Three Movies That Are Actually Better Than the Book - "Ben Hur," "The Mist," and "Forrest Gump"
The Book Is Always Better Than The Movie? Really?
People are uncomfortable around a bookworm. When the office water cooler conversation turns to cinema, and the hydraters start sharing their takes of the latest from the big screen, they get nervous when that little egghead walks up, that weirdo who spends his lunch break in his cubicle, nose buried in a book.
The office bibliophile is always equipped with esoteric information about the movies they have seen, as if he belongs to a priesthood that has exclusive access to secret holy texts. As he pontificates over these heretofore unrevealed nuggets of wisdom, the H2O imbibers look at him slack jawed—either out of wonder or boredom. Many times this not-quite-so-thirsty-anymore audience doesn't even know the movie they just watched had been a book at some point. Heck, some of them aren't aware the cinematic classic The Ten Commandments was taken from a book, called The Bible. A few among them are so late in the game they can't even wrap their heads around the concept of words printed on paper.
So there is that uppity bookworm, preaching to the uninitiated about how such and such book was vastly superior to the movie. At first only that new chick with the cute librarian glasses nods her head and agrees, "Oh, the book is always better than the movie," says she. She doesn't know what she's talking about, she never reads either, but she's an upwardly mobile girl and wants to appear intellectual.
Then, as the members of the impromptu literary circle make polite excuses and drift back to their desks, or look for a safer water hole farther afield, they are all now nodding their heads vigorously, being of the single-minded accord that the book is always better than the movie, most definitely, indisputably.
A Water Cooler Prophet Of Doom Speaks
But those of us water cooler bookworm prophets of doom who enjoy both reading and watching a flick now and then, know that the book is not always better than the movie. True, there are some extreme examples of why some books should have stayed books and not made the hyperspace leap from the page to the screen. The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy is one. Peter Jackson's retelling of The Hobbit, a cautionary tale against cheesy CGI self indulgence, another. In my opinion, Red Sorghum should have stayed on paper. There are countless dozens more cinematic stinkers that have their late literary creators rolling in the tomb.
Then there are movies that are as good as the books that inspired them. Gone With The Wind was a great book that was turned into an equally great movie. All seven Harry Potter books and the eight movies they conjured are another example. I'll even grant you that Peter Jackson's Lord of The Rings trilogy of films is a celluloid masterpiece, shot in mostly live action before the Kiwi director fell in love with his technological toys, then bored us with hordes of computer generated goblins swarming beneath the Misty Mountains.
But books that are actually better than the movie? Certainly the exceptions do not disprove the rule, but sometimes the director and the screenplay adapter envision a direction for the tale that it's deposed creator may not have conceived, and may not have intended. A simple bud of an idea now becomes epic, and the book blossoms into a big screen marvel.
Here, then, is a very short list of what I declare are three books that Hollywood managed to improve upon. Having read all of them, at least in part, this particular bookworm decrees that Lew Wallace's Ben Hur, Stephen King's The Mist, and Winston Groom's Forrest Gump were all made better by their box office embodiments.
Ben Hur - 1959, Irreplaceable Classic
Before we begin discussing the adaptation of Lew Wallace's 1880 tale, let's make it clear that I am not talking about the horrible and unnecessary 2016 remake of the novel. That awful rendition only proves the rule that Hollywood cannot control its gag reflex, meaning it often regurgitates its old greats into stinking puddles of insipid, unpalatable mush.
The adaptation I explore here is the beautiful 1959 William Wyler version starring Charlton Heston, which still towers over the other five overhauls in terms of pure cinematic grandeur. This masterpiece proves another rule - once you achieve perfection, stop. You risk polishing the luster out of that pearl and turning it into worthless gravel.
To be honest, I started but didn't finish reading Ben Hur, somewhere back there in the mid nineteen eighties, about a hundred years after its original publication. I got less than halfway and stopped, finding its late nineteenth style to be colorless, plodding, and bland. Honestly, the book bored me, so I abandoned it. Being 30 years older now and more mature, I may attempt a re-reading, and may draw a different conclusion. But as a twenty-something, the novel Ben Hur failed to capture my imagination, which leads me to believe that it wasn't that remarkable.
Clearly, it is probably just me that is way off base here. General Lew Wallace's epic is among the top twenty all time bestsellers. It spoke to millions of people in a way that it did not speak to me.
The novel's author was a remarkable Renaissance Man. Civil War General, Territorial Governor, diplomat, artist, novelist, lawyer, are the job titles that would have showed up on Lew Wallace's Linked In profile, had such a platform existed at the turn of the nineteenth century. The man was clearly talented, blessed with a remarkable vision and imagination. Still, Hollywood improved upon his one flaw, flavorless prose, in creating an epic 1959 film that is still a staple of the Easter TV movie rotation, doing for the Paschal holiday what the endless repetition of A Christmas Story does for the Nativity period.
Director William Wyler realized that the book had problems, and took great pains to create a movie that walked a fine line between the novel's stodgy nineteenth century style and modern vernacular. Critics were cognizant of the same problems I had with the novel, these being flat characters, dull dialogue, and overly tedious descriptions. Of course, Hollywood did not require tedious descriptions - the remarkable cinematic eye of the revolutionary widescreen MGM Camera 65 would capture the grandeur of ancient Rome and the Holy Land, painting a thousand word picture to replace Wallace's overly verbose exposition.
Wyler worked hard to create a lively script, bringing in a team of writers to punch up Karl Tunberg's initial adaptation, which he considered "hack work." Wyler thought the initial dialogue too modernist, but neither did he want the movie to sound medieval. A group led by controversial novelist Gore VIdal punched up the script, which was then polished to Wyler's stringent specifications by Christopher Fry. Vidal is rumored to have introduced a homoerotic tension to the relationship between Judah Ben Hur and the tale's antagonist, Roman tribune Messala. The movie went places that would have alienated the novel's largely Christian readership, which may be why when speaking about his epic creation, William Wyler joked that it took a Jew to make a good film about Christ.
Magnificent cinematography, a legendary chariot race, and the commanding, monumental presence of lead actor Charlton Heston are among the reasons this 1959 classic is irreplaceable, insurmountable. It is heresy to even think about remaking it ever again, period.
The Mist - 2007, Beautiful Bummer Of An Ending
I can't lie and say that I did not I thoroughly enjoy the Stephen King novella that this 2007 film was based upon. I read it as part of the horror master's 1985 Skeleton Crew collection, one of those captivating King anthologies like Night Shift that you sit down to read a page or two of, but you can't come up for air again until the damn thing is finished. This would be three quarters of a Sunday later, with your perturbed wife giving you the evil eye because you didn't do anything on the honey-do list.
As it turns out, The Mist movie proves to be an improvement of something you didn't think needed improving. If it ain't broke don't fix it, your wizened Grandfather used to say, but contrary to what he thought, sometimes people can tweak good things just a little to make them even better.
The biggest difference between the written and cinematic version is the shocking ending. The ending is a real unanticipated ass kicker, to put it mildly. In the novella the story gradually peters out, as the survivors of a pestilential infestation from another dimension take refuge in a motel, where they tune into the radio for signs of hope. In the movie finale, on the other hand, the door slams shut painfully, on your foot. The unexpected fate of the protagonist is a gut-wrencher, a blow to the solar plexus, an eye widening spectacle of utter disbelief. For those of you accustomed to Pollyanna endings at your favorite theatrical outings, this is a cruel joke. You are either going to leave the theater in jaw dropping awe of this earth shaking conclusion, or screaming at the manager for your money back.
The Mist director Frank Darabont is Stephen King's go-to guy, having previously directed both The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, to great success and accolades. The latter is another movie better than the book that I could have included here, had I thought about it in time. Darabont also penned the script that includes the disquieting alteration of The Mist's fantastic finish. To his credit, Stephen King enthusiastically embraced the tweaking of his tome, and the result is a picture that collider.com, for one, calls "...One Of The Ballsiest...Tales Of The 21st Century."
Hope...is the parting word of the Stephen King novella The Mist. Conversely, Despair could be the final utterance of the movie version. For the film's protagonist David Drayton, this does not mean despairing of physical survival from the evil creatures crawling in through the foggy shroud, but despairing of any hope of psychological and spiritual redemption from the dark deeds he was forced to carry out at the bleak, bitter, beautiful bummer of an ending.
Forrest Gump - From Forgettable Farce To Timeless Tale Of The American Experience
Per the dictates of full disclosure, Forrest Gump is the only movie on this very short list that I saw before reading the book. Therefore, my expectations of the novel may have been subsequently skewed. I may have been expecting something equally epic and moving, and was disappointed to discover but a distorted caricature of the cinematic masterpiece.
The novel Forrest Gump, penned by Alabamian author Winston Groom, wasn't exactly flying off the bookstore shelves prior to the movie. It sold an estimated 30,000 before its cinematic incarnation catapulted it into bestseller status of 1.7 million copies sold worldwide, one of them mine. Suddenly, the shelves at my now sadly defunct local Borders books were inundated by the tiny paperback, along with other previously ignored Winston Groom titles, such as Better Times Than These, and As Summers Die. These supernumerary Groom creations would have never made the profitable transition to paperback if not for Run Forrest becoming a catchphrase of the American experience.
Don't get me wrong, Forrest Gump was not a bad book. It was highly entertaining, but in the way that Brian Regan stand-up comedy is. I won't quite call it brain candy, if you plumbed its depths far enough you might find some kind of meaning, but on the whole it had the feel of a farce - good for some throw away chuckles, but not quite earning a place of honor on your bookshelf.
On paper we have Forrest the mathematical genius flying astronaut missions for NASA, accompanied by an aggressive Chimpanzee copilot that causes the spacecraft to crash in New Guinea, where the crew is detained by cannibals. In the next paragraph Forrest is on a ping-tong tour in China, where he saves Chairman Mao from drowning in a river, an act which makes him a hero in the People's Republic but gets him rebuked by his Cold War American handlers. Undoubtedly, Forrest Gump is an over the top film, but certain passages from the book were just too over the top to be included there.
So how, and why, did the movie change from a lighthearted frolic through the pages of history into a probing, introspective, philosophical examination of the American experience? Screenwriter Eric Roth took considerable liberties in taking the basic, superficial essence of Forrest Gump and transforming it into a barely recognizable cinematic masterpiece that resonates with Americans of all ages. Roth created the movie's most memorable lines, such as Life is like a box of chocolates. He conceived the idea of the feather in the wind as a symbol for destiny taking the individual in unexpected directions. Director Robert Zemeckis said that "Roth essential changed the Genre of Forrest Gump from a fantasy adventure book to a movie about the love, loss and growth of a generation and triumphs and joys of simplicity."
Somehow I suspect that director Robert Zemeckis is being demure, that he too had a lot to do with Gump's successful screen storytelling. Zemeckis is known for taking on projects that become part of American cultural iconography. He takes mundane caterpillars of ideas and morphs them into beautiful butterflies. Back To The Future is one such blockbuster. Castaway, another Zemeckis film starring Tom Hanks, is replete with symbolism and deeper meaning. I once saw a child shouting out Wilson!!! as he chased his wayward ball down a hill in a park. The lines from this director's movies make their way into the vernacular. Hello McFly!
But one cannot forget the role played by producer Wendy Finerman, one of the few who read Winston Groom's book before it was a movie, then struggled for nine years to have it immortalized in film. Finerman was forced to overcome resistance among Hollywood moguls who thought that slow-witted Gump was a reincarnation of Rainman. She was the first to recognize cinematic promise in the slow thinking title character, and the way in which he interacts with famous people throughout history - these being the two significant components of the book that found their way from print onto the screen. Eventually, Finerman's vision triumphed and Forrest Gump has become more than a movie, it is a cultural treasure selected in 2011 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Take Back The Water Cooler
So the next time the bothersome bookworm shows up at your waterhole, preaching his discredited doctrine of how the book is always better than the movie, don't hide in the weeds, you be the one to pounce. Turn the tables, leap out from your hiding place and floor him with these three examples. Or maybe you've actually read another book or two you can share in the comments section that disprove the general rule that the book is always better than the movie. Send the little geek scurrying back to the safety of his cubicle to lick his wounds. Do not allow the water cooler to be profaned by these loudmouthed literary lowlifes - keep it a safe, comfortable place to discuss sports, celebrities, hairdos, and juicy office gossip.