Did You Read The Book?

24 09 2011

As a long-time English teacher I taught all kinds of literature, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Mark Twain and John Steinbeck to Stephen King and Dan Brown to Ingmar Bergman and Quentin Tarantino.  Over the years, I taught Film as Literature numerous times.  One of the biggest challenges in that class is getting students to understand that reading the original novel and seeing the film adaptation is a similar but not identical experience; each is a work in and of itself.

A prime example of this would be the film adaptation of the novel, Forrest Gump.  For those who have read the book and have seen the film, you know exactly what I am referring to.  As critically acclaimed and well done as the film was, the character of Gump, as portrayed by Tom Hanks, and his experiences fall short by quite a distance of the standard set by the character and storyline of the novel.  Both are outstanding pieces of literature but to think that you know the story of Forrest Gump after seeing the film is simply a false assumption.

However, in some cases, the film and the original novel are so similar that experiencing one is nearly synonymous with experiencing the other.  An example of this would be Dances With Wolves.  Outside on some sequencing changes and the deletion of one minor scene involving masterbation, the story lines and the characters are the same.

With all my experience in the comparison of the written word and its film adaptation, I accompanied my wife to see a newly released movie in a theater recently.  Linda and I have not been to a movie, other than taking the grandkids to see Kung Fu Panda 2, in several years.  Yes, we went on a date–dinner and a movie.  We went to see The Help.  We both absolutely fell in love with the novel and were not disappointed with the film as is normally the case once I read the book first.  Besides outstanding acting and particular attention being paid to the detail of the setting, the actors and actresses cast in the roles were, unlike Tom Hanks as Gump, nearly perfect in matching up with their counterparts from the novel.  It made for a truly enjoyable experience for both of us. I found it funny that we did not discuss the plot or setting of the film but the actors and actresses and how there surely had to be some Academy Award nominations for them in the near future.

I know that it can be difficult for a screenwriter and a director to adapt some novels to the big screen and maybe that is reason enough that they should not try.  Over and above that, I think a lot of people do themselves a real disservice by not reading the novel since it is the original work and only settle for the film version.  I cannot begin to count the number of people I know who read Forrest Gump after seeing the film and came away with an entirely different perspective on the story–nearly all of them saying they enjoyed the novel much more than the film.

I suppose that the lesson in life here is that a person should always try to go to the source, the origin, when determining if that thing is worth the time, money and effort.  I know that is not always possible but it does seem like a good philosophy to try and follow in life.  If the original is still in use/commerce, then there must be a reason. In our disposable society with new smart phones coming out every couple of months, it has to say something about a product, business, location or experience that can stand the test of time.  What makes a classic classic?  I think it has to do with appealing to people of different generations and to people at multiple times throughout their lives.

Perspective gained by experience allows a person to appreciate some experiences in different ways at different phases of life.  That might even help explain why so many of us “old folks” have evolved to what on the surface would appear to be a paradoxical view of life and other members of society.  Many of us (unfortunately, not enough though) have developed a low tolerance for fools while at the same time seeing the wisdom of a live-and-let-live attitude.  If the fools’ actions don’t impact me or my loved ones then hooray for the fools–of course, I have digressed but that is one of the advantages of being old; it’s expected.  After all, like Gump, I am an original.





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