When The Movie Can’t Be Made From The Book

I read Dune for the first time when I was in seventh grade and I can tell you truthfully that it changed the way I looked at science fiction.  Up to that point I had been steeped in the Asimov and Heinlein approaches to the genre.  Asimov was a big brain bursting with lots of big ideas about science.  Heinlein was not as dry as Asimov but his novels were basically adventure stories for very bright boys.  Dune, on the other hand, created an entire world other than the one I lived in and did it so convincingly that I felt like I had visited the place.

Frank Herbert’s writing style also clicked with me.  Back then most science fiction writers subscribed to the “tell don’t show” method.  The beginnings of their books read like the begats part of the Bible: After the thirty years war between the Thurmons and Carollers, most of humanity fled to six different star systems: Hoar Frost, Nasalum, Groan, Pil… and it goes on like for forty pages until you’re caught up on the imagined events that led to this particular future.

I hate that stuff.  I’m smart enough to fill in the gaps when Herbert explains that thinking machines were outlawed during the Butlerian Jihad.  That’s all I have to know.  As a matter of fact, it’s all the more exciting to fill that part in with my own imagination.  And look at how much George Lucas got out of one throwaway line in Episode IV: “I fought with your father in the clone wars.”  Imagine if that line had been more like:  “Many years ago the emperor created a clone army out of…” and went on like for two pages until the speech finally ended with, “That’s when I met your dad.”

The first thing I thought about when I finished my first of many readings of Dune was: Surely someone somewhere is making a movie out of this.  I had to wait until I was in my twenties for that to actually come about.

The Shining is somewhat the opposite story for me.  I had given up reading by that time in my life – preferring to spend my time skirt chasing and drinking and talking about writing without actually doing any of it.  Science fiction had gone way too far into the fantasy genre for me and what little actual SF there was ended up being stupidly derivative.  I had been a big fan of horror movies all my life but I had never once read a horror novel – probably because I couldn’t imagine the process of reading words on a page actually being anything like terrifying.

Then I saw the trailer for the Shining when I was at the theater for some other movie.  It was brilliant.  It was just a shot of a hallway in the Overlook Hotel with the camera pointed toward the elevator.  Gradually, the elevator door began to open and a wall of blood poured out.  It was so much blood it swamped the corridor like a tidal surge of gore.  For some reason, this was the most terrifying thing I had ever seen.  I later confided in a friend of mine that I was too scared to go see the movie and he responded, “Do what I do.  Read the book first.  The movie isn’t nearly as scary when you know what’s going to happen.”

I had never heard of Stephen King at this point so I had no idea what I was in for, but suffice to say, that simple comment sparked the beginning of some serious fanbois activity on my part.  It also got me reading again, which got me writing again.  And some six months later the movie came out and I went to see it armed with the knowledge that nothing would surprise me in that theater.  Ahem…

Blade Runner is different in a third way.  I had never read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and wasn’t familiar with Phillip K. Dick when the movie came out.  Of course, this instantly became one of my favorite movies ever and I eventually ended up reading the source material only to discover that it had little to do with the movie.  The term Blade Runner actually came from a story by Alan E. Nourse called Bladerunner.  The title makes more sense when you find out Nourse’s novel was about men who smuggled medical instruments.

So… what ties these three movie going experiences together for me?  In all cases the movies were wildly different from the novels they were based on and, eventually, I came to see that as a good thing.    

Take The Shining as an example.  I hated it when I first saw it.  I was that bore who kept going on to everyone who would listen about how it lost all the best parts of the book, how it wasn’t true to the source material, how Jack Nicholson basically stole the movie when he was supposed to be the villain (See Batman a decade later).  Then I saw a made-for-television miniseries that hewed incredibly close to the novel and it was… awful.  Embarrassingly so. 

That was when I went back to the movie and watched it with new eyes.  Only then, after seeing the thing rendered letter perfect, could I see what Kubrick had done.  He took the essence of the novel, the really important parts, the bits that were photographable, and made a movie out of them.  And in the end I realized that he was far more true to the story than the miniseries that had slavishly recapitulated every scene from the book.

I had the same experience with Dune.  I eagerly settled down into my seat at the San Angelo Cinema Two along with a dozen buddies from the barracks and waited for greatness to wash over me.  What I got was the feeling that someone had slipped acid into my soda.  Those of us who were ardent fans of the book left the theater shaking our heads in confusion and disgust.  We didn’t remember anything about Sting in a bikini in the book.  And where were the complexities and political intrigue that had given the novel its rich inner motivations? 

But Dune quickly became one of my favorite late night guilty pleasures.  I literally could not pass it up when channel surfing.  If I landed even for a second on a scene from the movie I was in for the long haul no matter how late it was or how early I had to get up in the morning.

Initially, I was able to make the transition from hater because I had divorced the movie from the book and now viewed them as two separate stories.  From that vantage point the movie is a deliriously sloppy delight of avant-garde art direction and LSD inspired set design that perfectly captures the grandeur and unhinged insanity of Herbert’s story. 

I think I finally came to the realization that Lynch had done with Dune what Kubrick did with The Shining when I saw The Phantom Menace and was made to understand exactly how entertaining political intrigue at the federal level can be.  Lynch’s Dune is an opera.  The Phantom Menace is three hours of C-SPAN with the exciting parts cut out.


Blade Runner is, once again, a completely different animal from the other two movie adaptations on this list.  If you’ve read the original source material, you know that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a not very well written and not particularly insightful take on Dick’s usual topics of identity and manipulation.  But I’ve always felt that the reason Dick’s stories make such great movies is that he was a writer of ideas.  His stuff reads like first drafts that capture the idea he wants to get across but he never seemed to go back and do the story construction and character development that would have elevated them from ideas to stories. 

Bottom line: Sometimes you can’t make the movie of the book.  It’s just not possible.  Maybe the source material is too big, too complex, too narrated or just not very good.  What do you do when that happens?  You make a movie about the essence of the story.  Sometimes that works out great, as it did with these three films, and sometimes you get Ghost Story.

Note:  I left a bunch of movies, such as The Big Sleep and A Clockwork Orange, off this list to keep the length of the post manageable.  Chime in with your own suggestions.


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