Skip to content

Books vs Movies – which tells a “better” story?

2009 March 25
by SarahLeia

After watching “The Handmaid’s Tale”, I couldn’t stop thinking about a review I read of the “Watchmen” movie. (Forgive me, I didn’t save the link, and I couldn’t find it through google!) Basically, the gist of the review was that there seems to be an assumption today that a film version of a novel is the ultimate form of storytelling; for stories to remain important (or in some cases to even become culturally relevant), they must be made into movies. One of the main attractions of the “Watchmen” movie was that it was based on a novel that had been tossed around for years between directors and studios. Much of the press leading up to the movie’s release emphasized how long fans have been waiting to see their story “come alive” on screen. And I understand why people feel excitement about this – for those who have spent a significant amount of time with a story, seeing someone else’s visual interpretation can be exciting. As much as I hate the “Harry Potter” movies, I still eagerly anticipate their release. I spent a good part of my childhood with those stories, and it’s fun for me to see what the film decides to keep in and leave out. But Harry Potter is a lot less complicated than Watchmen, and I am unsure that a movie should have been made of Watchmen at all. There is a difference between movies and novels in terms of how they tell their story, and I think this stems from the difference in how they are able to represent things to be able to tell their story.

I agree with Anne and Laura about the 1990 “Handmaid’s Tale” – it was a bad movie. The movie made the story feel unimportant. I found that I barely felt any emotion towards Offred. What’s interesting about this is that I really loved the story in the novel and had reason to feel a connection with her character – so why did I dislike the movie so much? I think this is because making the book into a movie fundamentally changed the focus of the story. While it was clear that the narrative of the movie was designed to follow Offred’s life, I don’t think the movie was able to really tell her story as effectively as the novel did because it was not narrated by her. As the title of the book itself indicates, the book is the tale of a single handmaid – we see the world through her eyes, and hear only her experience of it. While we are offered glimpses of how the other characters in the novel feel about everything, we only get this through conversations Offred has with them.

The movie, however, looks at Offred’s story from the outside, and also goes more into the stories of some of the other characters (for example, we actually learn what the commander does!). While the movie does track Offred’s life in the same way that the novel does, it has the limitation of actually having to show visually show Offred interacting with everyone else without hearing an explanation from her about it. This is where the difference between writing and film usually happens, in my opinion. Because an actor can only show so much about what the character is thinking without explicitly stating it, movies rely more on the viewpoint of the camera itself to tell the story. It’s as if a third person is adding their perspective onto the story altogether. In the case of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, I think this is why we get a much more sexualized version of Offred. To make her more appealing to the camera, Offed’s outfit is much more free than the novel’s description of the outfit. The camera “person” then tells Offred’s story by focusing more on the outside, or the way that others see Offred. There seems to be more emphasis on the sexual moments of the story in the movie, and the only flashbacks we get to her previous life are those that are shown as dreams Offred is having. The camera doesn’t go inside of Offred’s mind until the very end – a part which doesn’t even exist in the novel. The things that make the story compelling in novel form are, for the most part, gone in the movie.

I see this happen a lot in book-to-movie transitions. Movies are usually more visual, whereas novels seem to have a lot more space for explanation and backstory. When I read novels, I do read them as scripts, in a way. I track the story by creating a movie interpretation of my own as I go along. But this movie I have in my head has a running narrative, and most real-life movies cannot, and do not, have that. Books and novels are clearly very different representative technologies, and they tell stories in very different ways. And it is important to note that neither one is more definitive or important than the other. They acheive entirely different things. Stories can be effective in many different ways, depending on what sort of story it is.

It’s worth mentioning here that I haven’t seen “Watchmen” yet, but I have read enough reviews of it to know that the story and subsequent message of the novel are muddled by the film. Of course I may have a different opinion of it once I watch it for myself, I can’t assume that I will have the same experience as other reviewers did. But I think the fact that there are so many violently negative reactions to the movie proves that the Watchmen movie’s narrative just doesn’t work the same way that the graphic novel does. The original novel itself is already illustrated, and I’ve seen interviews with Zack Snyder where he talked about wanting to make the movie look very much like the original novel did. So those of you who have seen the movie and read the novel, is this obvious to you while watching the movie? And does the same sort of warping of the story occur on screen? I can imagine that it would. The entire Watchmen novel is very complicated Even though the characters are visually present as we read the novel, I still can’t imagine a 3 hour movie being a successful retelling. But I plan on seeing “Watchmen” this weekend, and I’ll probably come back to this post to add my thoughts on this topic post-movie.

(PS, minor question about a part of the Handmaid movie – with the Commander at the end, why was he holding a gun? He said something about not being able to shoot it, and I couldn’t understand what he was talking about…was it just some metaphor for his infertility? Or was a specific reference to something he actually hadn’t been able to do?)

2 Responses
  1. Hannah Mueller permalink
    March 25, 2009

    After seeing The Handmaid’s Tale movie, I was thinking that this kind of book–“speculative fiction,” if we want to call it that, where the author invents a new kind of society–is probably the least likely to be made into a good movie. There’s just so much to establish at the beginning about the imagined world, that I think it’s much easier to do in 20 pages than in 20 minutes. It’s even harder to represent a situation of oppression, like Offred’s, because much of the struggle is internal. I don’t think the movie made much of an attempt to portray her inner conflict–her suicidal impulses are pretty central to the themes of the book, I thought, but get left out of the movie. She also doesn’t escape to the past, as she does constantly in the book.

    I think you’re right when you say the aspects that make the novel compelling are all but gone in the movie. I guess I’m a little biased, though, because when a movie is from the 80s or early 90s and has a lower budget, it sets me up to laugh at it (having watched mystery science theater with my brother for years).

    One thing about Watchmen–I’ve only seen the trailer, but I was initially very surprised by how much the design and feel of the film looked like what I had imagined. Then I remembered that everyone has the same images, because it’s a graphic novel. Made me wonder why we still feel the need to make it into a movie, since it’s already “brought to life” on the page to a certain degree.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale (2010 adaptation: Getting Tail) | Gender and Technology Spring 2009

Comments are closed.