Sometimes the Movie Really Is Better

Dennis Cutchins, BYU associate professor of English, revealed his list of five movies that are better than the books that inspired them for his class during Education Week 2017, sponsored by the Humanities Center.

PROVO, Utah (Aug. 23, 2017)—“Why do we always say the book is better than the movie?” asked Dennis Cutchins. “It’s a cliche and is not always true.” Usually, the English professor explained in his Education Week class, it is because we compare some of the best literature that has ever been written with some of the worst films that have ever been made. For example, Huckleberry Finn (1975) included a thirty-year-old Ron Howard embarking on cheerful, boyish adventures as Huck. Another was Gregory Peck’s unfortunate performance as Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1956). Even the film Persuasion (1995) fell short of the original text—though Cutchins does recommend the film as a good one. We assume, because so many great stories have been poorly rendered in film, the book is always better. Cutchins suggested five elements that can make the movie better than the book.

One of those elements is definitely spectacle. One of the most spectacular movies of the 1950s was Ben-Hur. An immensely popular book in the late nineteenth century, Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ (1880) tells the story of a Jewish prince who, after enslavement by the Romans, becomes a charioteer and Christian. So influential was this novel that it was even blessed by Pope Leo XIII, the first of its kind to receive such an honor. In 1899, Ben-Hur was adapted into a stage play, including real-life sea battles and chariot races on stage. “There was a mechanism like a giant treadmill on the stage for the chariot races,” Cutchins explained. “Imagine Messala and Ben-Hur’s horses charging straight at you, running at a full gallop into the audience.”

In 1959, MGM decided to adapt the novel into a full-length feature film for the second time, building a huge, complex set that made it the most expensive movie ever produced up to that point. The chariot race in Ben-Hur is exhilarating, nail-biting—the absolute definition of movie magic as it brings Lewis Wallace’s characters into dramatic life. “Spectacle is something that books don’t do very well, but movies can do crazy stuff with it,” Cutchins said.

Unlike Ben-Hur, many movies become better than the book, Cutchins told the audience, due to the producers’ selecting a “crummy book.” The film Casablanca (1943) was based on a flop play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s (1940). The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was based on a joke story, but as a film became an interestingly political piece including scientists, press, and the army as opposing groups. Both films make complex political commentary not present in the original versions.

No director, however, was better at choosing a crummy book and making it into an incredible movie than Alfred Hitchcock. His film Rear Window (1954) was based on what Cutchins described as a “pedestrian mystery story” called It Had to be Murder (1942). In Hitchcock’s hands, the story became not a second-rate mystery, but an intense psychological thriller that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats as Jeff and Lisa uncover the truth behind the sudden disappearance of Mrs. Thorwald out of their apartment window. Moreover, Hitchcock’s film works in social commentary not found in the original story.

Another element that can elevate the movie above the book is music. Films, unlike books, can create a powerful and emotional score that, when combined with images, envelops and delights the senses. This is especially the case with the film Wizard of Oz (1939). Though L. Frank Baum’s beloved children’s stories were popular and creative, Cutchins explained that for him and many others, the original Wizard of Oz is the film featuring the beautiful singing of Judy Garland, not the books written by Baum that came first chronologically. “Sometimes the movie can become the original, not because it was first, but because its presence becomes more powerful in our minds than the book,” Cutchins closed.

Is the book always better than the movie? Absolutely not. Films and books serve different purposes, engage the imagination in different ways, and enthrall the senses differently. When comparisons between books and movies do arise, Cutchins said, the “richer and more complex the interpretation of the text is, the better it can be transferred from one form to another.” Much of reading and movie preference is subjective, and while we may prefer some texts over others personally, it is the richest texts and the richest interpretations that have survived the tests of time.

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons