Books are Usually Better than the Movies, but Why?

I remember in my college days fresh out of high school reading the Ken Kesey classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest. That novel sucked me like I was a bit of plankton caught up in the path of a whale shark. I was practically on the edge of my seat reading as R.P. McMurphy butted heads with one of literature’s all time greatest villains, the dreaded Nurse Ratched. I found myself sympathizing with the narrator, Chief Bromden and thoroughly enjoying his character arc from seeing himself as a tiny weak man to having the strength and courage break free of the confines of the mental institution. The first thing I did when I finished the novel was drive down to my local Blockbuster (I’m showing my age here) and rented the movie. The movie stared Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy, so how could I go wrong, right?

Awards Don’t Always Equate to Greatness

The 1975 film swept the Oscars with the top 5 awards: best picture, best screenplay, best director, best actress, and best actor. It has a 93% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.7 star rating on IMDB. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this must be the greatest film of all time. At the very least, for that year, it’s not like there were better films made in 1975.

I didn’t write this article with the sole intent of bashing a movie that everyone else in the world loves. In all honesty, it’s not a bad a movie, the book just happens to be better. The movie seems to miss the point of the book. In the movie, the main character is R.P. McMurphy and the story is primarily told from his perspective, whereas in the novel, the entire story is told from Chief Bromden’s perspective as he observes R.P. McMurphy. This makes Bromden’s escape from the institution all the more triumphant because the reader witnesses first hand the impact McMurphy has on him. The novel is short at just over 300 pages, so there’s no real excuse to leave out such an important part of the book.

The fact is, awards really mean nothing. Steven Spielberg not only pioneered what is known today as blockbuster movies, but took an unprecedented approach in filming Jaws. Jaws was what is known as a director’s film because creating a film out in the open ocean with a mechanical shark that kept breaking down was an accomplishment all of its own. I look at Jaws the same way I look at Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, where a part of what makes it such a great film is the fact that no movie with such a popcorn flick kind of concept has any right to be as good as they turned out to be. Sure, they aren’t perfect films, but they certainly exceeded expectations. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said form movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest which subverted expectations by changing a crucial part of the source material.

Change is Not Always Bad

I am anything but a purist when it comes to book to movie adaptations. In theory, the movie adaptation of a book should be the most complete form a given story is capable of being told. Books have the disadvantage of only having one creative mind working on it in one medium (print), with very few people, if any, telling him “No.” Movies have at least one screenwriter, actors, a composer, and a director of photography all adding their input into the process with the visionary mind of the director splicing together the different forms of media to create a finished product. In a sense, the movie should be perfect.

Most books are too long to fit every detail into a run time of 2 hours, but the question is, what are they changing and why? As I stated above, On Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest, in my humble opinion, changed one of the most important aspects of the book, which is what makes it inferior. Spielberg changed a boatload from the source material to create his blockbuster masterpiece Jaws. One of the most notable changes was the way the shark dies. In the book, the shark dies from a harpoon wound from quint, who subsequently gets tangled in the rope and gets taken under water where he drowns to death. This isn’t exactly the most climactic ending to the unstoppable killing machine, so Spielberg decided to kill the shark by blowing up from a scuba tank filled with what I can only assume to be C4 explosives. This was a change that the books author, Peter Benchley, lobbied so hard against that he got kicked off of the set.

Or maybe it was for looking like a complete dork.

Another change Spielberg made to the movie was by making the main characters stay out at sea during the entire voyage. In the book, they would return back to port every night. Spielberg felt that by having them stay out at sea, it would create a sense of isolation and create more believable tension between the characters. These are relatively simple and logical changes that writer’s tend to have a blind spot to and only emerge when other creative minds get involved to retell the story in a different medium.

Jaws is not a unique phenomenon There’s a lot of movies that are better than the books; Jurassic Park was certainly an improvement on the 400 pages of expositional drivel posing as literature. And Steven Spielberg doesn’t have an monopoly on making better movies out of books, either. Martin Campbell turned the boring cold war spy thriller Casino Royal into an exceptional action/adventure thrill ride while staying true to the source material.

Dumbing Down is Usually Necessary

Books have the advantage of essentially being as long as the author wants the material to be and the writer can explain things in a completely different manner. The author can dedicate several pages to explaining how a machine operates or in Michael Crichton’s case, give you a complete crash course in the theory of cloning and Chaos Theory. However, I would argue that such detailed analysis of such theories would slow down the plot of any story told in any medium no matter how interesting the theory may be.

Movies need to explain things quick and to the point. It doesn’t matter how realistic the situation is, all the viewer needs to do is buy it within the context of the film, which was Spielberg’s quoted rational for blowing up the shark with a scuba tank. A good example of this would be the 1986 remake of The Fly. Teleportation and gene splicing humans with insects, even 34 years later, is an impossibility. The movie, however, develops a set of rules for the process of teleportation and gene splicing that it sticks to 100%, so when the full Brundlefly emerges from his cocoon of human flesh, the viewer doesn’t second guess the plausibility of the scenario.

“Now that’s Chaos Theory.”

Conclusion: It All Comes Down to Vision

As I believe I somewhat proved in this article, there is no rule that the book is always going to be better than the movie. It has nothing to do with being unable to cram everything that’s in the book and presenting it on screen. Instead, what it comes down to, is either subpar directors that have a complete lack of vision or passion for adapting the source material or they simply don’t fully understand the book they are adapting. The changes Steven Spielberg made in Jaws and Jurassic Park came about because he had a vision that he was passionate about. He understood the mechanics of film making and storytelling, something Peter Benchley and Michael Crichton lacked, and this led to him creating 2 of best book to movie adaptations ever made.

If the movie sucks, but it’s still better than the novel, does that count?

This same theory in the mechanics of storytelling can be applied to any adaptation, whether it be videogames or remakes.

2 thoughts on “Books are Usually Better than the Movies, but Why?

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  1. Interesting to read your views. I loved the film AND the book personally, for different reasons. You’re right, the Chief is a much more fully-rounded and central character in the book. I also find the ‘outing’ of his fake disability when he speaks in the film, that scene with the chewing gum, much less convincing than in the book (which happens during a fire, if I remember correctly).

    But I still love the film: the performances (Jack Nicholson is both insufferable and charming, as he should be, and Louise Fletcher is chilling), the music (in the last scene it’s so powerful, gives me shivers down my spine), but most of all the humour. I think it’s a lot funnier than the book, actually – which makes the horror and tragedy, when it comes, all the more shocking.

    I like it better than Jaws or Dog Day Afternoon, myself. But it’s always interesting to read a different point of view!

    1. Hello Oliver’s Twist,

      Thank you for your input. Yes, I definitely loved Jack Nicholson’s portrayal and even as I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but image him as R.P. McMurphy (mainly due to his popularity in the role). I knew I was definitely taking a risk criticizing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but I figured it’d be a fresh take on a subject that has had multiple articles written about. There certainly are tons of other movies to pick from where the movies are much worse than the book: The Stand, Dreamcatcher, most of the Harry Potter movies, etc. I do give One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest credit for improving on the ending, and making it a gut wrenching shock instead of the slow burn reveal (although, I do understand why Kesey chose to do it that way, but the way it’s revealed in the movie works much better).

      Matthew Bachman

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