Friday, July 9, 2010

Book or Film? The Time Traveler's Wife

I have for a long time been of the opinion that if you're going to see a movie based on a book, and you haven't read the book, that you should watch the movie first. I think there have been relatively few times where I've read both the book and the seen the movie; I tend to be interested in story more than a particular format, and, for good or bad, appreciate formats that give me an engaging narrative in a relatively compact manner. Hence my attraction to visual media like film and comics. It's not, as my friends sometimes tease me, because I can't read, or don't like reading, or have a short attention span. There are simply so many wonderful stories out there, I want to experience as much as I can with the limited time that a lifespan affords.

But I digress.

Last night, my wife and I watched The Time Traveler's Wife together. It was well done and entertaining, and like no other film I've seen perhaps, used science fiction to tell a love story. The film doesn't spend much time at all explaining the why of Henry's condition (it's, um, genetic), but that serves the story well, as it's too easy to ruin a serious movie with ridiculous science. Although it's a major plot point, the time travel aspect is handled delicately and deliberately so as not to distract from the essence of the story. I remarked to my wife at one point, "That must be what it's like to live with someone with a mental illness." The unusual nature of Henry's and Claire's marital stress enables the audience to detach enough from the particulars so that they can think more about the big picture of Henry's and Claire's relationship- and maybe not just theirs, but relationships in general. What it means to love a person when they're young and old, and what it means to have to try to learn to live without them. The Time Traveler's Wife frames those questions in a really unique and compelling way.

If you have access to the DVD, whether you've seen the film or are planning to, make sure you watch the special feature documentary The Time Traveler's Wife: Love Beyond Words. More than a making-of, it's a thought-provoking discussion about the process of turning a novel into a script, one of the best "making-of" documentaries I've seen recently. It really enhanced my experience with the film and made me interested in reading the book as well.

Which brings me back to the beginning. One of the interviewees in the documentary compared film to short stories, in that, unlike novels, they both often center around a single cataclysmic event. This could explain why some of the best film adaptations have been from short stories- Brokeback Mountain immediately comes to mind (as does a book I have perused and will most likely purchase Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen: 35 Great Stories That Have Inspired Great Films edited by Stephanie Harrison). I have heard many complaints over the years from people who were disappointed in a film because of how much of the book it left out. But I've always considered that kind of dissatisfaction to be a betrayal of a lack of understanding of the nature of visual storytelling. A movie that tries to be a book is often awkward and dry because there are things that words on a page can accomplish that moving pictures can't. And vice versa. Eric Bana, I believe, mentioned that the best film adaptation of a novel is one that is faithful to the intent of the book but tells its own story. I'm inclined to agree wholeheartedly.

I did an experiment a while back to try to answer, at least for myself, whether it was better to read the book or see the movie first. The prevailing wisdom seemed to be that it was better to read the book first, because the movie would mess with your imagination and give away the ending. But then these same people were the ones complaining about how the movie couldn't live up to its textual counterpart because of everything it would leave out. So I went to see Jurassic Park then read the book, and sometime later I read The Client and then watched the movie. I will grant that there is no control in this experiment, and one could easily dismiss my conclusions on the merits (or lack thereof) of either book or film in both cases. Nevertheless, since my initial experiment, the general conclusions I came to have been reinforced by various other book/movie experiences throughout the years.

One the one hand, I enjoyed Jurassic Park immensely. CGI was really starting to hit its stride by then and we believed that being stalked by velociraptors in the kitchen was actually within the realm of possibility. Then I read the book, which had a completely different ending and enjoyed that immensely as well. There were a number of additional scenes in the book, which was like being able to get more of a good thing when you thought it was over, and it was fun noting while I was reading where changes had been made and even speculating why. And, yes, I did picture Sam Neill and Ariana Richards while I was reading, but who cares? I got two excellent experiences from the same basic plot.

On the other hand, the novel by John Grisham was exciting and nerve-wracking and I could hardly put it down. I couldn't wait for the movie to come out because I'd liked the book so much. But you know what? I hated the movie. Do you know why? Because I didn't like the changes they made and what was left out. And, because the movie was the last version of the story I saw, it's what has stayed with me over the years. Not only was my experience with the film disappointing, it superseded my memories of the novel.

I haven't read any of the Lord of the Rings books (I don't want to hear it), but I've seen all the movies. I trust that when I get around to reading Tolkien's masterpieces, I will relish the additional details and adventures involving those time-beloved characters. I read the first four Harry Potter books before watching the films and the films were ho-hum. Been there, done that. I saw The Half-Blood Prince in the theater before reading the book and was transfixed. And the best part is that I know I can get more where that came from if I want it.

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