Greetings! Apologies for not posting yesterday like I said I would, but Arcadia (my computer) had an unfortunate encounter with a virus and had to spend the weekend at home with my brilliant father, who saved her for me, along with all of my files, which I stupidly did not back up. As it turns out, maintaining a blog is quite difficult if you don’t have access to the Internet. Go figure, huh?
But not having internet for three days had one wildly fantastic outcome: I read two and a half books. I finished An Abundance of Katherines, sped straight through Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, and am currently working on Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, who may be the only author I’ve read with a last name harder to pronounce than Palahniuk. The latter I suspect I will have a thing or two to say about when I am finished, but for now I want to talk about Fight Club. More specifically, I want to talk about books vs. movies, and why everyone needs to stop being so judgmental about film adaptations.
(If you haven’t seen/read Fight Club, don’t worry. There aren’t really any spoilers in this. Although if you’re really paranoid, just go watch the movie already. It’s awesome. Then come back to this.)
Here’s the thing. Novels are brilliant. They allow lots of space for character development, which means that they usually contain far more interesting and complex characters than movies do. They allow the reader to get into a character’s head, and actually see what the world looks like through that person’s eyes. Incidentally, they are also far better with subplots, because there is a lot more time to develop them. Novels are forgiving. You don’t remember the parts that were bad, because they were outweighed by all the parts that were brilliant. Plus, when you’re reading a book, you get to fill in all the gaps the writer leaves with your own imagination, which makes reading a highly personal experience. It’s easy to project yourself into a novel.
Movies, on the other hand, don’t have a lot of space to play with. As my screenwriting teachers rightly pointed out on the first day of class, writing a movie is like writing a poem–every word makes a huge difference. You can’t spare a single punctuation mark. They aren’t forgiving, like novels, because there’s no room to make up for mistakes. Because the form is so rigid, and because you have so little to work with, you can’t afford to spend a lot of time poking around inside the heads of multiple characters. Plus, you have to fill in all of the gaps–and I mean all of them–or else people are going to get thrown out of the experience. You have to get everything right, right off the bat, or it all falls apart. For this reason, movies have a far wider margin of error than novels do–they’re much easier to screw up, so it happens more often. This is, perhaps, why so many people champion novels over movies.
It comes as no surprise, then, that most of the time film adaptations lose something. Whole characters and subplots get dropped; the director’s vision for the world conflicts with or even limits the viewer’s imagination; endings get clipped short or changed; complex back story gets relegated to single narrative lines or even half-hearted flashbacks; and, all too often, the entire focus of the story shifts and simplifies in a way that seems to betray the original point of it all. It’s easy to watch a movie adaptation of a book and want to slap the director across the face for even trying, because so much is missing that it’s not even the same story anymore. I understand that impulse. I get it, too.
That said, there are many, many stories that work better as movies than they do as novels. I think Fight Club is a perfect example. For one thing, it’s a story almost exclusively driven by physical violence, which always–and I mean always–works better on screen than it does written down on paper. I don’t care how good of an action writer you are; seeing it happen is better (incidentally, this is also why slapstick doesn’t work in written form, and why the phrase “you had to be there” exists). Secondly, the characters are relatively flat, with almost no back story. They exist entirely in the moment, which makes them perfect for the silver screen–and kind of boring in novel form. Finally, the philosophy of the world–the whole ‘we are sheep’ and ‘the world is rotting’ thing–isn’t terribly complex, either, and doesn’t require a whole lot of delving to understand. It’s actually better represented visually, with a sort of Sin City-esque grittiness, than with a lot of introspective rambling in the narration, which gets repetitive quite quickly. Thus, the movie was able to encapsulate the whole story with ease, while the novel dragged most of the time.
After reading Fight Club, I couldn’t help but feel that I had wasted my time, and should have just been happy with watching the movie. This is not the first time I have felt this way after reading the book version of a movie I liked. Maybe I will dedicate a post to that later. But for now, all I’m saying is, don’t knock film adaptations. Sometimes they’re actually better than the original.
“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” -Tyler Durden, Fight Club (the movie)
pg. 120 of Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart