Just Like In The Movies

Books have been adapted into movies since Hollywood became the glittering city, drawing hopefuls on stardom promises since the early 20th century. I could look up which movie was the first to adapt its storyline from a novel, but I don’t want to, and that’s not this month’s thesis. But, as the cinematic empire evolved, I found myself thinking about books, and how this medium needs writers to captivate minds enough to open their wallets.

But before books came to be thanks to Johann Gutenberg’s printing press in 1555, what did people do for information and education, to spark dreams and ideas? They told stories. Before then, the poor couldn’t afford books, copying reads to parchment by candlelight was painstaking tedium and boring (could you imagine starting over if you left out a word or wrote one wrong? Yikes!), so oral retellings committed to memory was the only way to share. Not like they had TMZ, Hearst, or podcasts to rely on for such things.

Some stories are lost to time by extinction and elemental damage, unfortunately. But oral traditions in many, many other stories survived the tellings and retellings to captivate the listener in imagination, in laughter or sorrow, or a strong lesson learned. Reading is no different. Again, many thank-yous to our innovator Johann G.
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Terry Brooks, author of the Shannara series and The Magic Kingdom stories, put it best (paraphrasing mine) of this medium: “Reading is the least expensive form of entertainment, but has the most lasting impact. It forces the brain to slow down and process this information, leaving an imprint unforgettable for some time.” And the late, great Paul Harvey once said in his broadcast of a Harry Potter film adaptation release: “Directors of movies think they have the author’s story vision for a blockbuster film, but it’s readers who hold more power. That story in your hands, Reader, is your script. You, Reader, are the true director in which the words feed your imaginations’ worlds (paraphrasing also mine).”

Okay, damn! But he and Paul Harvey weren’t wrong. The books are almost always better, and I speak from experience.

At the time of the 1982 release, I was excited as hell for the adaptation of The Outsiders. You know that story, right? No? Here’s the gist without giving away the story much: a ragtag bunch of guys eventually confronts their more privileged rivals after one kills another in self-defense. There’s more themes in this story than this post permits time for, but while the book brilliantly drew out uncomfortable truths of classism and how some are more equals than others if you have enough money to get you there, the film itself didn’t capture this in the least. Seeing the move on first-night release as an eager 17-year-old, I left disappointed and pissed. Thinking it was just me and expecting the movie to live up to my exprectations, I went again the following night.

Nope–was right the first time, and spot on since seeing this film thereafter: The movie version sucks at worst and passable at best. But hey, the guys playing Two-Bit Matthews (Emilio Estevez), Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio), Sodapop (Rob Lowe), Darry (Patrick Swayze), and Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell) Curtis were/are super-easy on the eyes. I even thought Diane Ladd (Sherry “Cherry” Valance) was sexy as shit then and still so today. Still didn’t take from the fact Coppola could’ve taken the time to capture on film what Hinton did for me in her story pages–which validated Harvey’s point of the reader’s imagination being the best movie experience far better than any director can do, if he’s doing his job right as the author sure has to do. It’s also reported Roald Dahl–Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator and James and the Giant Peach author–thought the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie was atrocious, and loudly voiced his objections (it’d been reported a third into the film, he walked out). I have wondered, though, what his thoughts might’ve been on Tim Burton’s take on the same story, but at least Burton had the stinking decency to stay true to the book! We’ll never know, sadly; Dahl died in 1975.

While watching TCM with my husband Pete one Sunday morning–Noir Alley wirh Eddie Muller, to be precise—we got to talking. The films often don’t do the books justice, but authors have to give more than enough visual guides to feed a reader’s asleep-dreams as directors do for the adaptations, Coppola and Mel Stewart notwithstanding. We authors dream about our scenes, settings, titles, characters’ wardrobe; what they look like, smell like, act like, talk like, are like. But if I’ve done my storytelling job well, what my TOMM cast looks like doesn’t just matter to me, it matters to the one reading me. Say a homeschooled teenager’s reading FROST BITE on the low (his parents are super strict on his book content, and I didn’t exactly craft a work Victorian-era prudent **smirk**). Let’s also say this kid’s bisexual on the rogue. What if he’s wildly in love with my FROST BITE narrator–hey, you’ve crushed on your past book characters, don’t judge! :)–and in this kid’s dreams, my narrator’s good with this, even though he’s told me he’s sunbeam straight? Honestly, there’s nothing either of us can do about that aspect, because I’m not in that kid’s mind as Logan, my MC, is. In other words, it could be Logan’s doppelgänger belonging to this kid who’s enjoying a Luther Vandross and scented candles romp, but the author’s fictional McGuinness isn’t. Or, as the Harry Potter director cast a young unknown at the time named Daniel Radcliffe for the part, the readers and audiences may’ve had a completely different look in mind on a more personal level–their imagination Harry is green-eyed to Daniel’s blue, or their imagination Harry was a taller eleven-year-old than the one for Sorcerer’s Stone (and while on the topic, they couldn’t’ve fitted Daniel with non-Rx green-irised contacts? The movie is pretend, after all! But it’s done, and I digress.).

And then there’s our story of lore in who had to be casted as Margaret Mitchell’s Rhett Butler for the iconic film–no question Clark Gable was the only one to fit that bill (To be fair and in her defense, though I don’t claim to know if Mitchell’d had him in mind while writing GWTW, her knowing the cast so well automatically connected the actor with the character in the readers’ minds before the film came to be–much like we prefer young Elvis over old, or the late Sean Connery as the 007 James Bond.). Does this make sense?

I read a lot as a child, even more when I moved to, and lived in, 6,000-strong Page, AZ in 1980 (pop. today: 73,442, based on most recent U.S. Census compilations). I didn’t make many friends, I was quite ostracized for being different–ho-ho, much like today after shedding three writing orgs, right, #RioLinda? :). Lacking means to get around other than walking, I needed an escape from my family and nothing-to-do-in-Podunk-AZ surroundings. Books were that, like movies and drawing horses were for The Outsiders‘ narrator Ponyboy Curtis. I wore that book out reading it so much, I could near quote whole chapters from memory, which was why the film still disappoints today. Though impressive, it didn’t win me many friends or influence people, writing did. It became another escape, like some watch old movies, or play aquash, or take long distance runs for the same thing. Just like those movies, imaginations are stirred enough to find a fedora to wear like James Coburn or James Stewart did in their films. And on occasion, because of this sparking my imagination, I don’t mind rabbits, love the name Harvey, and look fierce in a fedora.

Books are the readers’ personal movie scripts they get to direct. Some readers may become writers and authors themselves as result. Some stay readers and want more scripts. We spin yarns for your imaginations. And always for ours, too. That’s doing-it-for-Johnny, “Outsider” enough for me.

3 thoughts on “Just Like In The Movies

  1. Seldom does the movie version live up to the book. Often the story is totally different. Or the character is all wrong, Jack Reacher for instance. But the movie was funny anyway. Sue Grafton wouldn’t let any of her books be made into movies. I do think Bosch on Amazon is close to the Michael Connelly books, and I’m sure it’s because Connelly is involved with the making of them. Good post.

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  2. Missye, Great post! It is so true how our imaginations bring the characters to life and when a movie is made, we struggle with seeing the person/character we saw in our minds.

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  3. We don’t know how lucky we are to have books, movies, podcasts, and the rest of it. Your example of the copier faced with having missed a few words sent chills through me as I recalled the manual typewriter I used in college. Good post.

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