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Is The Book Always Better Than The Movie? — Critics Survey

In honor of James Schamus' "Indignation," we asked a panel of film critics to name a film they believe to be better than the book from which it was adapted.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby

“The Great Gatsby”

Every week, the CriticWire Survey asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: This past weekend saw the release of “Indignation,” which has been rather faithfully adapted from the Philip Roth novel of the same name. In the hopes of shining some light on what makes for a great adaptation, is there a film that you believe is better than the book from which it was adapted?

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic) Nonfics/Film School Rejects
This is a difficult question as I admit I haven’t read a lot of the books of movies I love (unless we count my childhood interest in novelizations), so I can’t think of any favorite films I consider BETTER than their literary counterpart. It’s more often that I love adaptations that are very different from the books. For documentary I pick Errol Morris’s “A Brief History of Time,” which is a great adaptation of a science book with biographical story added in. For fiction films I pick Spike Jonze (and Charlie Kaufman [and Donald Kaufman’s] ) “Adaptation,” if it’s allowed to count. It did begin as an attempt to base a movie on “The Orchid Thief” and just wound up with its own kind of biographical story added in — only with this one it’s an exaggerated look at the life of the adapter rather than the original author. Both films make my brain do a little dance in ways the books don’t.

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
I’ve gotta go with Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” (…just kidding, though that movie does have more merit than most people realize).

Okay, this is cheating because the film is more of a biopic than it is a straight adaptation of a book (it could more easily be construed as a mashed up adaptation of three books), but I can’t help but highlight Paul Schrader’s “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” which elevates Yukio Mishima’s unique voice into a genuine chorus, each individual portion dovetailing with the others in a way that makes them all resonant more strongly. Mishima’s writing is its own rare beast, but Schrader was smart not to highlight the best or most determinedly idiosyncratic of the author’s work (good luck adapting “Forbidden Colors”), and his film allows these stories to pop to life in a way they never did on the page.

Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC), Vulture
I know this is a trick question designed to discover which critics are smart or idiosyncratic enough to say something other than “The Godfather.” I wish I were one of them. My answer is: “The Godfather.” I don’t know how to get around it, or to explain it, but the means by which a fun, pulpy bestseller became the Great American Story was clearly so alchemical that there’s no way to use it as an example for other adapters; all you can learn from it is “Be a genius.”

Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), The Guardian
1) A lot of this depends on what you do first, see the movie or read the book.

2) The go-to answer is Hitchcock, right? But the truth is I have’t read any of the books that Hitchcock adapted, not even “Rebecca,” so if I said one of his movies I’d be fibbing.

3) “2001: A Space Odyssey” jumps all sorts of loopholes because the book and movie were created simultaneously. I would tell you which is better but first you must travel with me “Beyond the Infinite.”

READ MORE: ‘Indignation’ Stars Logan Lerman And Sarah Gadon On Philip Roth, Sylvia Plath, And The Perils Of Oral Sex

Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko), Pajiba / Comic Book Resources 
Neil Gaiman acolytes will surely consider this blasphemous, but I prefer the “Stardust” movie to his 1999 novel. The Matthew Vaughn-directed romp brought mirth and madness to Gaiman’s strange fairy tale, including the controversial new character Captain Shakespeare. A sky-riding pirate captain who loves his crew, abhors violence, and secretly relishes in corsets and frilly skirts, he was a quirky role to which Robert De Niro brought froth and fearless fun. Reading the book, I couldn’t comprehend why Tristan and Yvaine fell in love, but Charlie Cox and Claire Danes’ dynamic chemistry sold me on their detest-to-devotion evolution in the way of the classic rom-coms. Vaughn’s interpretation also gave a more spectacular showdown that boasted Mark Strong as a twisted sword-fighting prince puppet, and perhaps most rewarding of all Michelle Pfeiffer as a vain and vicious enchantress. Underrated yet unforgettable, “Stardust” is a whimsical and imaginative adaptation that took Gaiman’s source material as inspiration more than dogma. Frankly, I prefer a film be a curious interpretation of its source novel, rather than a dogged book report, desperately checking off plot points and name checking minor characters in search of extra credit.

Tasha Robinson (@TashaRobinson), The Verge
“Jaws” is a particularly stunning cinematic miracle, given that the original Peter Benchley book is servicable and interesting, but a little plodding, with a fairly basic writing style, and without the sense of depth of character and camaradarie that the film has. But Mike Nichols’ take on “The Graduate” is the same thing on an even more extreme scale. Charles Webb’s original book is flat and inert, packed with circular, monosyllabic conversations that go nowhere. Its version of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman’s character) is never sympathetic. He doesn’t come across as searching painfully for answers in his life, so much as bluntly rejecting everything he’s offered, with a kind of resentful vapidity. “The Graduate’s” story is all there in the novel, but it takes the film version to make the characters relatable, funny, and iconic. Screenwriters Buck Henry and Calder Willingham reduce the long, wandering, repetitive conversations down to their essences, and emphasize the characters’ soulfulness instead of their belligerence. And the Simon & Garfunkel songs add a lonely, plaintive edge to the film that isn’t there on the page. The book feels like reading an unfinished screenplay that just lays out the shape of the plot. The film version turns it into a fully realized tragicomedy.

Alissa Wilkinson (@alissamarie), Christianity Today
I will cheat because I can’t pick: “Little Children” is based on a novel by Tom Perotta, and if you’ve seen the film, the ending is indelible — a shocking and disturbing image that is congruent with the themes of the whole story. The book’s ending, by contrast, is pretty weak and feels like it bogs the rest of the story in retrospect. I don’t know how Todd Field pulled it off — and Perotta has a screenwriting credit on the film — but it’s much stronger as a movie than a book.

My other choice is “The Devil Wears Prada,” based on a pretty whiny book that feels bizarrely un-self-aware, especially since it’s a roman a clef. The narrator’s sense that we ought to feel sorry for her starts grating pretty early on. But the movie, by cutting out that narration altogether, takes the best parts of the book (chiefly Miranda Priestly, played with perfect ice queenliness by Meryl Streep) and makes them much more bearable, even manage to cast a subtly critical light on the narrator of the book.

Q: What is the best movie currently playing in theaters?

A: “Indignation.”

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