The book, while hardly high culture, keeps the heart racing. The film, most critics agree, is more like a tranquilizer shot. “The Da Vinci Code” is just the latest proof that what keeps you turning pages late at night won’t necessarily keep you awake in the theater.
Moviegoers have yet to give their verdict on Ron Howard’s movie, but it’s long been clear that making a really successful book into a really successful film is a tricky and elusive art.
Why? Partly because readers expect so much from the film version of a book they’ve loved and lived with for hundreds of pages. And partly because filmmakers often try to recreate the book in all its scope, a losing proposition. Can a movie ever capture the sweep, the imaginings, the intensely personal experience of a book?
Rarely, says Jane Shepardson, a loyal book-club member for the past seven years in her hometown of Chappaqua, N.Y.
“You want to form your own picture in your own mind,” she says — of the characters, the places, the way things look, feel and smell. “That kind of experience can never be replaced by a movie. It’s a fabulous and challenging thing. I don’t want someone doing it for me.”
That doesn’t mean Shepardson, 44, doesn’t like films. It’s just that when she’s loved a book, she wants to retain images she’s stored in her mind. So she stayed away from the 2003 “House of Sand and Fog” because she so adored the novel by Andre Dubus III.
Julia Stroud, a college student from Philadelphia, eventually plans to see “The Da Vinci Code,” but she’s already skeptical. Ever since she read the book, she’s pictured the main character, Robert Langdon, as a swarthier Russell Crowe type, “not the guy-next-door Tom Hanks type.” Harrison Ford, maybe, but not Hanks.
Stroud especially loved Arthur Golden’s novel, “Memoirs of a Geisha,” finding it both intricate and enthralling. Not so for the film: “It was long. It was boring. I fell asleep.”
You can’t ‘expect it to be the book’Golden, who didn’t write the screenplay, says it was surreal to see his characters, whose precise visual features he’d never imagined in his own mind, up on screen. Yet he notes the difficulties facing the filmmakers.
“When you’re writing a novel,” he says, “you don’t have to make a decision on whether the coffee cup leaves a ring on the table, or how someone’s fingernails look. In the movie, you have to. People often feel the book is better because the film rigidifies what’s in the book, and casts it in a way that is very literal.”
And usually, a sense of scope is lost — after all, a book is hundreds of pages long (450, in the case of “The Da Vinci Code.”) “The movie almost always disappointing because it’s thinner,” Golden says.
The crucial thing to remember, he says, is that books and films are very different. “You can’t go to a movie and expect it to be the book. The book is always the book. Viewers know the difference.”
And there is much pleasure in that difference, says writer Susan Orlean, whose “The Orchid Thief” was adapted in such a clever and unusual way in a film called, well, “Adaptation” — a film about adapting Orlean’s book.
“It can be satisfying in a very different way,” Orlean says. “You give up some of the imaginary quality of reading, and trade it for the visuals and the publicness of seeing the movie.”
‘Be true to the audience’One of Orlean’s favorite adaptations is “The English Patient” (1996), directed by Anthony Minghella, who also wrote the screenplay based on Michael Ondaatje’s novel. Seven years later, “Cold Mountain” — same director/screenwriter — was much less successful.
The key, Orlean says, is that “an adaptation is an adaptation — there is no reason to expect it to be the same. It’s like doing a cover of a Beatles song that’s exactly like the Beatles’ version. Why do it?”
That’s what Richard Walter, head of the screenwriting program at UCLA’s film school, tries to get across to his students.
“If I want tuna fish, I don’t go to a hardware store. The mistake too often is to try to be completely true to the book,” says Walter. “What you need to be true to is the audience.”
As a result, Walter says, really good books — Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” — tend to be so-so movies, or worse. And so-so books can make good movies, because the filmmakers aren’t feeling what he calls the “false burden” of being rigidly true to the original. (He likely would admit that changing the ending of “The Scarlet Letter” in the Demi Moore version went too far.)
There are lots of exceptions to the rule that good books don’t make good films. Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. “Mystic River.” “Brokeback Mountain,” based on the short story by Annie Proulx. And “Gone With the Wind,” of course.
But generally, the more fervent people are about a book, the harder it is to make the movie, says Leonard Maltin, the film historian. Which is why Maltin himself never reads a book if he knows it’s going to be a movie.
“It would ruin the experience of the movie,” he says. “The movie is almost never as good as the book.”