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In Two Cases, Better Than the Book

James Schellenberg
Posted December 3, 2009

iamlegend-small.jpgA common saying, and I’ve said it lots of times myself: “The book was better than the movie.” It’s short-hand for the way that material that’s appealing at book length somehow loses its depth when adapted into a movie. But what about stories that improve in the conversion process?

Let’s look at two recent cases: I Am Legend and The Da Vinci Code.


I’ll look at the Dan Brown case first, since that’s most easily dispatched. The Da Vinci Code in its original book form is famous for its bad writing, and I would ordinarily defend a potboiler like this, on genre principles if not anything else. Hey, it’s apparently got thrills, spills, and chills, with all that conspiracy stuff that reads like pure fantasy to me.

Except that the snooty dismissals of Brown’s prose are entirely correct. A little while ago, I added The Da Vinci Code to my queue of audiobooks, but it’s one of only two audiobooks that I had to give up on in my history of listening to them (1.5 hours of walking to/from work every day for 5 years). People who liked the book always told me about getting caught up in the story and not being able to put it down, all that good stuff that hooks people on so-called guilty pleasures. But Brown’s writing was so shoddy on a sentence-by-sentence basis that I couldn’t get far enough into the story to get hooked, especially in the audiobook format. Had I picked up the book, my eyes could have skimmed over the deadly descriptive bits, an option not as easily done while listening to the narrated version.

The inevitable movie version came out a few years ago, but I didn’t see it until last weekend. I was pleasantly surprised by it: yes, it’s long, somewhat pointless, plagued by giant lapses in logic, unconvincing in its characterization, and massively talky. All of which it inherited from the book, as far as I can tell. The movie had one inherent advantage, however: all of Dan Brown’s descriptive passages are replaced by the lush visuals common to big-budget productions. Everything’s glossy, everything’s set in the location where it should be. The corny dialogue is still there, but the lack of description, simple as that might be, is an improvement worth noting.

iamlegend-big.jpgThe recent Will Smith vehicle, I Am Legend, boasts some of the same improvement. It’s based on a rather famous book by Richard Matheson that’s been adapted into a movie twice already (as The Last Man on Earth in the 1960s with Vincent Price and as The Omega Man in the 1970s with Charlton Heston). Now, Matheson’s book broke fresh ground on every side when it came out in 1954, but it hasn’t aged well. I read it earlier this year for the first time, and my reaction was to wonder what the fuss was all about. Part of that is the fault of all the other books and movies that have ripped it off over the years. Part of it is all the weird sexist stuff in the story (accurately reflected in the Heston version, if memory serves) that left me distinctly creeped out. The book also has a notable downer of an ending, but that’s one that I mark down in Matheson’s favour since it actually works, thematically speaking.

The I Am Legend movie starring one of the biggest movie stars on the planet turns the story – surprise, surprise – into a streamlined Hollywood version. All of the weird stuff is jettisoned, in favour of a tight focus on the leading man. I have to hand it to Will Smith, the man does carry the movie. Unfortunately, in the place of the odd sexual vibe of the book, we get… nothing, which makes just as little sense in its own way (see this angry post by Steven Barnes who can explain it better than I can). And anyone who knows what the title of the book means is in for laugh at the end of the movie, since the legend of this title is pretty much the opposite of the book’s eponymous legend.

The scenes of devastation in the movie are remarkable; this is a New York City gone without humans for only three years, and already the decay has set in, by which I mean that nature is reclaiming the concrete jungle. For all the other flaws of the movie, it definitely gets this bit right, in the vein of The World Without Us and Life After People. That visual sense of the world gone to seed is the parallel to the art and real-world locations in the movie of The Da Vinci Code.

So, to sum up: two books that were on shaky ground, in terms of their writing or subject matter, then adapted into movies that capitalized on the strengths of the medium, namely fancy visuals. I think these two movies might be a rare case!

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Any other good adaptations you can think of? Anyone else out there disappointed about the movie version of The Time Traveler’s Wife? Please add your comments below.

Comments

6 Responses to “In Two Cases, Better Than the Book”

  1. Nefarious Dr O
    December 6th, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    Like you, I loved the visuals of NYC going to seed. My only difficulty was with Wil Smith, and it took me a while to figure that out. Carol finally nailed it down for me: Wil Smith’s likable, but in this story the character he plays is the real monster, not the “dark stalkers” they’re hiding from, and it’s really hard to accept Wil Smith as a monster. Now that I understand that, I respect the movie even more because he uses that very well in how he plays the character. You shouldn’t like him, and you should be questioning his methods, the price of his “cure”. It’s subtle, and that’s rare in Hollywood, these days.

  2. Willard
    December 16th, 2009 @ 6:20 am

    I liked the movie “I Am Legend” very much. The scenes of an empty NYC were very striking and set the right tone. As with the other two movies made from Matheson’s book it is based on the book but tells a somewhat different story with a different tone. I don’t agree that we get “nothing” in the movie to replace the vibe of the book. I think what we get is a man driven by guilt and grief, which Will Smith portrays excellently. I liked the book because it was very original with many interesting ideas. I think it holds up well even today, with a lot of what’s written having two dimensional action heroes. All three movies and the book are, for me, all great variations on a theme.

  3. James Schellenberg
    December 20th, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Nefarious Dr O and Willard. Willard: I agree that Will Smith does a good job with the notions of guilt and grief. I was referring to the weird sexual vibe in the book that is completely stamped out in the movie. Specifically, there’s a scene where he has just met the only other woman he’s seen in a long time, he’s playing some Bob Marley music for her, and there’s a fade to black, but there’s definitely no sex implied in the break between scenes. See the link I included to Steven Barnes for more on this topic.

  4. Nefarious Dr O
    December 20th, 2009 @ 5:31 pm

    I fear that I’ve never read the book, but definitely think I should, now. I used to read alot of SF over the years, but so much of it seems to be alternate history/timetravel stories that I’m just not all that keen about. I can see where you’re coming from, and wasn’t really disputing anything, just mainly adding my own feeling about how ambivalent I was about his character and what I came to understand about that feeling. Now when I re-watch it the scene that really jumps out at me is when they see the pictures of all the subjects he’s used for his experiments and their reaction is shock and horror at the obvious toll he’s taking, but he’s responding as if they’re horrified by the plague that’s spread all over, not his actions. At first I’d wished that they’d made his character more clear, but in retrospect I like it that it’s more subtle. I also like how difficult of a time he has being confronted by another person, and how poorly he handles it. You’re right, though: this is the first woman he’s seen in years, and all he does is play some music for her? I guess they needed to keep that pg-13 rating, and also much of hollywood seems to be going out of it’s way to throw bones to the Christian Right in order to keep them quiet.

  5. Carol Borden
    December 20th, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

    i haven’t seen the movie, but i have read the book and i know what you mean by the weird sexual vibe, which i just sort of thought of as creepy misogyny. strangely enough, i had thought that worked very well in the book and that it was an intentional characterization. having read a bunch more matheson, i see it here and there in his other work and it’s kinda disappointing.

  6. Mr.Dave
    April 2nd, 2010 @ 1:13 am

    I recently watched Will Smith’s I Am Legend, and I think I still prefer Charlton Heston’s Omega Man although it strayed even further from the original novella. The Vincent Price movie, The Last Man on Earth, still seems to come closest to the orignal story.
    But I’m not sure that Will Smith’s character is really supposed to be a monster in this movie, the way the character is in the original novella. Perhaps the film was originally written with this possibility in mind, but it actually seemed to play out more like Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away. I understand there’s an alternate ending, but the version of I Am Legend that I watched seemed to sell Will Smith’s character as nobly and diligently giving up everything to obtain a cure, not just wantonly experimenting on the ‘dark stalker’ subjects in search of a cure for a humanity that no longer exists.

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