fan of Izzy in the show because my husband and I dubbed her the “word assassin” because she always has just the right remark on hand for a zinger that really cuts to the quick.
While I enjoyed the aforementioned additions to the show, I didn’t really have many problems with the book except for one: the overwhelming emphasis on biological motherhood trumping absolutely everything. You kind of see it in the show because it’s how Mia justifies keeping Pearl even though she had originally agreed to give Pearl to her biological father and his wife. I’m not saying what Mia did was right or wrong because I’m not interested in having that particular discussion here; it’s too nuanced for a shit post about book snobs. But the emphasis on biological motherhood is really present in the custody battle over baby May Ling/Mirabelle. While Bebe ultimately loses the court case (which Bill Richardson points out she was always going to lose because the legal system is designed for people like the McCulloughs to win), there is a lot of internal conflict from nearly every character that always points to an opinion that Bebe should have the baby, from Bill to even the McCulloughs, the baby’s adoptive parents. When Bebe eventually kidnaps the baby and runs away, Linda McCullough has the thought that even though she was the only mother her adoptive daughter had ever really known, the baby didn’t cry when Bebe kidnapped her because the baby had clearly chosen her “real” mother.
Personally, this felt like a major “fuck you” to all of the adoptive parents in the world, as if they’ll never be able to compare to the person who gave birth to a child, and I say this both as a mother and as someone who has had a difficult relationship with my own biological mother, with whom I am no longer in contact. Just because someone gave birth to you does not override everything else. Again, I am not vocalizing an opinion specifically about the outcome of the custody battle between Bebe and the McCulloughs, but my comment is more about the way biological motherhood is lauded in the book as a whole. I ended contact with my mother several years ago and it was the healthiest choice for me, though I still experience fallout of past trauma due to my relationship with her. I cannot tell you how many times since I ended contact with my mother that I have heard from supposedly well-meaning people, “Oh, but she’s your mom!” “I’m sure she meant well!” People say things based on their own views and experiences of their mothers, which makes sense, but the assumption that someone should automatically forgive everything just because the person who wronged them gave birth to them completely disregards the amount of trauma and damage that a birth giver can cause. And if you think I’m exaggerating it, then you are welcome to experience my PTSD flashbacks for me.
This isn’t to say I think Celeste Ng’s book is completely off base about motherhood in a general sense. There’s a brilliant bit of the book that was also featured in the show in which it talks about how when children are little, they want to be around you all the time, but as they get older, they pull away from you as they become the people they’re supposed to be. But as a parent, you’re left wanting more, wanting to cuddle and hug and kiss them because they’re still your babies.
“It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.”–Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
This quote sucker punched me in the show and it sucker punched me in the book. But if I’d read the book first, I’m honestly not sure I would’ve watched the show and I would’ve missed out on an incredible piece of media.
3. I Know This Much is True
Years ago, a friend of mine and I read this book by Wally Lamb together and when I reached the end, I nearly chucked the book at the wall. The only thing more infuriating than having a book end with “and it was all a dream!” is to end a book where everything is wrapped up too neatly. You don’t want to have a ton of loose ends to the point where readers are sitting there asking, “Wait…WTF? There’s no resolution here! THIS IS WORSE THAN SEASON EIGHT OF GAME OF THRONES!”
Throughout the book, the protagonist, Dominick, deals with a lot. He has spent his entire life being both his brother Thomas’s keeper while simultaneously in his brother’s shadow when it comes to their mother’s affection. Thomas lives with paranoid schizophrenia and Dominick is the main support system that he has, especially through traumatic events like when Thomas cuts off his own hand in a public library and when Thomas is institutionalized in a shitty, abusive facility. Outside of his relationship with his brother, Dominick marries a beautiful woman named Dessa. Together, they have a daughter who tragically passes due to SIDS. Dominick then makes the emotionally charged decision to have a vasectomy without informing Dessa, which later leads to the demise of their marriage when Dessa eventually wants to try to have another baby and Dominick reveals that he can’t.
By the end of the book, Thomas dies by suicide and Dominick’s live-in girlfriend dies of HIV she contracted from her uncle/lover, leaving behind a daughter, freeing up Dominick to reunite Dessa and adopt the baby. Everything felt so neat and wrapped up in a little bow like, “Hey, isn’t this great? All of Dominick’s problems are dead so now he gets a do-over with his ex-wife and a new baby girl!”
Also, Dominick wins the lottery, because why the fuck not?
Dominick isn’t exactly happy at the end of the book, but the way everything felt so conveniently tied up was a bit much for me and it felt like a cop out. It would’ve felt less insulting if Wally Lamb had cut out the last chapter and just written “…and they all lived happily ever after!”
Evidently, I am not the only one who thought the book’s ending was bullshit, which is why writer and director Derek Cianfrance changed the story’s ending in the miniseries (although he explains it in a much nicer way than I do):
“It’s very satisfying in a novel to wrap everything up and have a sense of closure, but, to me, my favorite movies are the ones that have open endings, that allow the audience to generate their own kind of projections on what happens,” Cianfrance said. “In some ways, the story of Joy having a kid, becoming Dominick’s adopted kid, and Dominick becoming a millionaire…there became too many conveniences. I wanted his growth in the end to become more minute, right?” Cianfrance said. “I wanted it to be more of a glimmer of hope so that you could see the possibilities of his future but not heal it completely. And I think that’s more redemptive and more real.”via Meghan O’Keefe for Decider, June 14, 2020
What are your picks for screen adaptations that are better than the book? Let me know in the comments and I’ll let you know if you’re wrong.