Friday, June 14, 2024

Not all books need be movies

I like movies. I really do. Need I say this? 

I mean, not liking movies is akin to not liking ice cream. It’s un-American. Heck, it’s inhuman.

I’ve posted numerous reviews of my favorite films. I seem to have a sweet spot for the early 80s, the likes of Blade Runner and Terminator and Excalibur and The Road Warrior (throw in Raiders and the Goonies for good measure). But I watch and enjoy new films too.

Now that I’ve paid my homage to celluloid, I’m not particularly fond of the fetishization of film by lovers of classic characters and IP. The incessant cry of, “this is such an awesome character, but when are we ever going to get the movie!”

Let’s take Conan. We have the amazing Robert E. Howard stories. We’ve got shit-tons of terrific comics, including great new material today from Titan. Pastiche novels. Even a loosely adapted but nevertheless magnificent 1982 film. So when I hear the incessant, when are we going to get a real Robert E. Howard film. We need one! It cheapens what has been done already. Just a bit, and IMO.

But you don’t understand Brian, we need a proper Conan film.

Why? Why do we need one?

I just don’t have the same hand-wringing urgency to get a movie made. 

Here’s my question to the people I can feel protesting this post.

When was the last time you said, “that was an AWESOME movie… they really need to write the novelization! Like, now!”

The answer is… never.

Seriously, when was the last time you ever heard ANYONE say, “I love Furiosa… when is George Miller going to get an author to write the novel? That’s what we really need.”

I’ll wait. 

When you always want “the movie” you are signifying an artistic hierarchy, one that places movies at the top and television in the middle (“it needs to be made into a Netflix miniseries!”) and poor old books at the bottom—perhaps just above static paintings or digital art.

Captain obvious incoming, but films and books are different mediums. Which means they do some things better than the other.

Films have many inherent advantages over books. The visuals are obvious. But also, sound. The wonderful dialogue, pregnant pauses and raised voices that convey additional levels of meaning are very hard to replicate in a book. And also, wonderful scores. Seriously, just hearing John Williams’ opening theme from Jaws immediately sends hackles up my spine and makes me nervous even when I’m in the neighbor’s swimming pool.

It’s awesome. Books can’t do this.

This combination of gorgeous visuals and stunning sound sweep us up, and make a great movie in an IMAX theater a thing of beauty. An event that I’m glad we have. Did I mention I love movies? I was blown away by Maverick and 1917 and of course The Lord of the Rings (though the book is better).

But books have their own distinct advantages too—advantages even over film. Like character interiority.  This is very hard to do in a film, without awkward voiceovers. 

Unbridled imagination is another. Film budgets and run times reign in possibility. Because budgets are an issue, the sprawling sweep of a book must be a dramatized compression on the screen. And thus worlds feel smaller than in the book. The Lord of the Rings is a prime example. I love the films, but Middle-Earth isn’t as big, or as grand, as Tolkien's vision.

The third is the unknown—HP Lovecraft can describe something awful beyond our imagination by not showing it. In film, which is purely visual, something must be shown. And it’s rarely as good as our imagination.

But the most important is artistic integrity.

Because movies are made by hundreds if not thousands of people, and because they cost so much, many fingers must touch the final product—including studio executives hungry for a return on their big investment, and their shareholders. Which means, compromises are made.

An author with a single artistic vision has inherent advantages, if they are talented and that vision is true and powerful. As a result books tend to have sharper edges and brighter colors.

I mean does anyone think we’d actually get an accurate “Red Nails” or “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula”? I don’t.

Even if homemade movies made on the cheap but well, by some guy in a basement with cutting-edge AI and a computer render some of these arguments invalid, the underlying principle remains: Books do some things better than film. Which means there are novels that will always, from now until the sun turns cold and dark and burns out altogether in the far-flung future, be better than any movie adaptation. 

OK, we do need a Dying Earth movie. 

But if we don’t get one? It’s OK.

The world will keep spinning.

We’ve already got Vance’s book … and the book is better.


Paul R. McNamee said...


I have never understood the attitude you describe. Not just the "we NEED a movie" crowd, but the crowd that seems to DEMAND they get a movie from a book, like it's a constitutional right or something.

Brian Murphy said...

We need a movie? I've got "Ill Met in Lankhmar," right here (points to head).

Ian said...

You nailed it on the head! Movies and books are very different media, and what works for one doesn't necessarily work for the other. Your point about Lovecraft is a particularly good example of this.

Andrew said...

I definitely agree that books do not "need" to be made into movies. And even when they are, it's very rare that they get it right (though some movies are better than the book: Blade Runner, Fight Club, American Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, The Princess Bride just to name a few). I think these days it stems more from Hollywood running out of ideas than anything else. They just take something popular in any medium and try to make a movie out of it.

I will put up my hand to say that there have been a few films that I wanted to read in book form and I have read some film novelizations before. Most novelizations are just cheap money grabs, but some do actually enhance the movie (Matthew Stover's Revenge of the Sith novelization comes to mind). Usually this happens more for me with TV shows, though. There have been many TV shows in which after I was done I wanted to read something just like it (Lost, Twin Peaks, Deadwood, Rome, Dark, Breaking Bad, Star Trek, Babylon 5, etc.).

Kevin Beckett said...

I like imagining movie adaptations with the best of them but I don't need my favourite works to be adaptated to movies. I think those fans that feel that way are displaying a personal insecurity and perhaps a sense of isolation in their fandom.

If it gets made into a movie, it seems what they like to read has "legitimate"worth that they can point to for people to understand why they read it. It's built into the pop culture hierarchy that movies is the biggest most popular medium as opposed to TV thne Books then Comics and/or Videogames.

The fact that the deisire for a movie made is so often accompanied with "It must be the most accurate Robert E. Howard adaptation" or some such is what suggests to me a certain amount of loneliness. How else could one make others understand how awesome the source material is, if the adaptation is very loose or goes off on bizarre tangents?

So I hope these people realize what works is a book or a comic that makes one love the work so might learn to accept it's ok for it to exist in its original medium, and not make the leap to another

Dariel said...

Great point about artistic integrity and how the film industry tends to compromise it. I think this is also the reason the comics I love best are those that were written and drawn by a single creator -- Grell's Warlord, Kentaro Miura's Berserk, Norihiro Yagi's Claymore, Druillet's Sloane, etc. I'd say the same of Esteban Maroto's Dax series, but the English adaptations in the Warren mags are rather thin on story. The Spanish versions may be better.

It takes a director with guts and clout to ram through a personal vision for an adaptation, and even then the original ideas never emerge unscathed.

Interesting point also from Kevin. Underscores how much modern fandom seems to feel bound to the idea of franchises that must span multiple media forms to be 'successful' and thus worth being a fan of. Though I think part of the demand for film adaptations also comes from genuine love of a character or setting. Me, I'm old and jaded, and news that Hollywood plans to adapt some franchise I love makes me alarmed more than elated nowadays.

Anonymous said...

I would much prefer an unabridged audio reading with full-cast, music and sound FX. Phil Dragash's unofficial _The Lord of the Rings_ is the exemplar. My imagination can supply the visuals for that, and do so at a lavish scale that even a $400m tent-pole Hollywood movie cannot. The problem there is that the masses don't have the required visual imagination. But for many niche tales, a mass audience is not required. Fairly soon now we'll have local open-source AIs capable of movie quality text-to-speech narration, custom character voices, sweeping movie music and ambient sound FX, and all at the push of a prompt. All it will then take is avid fans to weave it all together.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the wonderful comments, all.

Kevin: Interesting (and valid) point about movies lending "legitimacy" to some author or genre for which fans feel guilty enjoying (S&S, perhaps?).

Dariel: I feel like there is a world of comics I missed ... I did once upon a time read and enjoy Grell's Warlord. That was a series that was very unique, with swordplay and chainmail mixed with automag pistols and brushes with modern technology. Lin Carter-esque but cooler.

Anonymous: I think you are right about how close we are to AI and text-to-speech narration. I've already heard a couple AI songs that had me fooled--I thought humans were singing.