22 July 2009


There has arisen amongst people who consider themselves intelligent a misguided and meaningless truism, that the book is always better than the movie. This, of course, is hardly true. Many bad books have been made into good movies; many good books have been made into better movies. The idea that a book can be better or worse than a movie, in fact, is absurd in itself: the two media are drastically different, tell stories in different ways and have different strengths and limitations. Quick: whose Faust do you prefer, Goethe's or Liszt's? You don't know, you can't know, because we don't equate literature and music in the same way that we equate literature and film. Goethe's Faust and Liszt's Faust are both fantastic works, but they function so differently that comparison is pointless. I love B. Traven's book, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I love John Huston's film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I'd never presume to compare them. Why must you read all of this? Because, despite using all this space to proclaim my disbelief in lit-to-film comparisons, I'm going to compare a book to a film. The Godfather (film) : The Godfather (book) :: Marlon Brando in The Godfather : Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau. One is significantly larger (the latter, in both cases), while the other is clearly much better (the former, obviously, again in both cases, again obviously). Mario Puzo's writing is OK, but it's not Francis Ford Coppola's direction, and he doesn't have Brando, Pacino, Caan, Duvall, et al bringing his characters to life. The result is a story that's flat where the film isn't, that's unnecessarily long because even rather peripheral characters are needlessly developed and their stories all brought equally unnecessary closure, and that operates in a strange kind of episodic fashion, but one in which the episodes overlap without seeming to overlap. Time, it seems, functions oddly in Puzo's book, and not to the author's advantage. There is little, in fact, to recommend Puzo as an author, the film's brilliance thus suggesting either that he really stood out as a screenwriter or that actors and directors really do matter. I'd go with the latter, and I'd also give this book a C+. It was still plenty exciting.

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