Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Books into Movies

Happy Texas Independence Day! The occasion is traditionally (well, among certain groups) celebrated with an iced tea toast at noon, but as it's rather chilly today, I may go with hot tea. It's also primary election day, which makes me happy because it means the automated, recorded telephone calls may finally stop. When the phone rings, it totally throws me out of my work. If I'm writing, then that means I've moved away from my desk and have likely snuggled into my "nest" somewhere, so answering the phone means putting the laptop aside and untangling myself to get to the phone. That also totally breaks my train of thought, and I lose whatever I was thinking at the moment, and it's harder to get back into what I was doing. I'm mildly irked if it's not a dire emergency that I can do something about involving someone I care about. When it's the recorded voice of a politician telling me how evil another politician is, I get evil thoughts. It is somewhat satisfying to hang up the phone loudly on a politician, even if I know they're not actually getting to hear the phone being slammed down, but that doesn't make up for the five calls I got yesterday. Grrr.

However, in spite of the politicians, I had an extremely productive day, with more than 3,000 words written. Go, me! I feel like I'm finally making forward progress. Today may be less productive, as I have errands to run and ballet tonight, but I already know what to write to get started today.

Meanwhile, there's been reading. I've recently seen a couple of movies based on books where I actually liked the movies better, which is rare for me. Normally, I like the books better, and if I read the book before seeing the movie, I end up being horribly disappointed. That's why I try to see the movie before reading the book. That way I can enjoy the movie, and then the book will be even better, like bonus features. When it's the other way around and I've already seen all the extras in the book, the movie seems to be lacking.

A few weeks ago, Lifetime showed The Jane Austen Book Club (based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler), which I never got around to seeing in theaters, in part because it was treated as an "art" film and didn't show at my neighborhood theater and in part because the reviews I saw were pretty bad and made it look like it wasn't worth the effort of getting to a theater where it was showing. I'm not sure if it was, but for watching on TV, it was really quite nice. To a large extent, it was essentially a Lifetime movie with a big-screen cast (and even there, most of the cast may be big-screen actors now, but they either got their start on TV or are best known for TV roles). In short, it's about a group of friends that decides to start a book club, in part as a way of distracting/cheering up one of them when her husband leaves her. They recruit another woman and a man and decide to focus entirely on the works of Jane Austen. As they go through half a year and each of the books, they all go through romantic entanglements that map in a lot of ways to the plots of the various novels they're reading.

I enjoyed the movie because I like those multi-strand stories. Plus, the central romantic plot was like a fantasy created just for me: a never-married 40-something woman who's a bit of a loner/control freak meets a hot, young guy who reads science fiction, who seems to be fairly wealthy, who is ecologically conscious and who thinks she's really hot. But after seeing the movie, I wanted to read the book because I was intrigued by the book club discussions that seemed far too short in the movie, and I figured that was the kind of thing that would have been trimmed in the translation from book to movie, since people sitting around talking about books doesn't make for enthralling cinema. I expected the book to delve deeper into the areas that the movie skimmed over.

Except, it didn't. If anything, the book discussion was expanded for the movie. It was the rare movie where almost every scene that took place in the present day in the book was in the movie, and very much as they were depicted in the book, and then there were whole scenes and subplots that were added. That was because most of the book was made up of flashbacks. In each section of the book, we got long flashbacks about the person who was hosting the book club that month, basically, the story of that person's life, with key scenes dramatized. The movie eliminated most of that, bringing the crucial points into present-day conversations or creating scenes to bring those points across. The movie's focus was on the present, while the book's focus was on the past. (Plus, the 40-something woman was 50-something in the book, the hot young guy was in his 40s and not particularly hot, and he was unemployed and doing temp tech support work. Much less of a fantasy.) I did enjoy the book, but I enjoyed the story the movie told more. I want to see the movie again now that I have more of the background on the characters.

Then this weekend, Masterpiece Theatre did a remake of The 39 Steps. I loved the book by John Buchan when I was in junior high/high school, and I saw the Hitchcock movie version when I was in college and hated it. I don't remember much about it other than that I felt it had very little to do with the book, which was what bothered me. I was rather literalist about film adaptations, so if the movie wasn't exactly like the book, I tended to hate it. However, I loved the Masterpiece movie. It's been long enough since I read the book that I couldn't compare the two, but I immediately pulled the book off the shelf and re-read it, and I still, in retrospect, like this movie version. The basic plot was intact, and a lot of the key scenes were still there, but the structure worked better in this film version.

The biggest change was adding a female character and romantic subplot. I know I said I didn't notice and didn't care much about the lack of female characters in fantasy, but it really struck me upon re-reading this book that there were no female characters at all, which seems weird for 1914 England. Through most of the book, the main character is entirely alone, and for a film, it helps for him to have someone to talk to. Giving him a female companion made sense, and it was done in a way that reminded me of It Happened One Night. So, It Happened One Night plus spies? I'm so there. Add Killer Robots From the Future, and it's the Best Movie Ever! Otherwise, the movie added some tension and conflict that weren't in the book. In the book, the main character's neighbor, who turns out to have been a spy, is murdered in his apartment. After finding the body, he spends the whole night hanging around, trying to decide what to do, then decides it's probably best to leave town in the morning. He's well out of town before the body is even discovered, and it's even later before the bad guys figure out that he has the notebook with the info on the secret plot to start WWI. In the movie, he's there when the bad guys show up and kill the neighbor, and then he runs into the police, who immediately suspect him of being the killer, and he leaves town on the run, with the police and the bad guys after him. In the book, he spends a few weeks wandering around Scotland, only occasionally chased by the bad guys or police. In the movie, it's a tense few days with the police and the bad guys constantly behind him. It was a real lesson in how to increase tension in a story.

I may have to get this one on DVD because it made me happy. I think I should also give the Hitchcock version another chance, since I've learned that it's impossible to make a movie directly from a book and I've seen the weaknesses in that particular novel. I might enjoy the movie a lot more now.

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