Who said this?

“I sipped the drink. The old man licked his lips watching me, over and over again, drawing one lip slowly across the other with a funereal absorption, like an undertaker dry-washing his hands.”

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Is it better to read the book before seeing the film or will you enjoy both more if you see the movie first?

Does a great book make a great film? Does knowing the ending beforehand ruin one or the other? Or are they two different art forms with little impact on each other?

Let's look at some book to movie adaptations and if you haven't read the book or seen the movie, try to decide which should come first.

Silence of the Lambs - A Classic from a Classic

Author - Thomas Harris (pub. 1988); screenplay by Ted Tally (1991)

Here’s one where I saw the movie when it first opened in the theaters, before I even knew about the novel. It turned out to be one of three films ever to sweep all of the major Academy Award categories—Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. It Happened One Night (1934) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) being the other two, but then you probably knew that. As you also know, the novel of the same name from which it was adapted was Thomas Harris’ sequel to his 1981 Red Dragon. Both books feature Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the last psychiatrist you’ll ever need.

The movie closely follows the novel and the cast is pretty much perfect. It would be hard to imagine anyone else in these roles. The main leads, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, won Oscars for their portrayals, but I cannot get Anthony Heald out of my head as the slimy Dr. Chilton, the most villainous of the characters in many ways. I saw the movie when it first came out and hadn’t been up to speed on Thomas Harris’ novel at the time. Needless to say, I soon corrected that.

I see comments by some Harris fans saying they prefer Red Dragon, his earlier work that first introduced us to Hannibal the Cannibal. I’ve since read that also, but I think there’s some connection with the movie version of Silence that makes me like it more. Having seen the film first, I know the characters well, I see them in my mind’s eye, the written version being like visiting with old friends. It’s all good.

Many movie adaptations have struck me as tone deaf, the casting being at odds with my pre-conceived expectations from the books. In the case of Silence however, the film and the novel seem to go hand in hand. It wouldn’t matter which was experienced first (although I’m sure the movie brought many reader to the book itself). If you suddenly woke up here in the twenty-first century without ever having seen or read either, the ideal might be to read Red Dragon, then read Silence of the Lambs, then see the movie version, each one building on the one before.

Get Shorty (Chili Palmer) - Puts the Hood in Hollywood

Author - Elmore Leonard (pub. 1990); screenplay by Scott Frank (1995)

    Get Shorty is where I first began to think about how the order in which we experience a book and its movie adaptation affects our enjoyment of one or the other. In my own case, shortly before seeing the movie, I had read the wonderful Elmore Leonard novel which tracks Chili Palmer’s progress from movie-loving hoodlum to—well, you’d better read it yourself. The problem was when I saw the film I was disappointed in that it didn’t seem to capture Leonard’s tough guy style. For a movie about Hollywood, it was too Hollywood.

    So time passes on. Over the years I have had occasion to watch Get Shorty, the movie, more than a few times and I have to admit that it has grown on me. Back when it was on the big screen, John Travolta didn’t come across as my idea of the tough softie Chili Palmer. Elmore described a “…lean, hard-boned type.” But now when I see Travolta in the role, I think he’s just fine. Gene Hackman, Delroy Lindo and the rest of the cast, including a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini, are just fine too. What’s changed?

    Besides me, of course. I have changed, but I don’t think it’s that. I recently re-read the novel and it still knocks me out. Leonard writes in perfect voice, totally selling the story, tough, funny and fully realized. What more can I say?

    The deal with the movie adaptation, which really stands on its own two legs, is that it isn’t the book. Some good novels become better still on celluloid (now digital), where the constraints of film production cuts out the fat, pares down the action and makes the written characters come to life. The adaptation of Get Shorty is a good, funny movie. I like it. But I don’t hear Elmore Leonard’s voice.

    The verdict: If you haven’t seen the film recently or—hard to believe—never, you won’t regret watching it.

    But watch it first. Then turn off the TV, curl up in your favorite easy chair and read the book. The movie won’t have spoiled it for you. You’ll probably even want to re-acquaint yourself with the rest of the Leonard canon.

    Laura - The Liveliest Corpse on Screen

    Author - Vera Caspary (pub. 1942); screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt and (uncredited) Ring Lardner Jr. (1944)

      As anyone who's read it knows, Vera Caspary’s story is presented in three segments, each told in a first person narrative by a different character. Not quite a Rashomon effect where each individual recounts the same event as filtered through their personal experiences. Instead, Caspary has each character pick up the narrative where the last one left off. On the other hand, the film version sticks pretty close to police detective Mark McPherson as he interviews the other players. This manages to get their biases in as they provide flashback memories of Laura Hunt, mostly answering questions McPherson never asks.

      To some degree, I suppose the flashbacks are a tip of the hat to the book’s odd structure, as well providing the necessary backstory on Laura. That aside, the movie has a great performance by Clifton Webb as snarky newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker, as well as a good turn by Vincent Price, pre-House of Wax. They play well against Dana Andrew’s low key cop and the lovely Gene Tierney.

      Of course, the thing about a movie is that it’s not a book. This can be good sometimes, or bad. Movie adaptations in general are constrained by the need for continuous movement, narrative expressed in dialog, and having to turn the audience over every two hours. Film adaptations therefore focus on a book’s high-points, at least as divined by the screenwriter, director, producer, and anyone with star power who falls into the mix.

      Laura, the movie, does this very well. On the other hand, the novel’s changing point of view requires each narrator to have detailed recollections of events they weren't present for. This leads to some convoluted explanations. I also think the book devotes a little too much time to having the characters analyze each other’s motives and behaviors.

      The movie is a well-known classic, made at a time when Hollywood turned black and white film into an art form. It doesn’t have enough clues to be a puzzle mystery and isn’t quite up to being noir, but overall, it is a wonderful film to watch. The book is definitely worth reading, but you should do it before you see the film (or before seeing it again). It’s quite an education to see how the movie-makers pare down a novel for the screen but still manage to keep all the good parts.

      For another take on the book and the film, see The High Window's review here. It digs into both the book and the movie, analyzing the differences and similarities. Afterward, you'll want to dig into both yourself.

      What do you think—before or after? 




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