It’s a recurring debate; which was better, the book or the movie? I’ve been asked my opinion on this weighty question any number of times, and usually I get the impression that much of the time people just want to hear me declare that books are always better. It’s not true. Usually, but not always. The thing is, they are two such different media, and each has certain advantages. Most obviously, movies can show you, in one frame, what it would take pages to describe, and actors in movies, good ones anyway, with good scripts and directors behind them, can show you in one gesture what can be fiendishly difficult to get down on paper. The Achilles heel of movies is running time. Catch-22, for example, only succeeds as a film by cutting out ninety-some percent of the novel. The movies which I feel are better than the books they’re based on are based on books that are sloppily written, in which case the Achilles heel can be an advantage.
I used to know two films that fell into this category; one is Little Big Man and the other I can’t recall offhand. Then, I recently fell in love with a picture called Sideways. Miles, a wine snob and unsuccessful novelist, takes Jack, a narcissist and hack actor, on a tour of California wine country for one last week of bachelorhood before Jack’s wedding. The film is nothing short of gorgeous. The dialogue is spare and well-written. The scenes are perfectly chosen and timed, filled with brilliant grace notes. The acting and direction are sublime.
Three times I watched this thing, and then decided I had to read the book, to see what gems had been left out. Three hundred and fifty-one pages later, the answer was: none. Turned out this was one of those film treatments that starts with the bare bones of a book and throws the rest of the carcass away, and that’s a good thing. The book, a first novel by a screenwriter, manages to be simultaneously over- and under-written. Sections of script-like dialogue are interrupted by adjective-heavy passages of description. Or vice versa:
The sun was lowering In the sky, obscured by mist and smog. Its waning rays cast a harsh reflection on the mirrored and tinted fenestration of the city without end and beat mercilessly through our windshield with an angry, crimson ferocity. The mention of Victoria at Epicurus had dampened my usual post-tasting loquaciousness.
“You’ve got to wash this windshield,” Jack said.
“I haven’t had time. I’ve got other things on my mind.”
Fortunately, almost none of the book’s dialogue makes it into the script. All sorts of lumbering plot elements are jettisoned, and the rest are stripped clean. There’s a scene in the book, for instance, in which Miles steals $2000 from his mother in order to pay for the trip. He excuses himself from the dinner table in order to get into her floor safe, but can’t remember what year she was born, which is part of the safe’s combination. See, we’re pointing out something about his relationship with his mother. But you’d think he could guess it within a few years, and try out those numbers. Instead, hiding behind the door, he beckons Jack from the table, tells him he needs him to find out the year, Jack sits back down, finds out, gets up again to pass on the info, and, maybe half an hour later, Miles rejoins the party. Excuse me? In the film, one throwaway line tells us that Miles doesn’t know his mother’s age, and the money is hidden in a fake Ajax can.
And where is Miles’ book in the book? His failure to get published is key to his behavior through much of the story, but we don’t even know what his book is about. Instead of the film’s heartbreaking scene between Miles and Maya which begins with her asking about the book and ends up exploring the mysteries of wine and love, in the book, when Maya asks about his novel, Miles simply says ‘It’s a mystery.’ Larf.
Perhaps the most disappointing difference between the book and the film is that in the book, the characters are at the mercy of the plot. We really get very little sense of who they are. Broad strokes, as they say in the business. Whereas in the film, the events of the plot unfold naturally from the subtle hints about the characters that we are shown in the opening scenes.
Oh, yeah; and in the movie, wine, which in the book is really just a plot device, rises to the level of metaphor.