Posted on July 20, 2015
Most of the time the book is better than the movie for the simple reason that a novel can transmit way more information than a movie. Sometimes, as in the case of David Lynch’s Dune and Kubrick’s The Shining, it comes out in a weird sort of tie where the movie is not really a film version of the book but is its own thing, instead, that was inspired by the book.
Movies have a tendency to compress the material and jettison things like subplots and character development — and sometimes whole characters — to spend more time on car chases and those glossy closeups of cleavage so important to cinematic vision.
But sometimes — just every now and then — the movie is actually better than the book. Blade Runner and The Big Sleep are two of the most famous examples. In both cases, the movies addressed some critical failing of the book that actually improved the original story.
Philip K. Dick, though beloved and revered by many science fiction fans, was always more of an idea man than a writer. Way back in the 1970s he came up with all the big ideas that dominate the world we are actually living in today.
Whether it’s Androids (what happens to human identity when the difference between us and the machines we make is barely perceptible?) or Minority Report (just because we can predict the future, should we intercede in it?) or Second Variety (when machines get smart enough to improve themselves, what will they need us for?), he found it far easier to communicate the idea than to embed it in a quality story.
I know, I know: Torches and pitchforks.
But if you really go back and read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, you’ll see that Dick had a sloppy, seat of the pants way of going about story telling. There’s even a bizarre interlude in Androids where Deckard is arrested for being a replicant and taken to a police station. It turns out that it’s a fake police station staffed entirely by replicants, which makes no sense at all in the world of the book.
Also, the replicants in the story aren’t tortured by their limited life spans, they’re just psychopaths who hate humans. Rachel tries to kill Deckard, then seduces him and then tries to kill him again. Let’s just say that the empathic difference between humans and replicants in the story (Androids is actually a long story, not a book) doesn’t require a Voight Kampff test.
The love story between Deckard and Rachel in the movie is what gives the movie its heart and the coming to terms with mortality that Roy Batty goes through gives it its soul. Neither of these things is in the story Dick wrote.
Onward to The Big Sleep.
If my fairy godmother popped into my office just now and offered me the ability to write like anyone from history, it would come down to a tough choice between Hemingway and Raymond Chandler. I mean, I would choose Stephen King’s storytelling ability if given that choice, but if it came down to pure style, it would be Ernie or Ray.
The problem is neither one of those men understood women for shit and Chandler may have actively hated them. His stories are so misogynistic that you have to keep telling yourself that he’s a product of his times and the alcohol was really getting to him by then and so on just to get through some of his books.
The fact that I saw the movie version of The Big Sleep before I read the book really drives home the difference. Again, it’s the missing love story and the sociopathic woman that the movie fixes for the book. The romance between Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge, hard edged as it is, in the movie is a damn sight better than their empty, angry relationship in the book.