Why Books are Better than Movies

13 04 2009

As I get into my newest novel (Hyperion by Dan Simmons) I notice that several Netflix movies lay idle on the counter. I used to watch a lot of TV, and a lot of movies, but lately I’ve found I’m usually disappointed. It’s partly that science fiction is by nature quite hard to make a good movie out of, but that’s not all of it. I’ve read several Niven books that could easily be made into movies without the use of complicated special effects for example. Whenever I read a book and then watch the movie, I usually decide the movie is horrible (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for example).

First off, characters are never developed in movies the way they are in books. How can they be? In books you’re presented with a first person view of the world from the character. Even if the writing is in third person, you get to see their thoughts, emotions, and physical feelings. You really get to know the character, and when something happens to them, you feel like you’re right there with them. In a movie, you’re simply a third party observer. Sometimes you’ll find a movie which attempts to narrate the actor’s thoughts, but it rarely works out well. How many books go back and show the past experiences of the character when relevant? Now, how many movies do the same thing?

Second, bad acting and special effects often ruin a good movie, especially old ones. Go back and watch some old black and white science fiction or horror movies and you’ll be laughing at how bad they are, but many of the best science fiction novels were written 50 years ago. Even old Star Trek episodes with sometimes interesting plots are ruined for me by Captain Kirk’s dramatic pauses and fake knives that are clearly plastic. Was it that hard to use unsharpened metal knives? I mean, really… When you read a book, the acting is just like you imagine it should be, and the set is a real world instead of a foam and plastic recreation.

Third, with science fiction and horror your own imagination will come up with things far better than that which can be displayed on the big screen. How often has a bad horror movie gone bad by revealing an utterly disappointing monster? It’s often better when they just hide the monster and leave it up to the imagination. No matter how scary the monster looks on TV, in a book your imagine can construct one even more terrifying. The monster of your nightmares may not be the same one as someone else’s nightmares, so even if they happen to make a satisfyingly scary monster for some people, others won’t think it’s all that scary.

Finally, the movies are usually far too short. They cut out large parts of the books, most of the interesting bits of the plot and character development mentioned in my first point.

Books to have their disadvantages of course, they require much more time and commitment. A 400 page novel can take 10x the time of a movie to read, but I still say it’s usually worth it in the end.

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2 responses

13 04 2009
Kristian the Conqueror

Too true on how terribly difficult it is for a sci-fi novel to transfer over to a movie! My favorite example is Dune; in the book you had an interesting story that made sense, was exceptionally engaging, and presented a view of the universe that was scientifically accurate, very interesting and, most importantly, easily understandable. We could relate to the universe of dune.

The movie? Not so much… You saw a view of the world that was poorly explained, poorly depicted (especially in terms of special effects,) and poorly acted. The most astounding examples of this were

1.The Sisterhood (shaved heads are never mentioned in the book, and I doubt they would be; most of the women used their sexual attractiveness to good effect in achieving their aims.)

2. The Shields (aw, come on… those over-sized messes of simple polygons are supposed to be a form-fitting shield? what b.s. And could you guys stop making that incredibly annoying sound when a knife hits your shield?)

3. The whole movie was poorly acted. That’s all I need to say on that topic…

But yeah, the only sci-fi movies that come out remotely well are the movies that are designed from the beginning as a sci-fi movie. A book loosely based on a novel or a short story, but still designed from the ground up as a movie will perform better than a movie that’s trying to imitate a book. The best example of this is probably Blade Runner, an absolutely amazing movie that is also undoubtedly good science fiction. And, for all of you who are of the opinion that I should hold up Star Wars and Star Trek as examples of good science fiction I have a simple comment to make; those are not science fiction; they are space opera. Technology, accurate depiction of the worls and science are not at the heart of those stories; people and drama are.

13 04 2009
Kristian the Conqueror

small correction, in the last paragraph I meant

“A movie loosely based on a novel or a short story, but still designed from the ground up as a movie will perform better than a movie that’s trying to imitate a book.”

instead of

“A book loosely based on a novel or a short story, but still designed from the ground up as a movie will perform better than a movie that’s trying to imitate a book.”

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