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Friday, March 5, 2010

No, But I Read the Book . . .

Last weekend I saw The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski's film based on The Ghost, a novel by Robert Harris. Not having read the book, I couldn't compare the movie to the original, but I did find it a terrific entertainment. Afterward, I wondered if I had missed something by not reading the thriller itself. But reading the book after seeing the movie would mean that I knew the basic plot and (stunning) ending. Would reading the book still be worthwhile? I'm not so sure. Conversely, if I had read the book first, would I have enjoyed the unfolding plot nearly as much? Again, I'm thinking probably not.

And what about those films I saw after enjoying the book -- everything from Wuthering Heights to The Hours to Julie and Julia? If I really love a book, then I anticipate having the pleasure of rediscovering the work, seeing actors impersonate characters I had only imagined, and finding a new point of view in a director's vision. I guess it comes down to the richness of the original work -- Jane Austen versus Ian Fleming, for example. If staying on the edge of your seat is of paramount importance (as in the Polanski film), then reading the book first might actually interfere with your enjoyment of the film.

Then there are those films that have pointed me in the direction of a book and enriched my experience of it. I read Tom Jones as a teenager right after seeing Tony Richardson's brilliant film. I still recall the great pleasure I had in inserting Albert Finney into Fielding's deliciously unhurried picaresque novel. Sometimes movies don't replace books at all, but actually can bring us back to reading.


  1. This opens up such a fascinating terrain of questions about the differences between film and books. I think you're right that there's less incentive to read the book if one sees the film first for a very action- or ending-oriented story...but even then, there are reasons to read the book, for the psychological exploration that I believe is more difficult to achieve onscreen. In general, I find that reading the book after seeing the film adds more to my experience of "the work" than seeing the film after reading the book - which is not to say the latter pattern holds no insights; it holds many, but not as many. OK, maybe that was garbled. But what do others think/prefer?

  2. Almost always, in my opinion, the book is far better than the movie. But occasionally I find myself in a situation where I'm interested in the material for one reason or another, but I really don't want to live in the world of the story for the many hours it would take to read the book. I can, however, deal with being immersed in the story's world for the two hours it takes to watch the movie. The book/movie "The Reader" comes to mind. I found the movie painful and upsetting (like many others did, I'm sure), but I'm glad I saw it. Among other things, Kate Winslet was phenomenal -- as was her co-star, whose name I can't remember. It would be hard for me to have lived in that story's world for the days or weeks it would have taken me to read the book.
    Similarly, I guess, I found the THE KITE RUNNER to be a remarkable and engrossing book -- but I don't want to revisit the emotional landscape of the that book again, and so I passed on the movie.

  3. All true, but keep in mind that there could not have been a “Julie,” blog, book or movie, without “Julia” and a work of near genius. I once had the privilege of rummaging through Julia Child’s papers just after she had just donated them to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliff. The papers had not yet been catalogued, and were still packed in cartons; I sat on the floor, left quite alone, and pulled files out randomly. The depth of authorship displayed in the letters between Child and her collaborator, Simone Beck was staggering. Child was back in the States, Beck in France, and the high-tech mediums at their disposal were the typewriter and airmail. I could see parts of Mastering the Art of French Cooking evolve, meticulously, on onionskin. I remember an exchange devoted to the description of a sauce; I think they were deciding if it could be called “suave.” And there were reports of rigorous recipe testing, thoughtful decisions on what to include, what to omit. Today’s technology should be an aid to such painstaking methods—imagine if Simone could have scanned her hand-written notes and sent them by e-mail for Julia to receive before the day were out? I hope so, but I worry that we often gain swift at the sacrifice of quality.

    This raises another concern: with today’s technology, will we have this sort of record of work that is so instructive to other writers? I was encouraged by today’s report that David Foster Wallace’s papers, which are going to the University of Texas, include hand written journals and notes, letters, annotated novels, and articles pulled from periodicals. Wallace was young, but at least part of his approach to work was no different from authors over centuries.

  4. Returning to the topic that kicked off Jennifer's comments about books into movies, I also saw The Ghost Writer over the weekend and also found it riveting. And I also had not read the novel. What I wanted to add here is that the movie provides intriguing glimpses into how a ghost writer actually operates (though I hope that none of them really finds his life being threatened).
    We also see a fairly realistic scene in the publisher's office, where a decision is being made about which ghost writer to choose for the job.
    And we see the writer at work with the original manuscript, which is long and windy, and get an idea of how the writer (or an editor) goes about cutting out all the chaff.
    Finally, when the ghost writer talks to the man whose memoir he's writing, we find out how he determines what his opening scene will be-- which is intended to immediately capture the attention of the reader. This replaces a standard opening: I was born, my family was, etc. (snore)

  5. Personally, as someone who occasionally has done the work of a ghost writer, I am delighted that there is a movie that depicts it as the stuff of international intrigue (rather than the routine drudgery it usually is in reality) . . . Maybe now I will get a little respect from my kids!