Movies Based on Books: Why Should I Read if I’ve Already Seen?

Filmmakers in the 21st generation are remaking classics into cheesy films. There is nothing more discouraging than seeing Dr. Doolittle played by Eddie Murphy instead of Rex Harrison; Willie Wonka being played by Johnny Depp instead of Gene Wilder; and Dawn of the Dead being redone at all. Not to mention the new release of War of the Worlds, which had nothing to do about anything; and the Poseidon Adventure (which was bad to begin with) being released as Poseidon, which can only be better.

Nonetheless, there are always students (my children included) who want to know why they must read the book if they have already watched the movie. There is nothing more frustrating than explaining why an older version of a movie was better, let alone the book. I try to explain that the “book” is far more significant and provides the reader the opportunity to “imagine” or to “be part of” the dialog and text. There are several Internet searches that will pull up an entire list of books made into movies – try keywords “books made into movies.”1,2 (Omit quotation marks and period)

One does not need to read the Bible (Old Testament, New Testament, or both) from cover to cover to know it is the basis for many movies, including The 10 Commandments, The Robe, Ben Hur, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Exodus, Passion of the Christ, Godspell, Jesus of Nazareth, and Mary and Joseph. In addition, Miracle on 34th Street, and It’s a Wonderful Life are only two such movies based on the Christmas season; they too, refer to the Bible. Lets not forget horrible made-for-TV version of Noah’s Ark3,starring John Voit, released in 1999.That was so far removed from reality that considering it to be based on the Bible is almost sacrilegious. There are close to 100 movies that have been based on the Bible in one way or another.4

Fans of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. can attest to the fact that the movie version of Slaughterhouse 55 was a very poor representation of the book. Science fiction is best left to the pages of books where readers are free to set themselves afloat in the atmosphere of the planet, Tralfamadore, and into the brain of the main character who has been abducted by aliens-a very unique concept for the 1970s. Books such as those by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. enlighten the mind of the reader and encourage imagination. There is more room to incorporate character personalities and the reader has the opportunity to climb into the writer’s head, so to speak. At this writing, a movie version of Cat’s Cradle, another Vonnegut classic, is in progress. Again, it is strongly advised that the book be read before seeing the movie-one can only appreciate a movie if it is clear that it coincides with the book.

V.C. Andrews fans who read her first novel, Flowers in the Attic, began a cult following of several subsequent titles; some published after she passed away. Many anxiously waited for and attended viewings of Flowers in the Attic6 only to be disappointed by a poorly acted version of the book. One viewer comment basically says it all, “âÂ?¦ feeble adaptation of a powerful book.” Many believe Flowers in the Attic was the best book written by the author-hopefully, it was the last movie adaptation.

Cheaper by the Dozen was a wonderful autobiography of the Gilbreth family of Providence, RI written in 1948. The movie7, released in 1950, was also wonderful, but could only show enough of the story as time (and acting) would allow. While Steve Martin may be the 21st century’s answer to all slapstick family movies, he just can’t do justice to the antiquity of the genre. Updating old books to newer times is something that should be done with extreme caution, because it usually doesn’t work. It is important to know and read the source genre to fully understand any movie or play.

The legend of Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes8 is a 500 year-old book which has been made into no less than 15 movies. Man of La Mancha9, a theatrical musical, and the movie are about the life of the author, Miguel de Cervantes, and how he saved the script of Don Quixote.

The screenplay Hair was a wonderfully articulate, very rebellious, nude play that was definitely anti-war, pro-“hippie,” staged in the era of the Vietnam War. The movie, Hair10, although full of the same wonderful music, has absolutely nothing to do with the book/screenplay. In fact, the movie appears to be written around the music. Even though there is a slight hint of the hippie era, it is definitely not the carrying theme of the movie. Released five years after the end of the Vietnam War, those who flocked to see it were generally too young to relate to the war, or, if they could relate, the movie didn’t. For those who have never read the play, it is available for purchase at any bookstore. Fans of the music enjoyed the movie and choreography (which was admirable), but Claude coming from Oklahoma should not be singing Manchester, England and although the Black Boys/White Boys songs were humorous, it was clearly a jab at the military-in a way that was not done in the 1970s.

The story of Joseph in the book of Genesis in the Bible (or Old Testament) and the movie and play Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat11 have almost nothing to do with each other. While in essence, the Story of Joseph is about a young boy sold to Egyptians by his hateful brothers, who ends up saving his family from starvation, it is clearly not Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. While the story may be similar to an extent, the message of the musical is Any Dream Will Do. The musical gives the impression that if you aim high, as Joseph apparently did (which is not quite clearly defined), you’ll get far. That message may be fine, but it has nothing to do with the story of Joseph, which is one of compassion and forgiveness. The musical is wonderful, but the message is lost. Those who see the play with no background in at least the most basic of religious education will leave the production humming the melodies, but won’t have the slightest idea of what they were supposed to “learn” or “experience.”

Jesus Christ Superstar12 is a far cry from the New Testament. Many people who watch the movie (there are at least two versions) or see the play, but don’t have knowledge of the New Testament, might notice that all the pieces of the puzzle don’t necessarily fit together. They are often relieved to learn that the pieces don’t fit-because it’s a movie. Actually, it’s a rock opera, because there are no spoken words; everything is sung. The one beautiful advantage of the original movie was the exquisite scenery, filmed on location in Israel. Since no one was there, anything based on the Bible is open to speculation and interpretation, but the town square selling electronics and postcards, Herod throwing bagels across the swimming pool, AND the guards running away from military aircraft stretch the line between fiction and biblical history.

Theater goers love musical theater, and many of the musicals (movies and/or screen plays) started as books, including Dr. Doolittle (originally released in 1967)13, La Cage Aux Folles14, A Christmas Carol (several versions), Anna and the King of Siam (The King & I)15, Auntie Mame (Mame!)16, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)17, Les Miserables18, Homer’s Odyssey (O Brother, Where Art Thou?)19, Phantom of the Opera20, Pygmalion (My Fair Lady)21. The musicals are wonderful, but most don’t give credence to the books on which they are based.

The Wizard of Oz has been remade so many times that one must wonder what the author actually intended. There is a huge amount of information and interpretation suggesting political overtones, many of which are being discussed in high schools around the country.22Oz23, released in 1976, suggested Dorothy was a groupie with a rock and roll band; The Whiz24 was released in the late 1970’s, suggesting a black cast set in the inner city, and the musical production of Wicked, the Untold Story of the Witches of Oz has recently been performed on stage and will no doubt be released as a movie in the future.

There is nothing that compares to taking the luxury of crawling into a good book. Once you are familiar with the characters as created between the pages, you are no doubt waiting to see those people come to life on the big screen. In most instances, you may enjoy the movie, but be disappointed because it did not do justice to the book. That’s ok, because you’ve got the “real thing” under your belt and in your mind-there are very few movies that are better than the books on which they are based.

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