But Have You Read the Book?

I don’t read fiction. Okay, let me soften the shock. I used to read a lot of fiction throughout my pre-college and undergraduate years, and most of that was connected to literature courses. Those readings ran the gamut from William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allan Poe to John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and, of course, Ayn Rand. From ancient and Renaissance classics to modern novels and plays, even works in world and comparative literature, I’ve read quite a bit.

But as nonfiction reading for research, writing, and pleasure became a way of life, I saw that I was gravitating more and more to the consumption of fiction by way of the cinematic arts—as offered in film and television. For me, having read literally thousands of nonfiction books over a lifetime, I don’t find eye relief by reading even more in the realm of fiction.

Don’t get me wrong. I love stories. It’s just that I’ve grown to enjoy storytelling by way of cinema and all that cinema has to offer—from its unforgettable images and performances to its glorious scores. I love how cinema brings fiction—and even history (accurate or not)—to life.

That made my recent reading of a new nonfiction book—Kristen Lopez’s Turner Classic Movies guide, But Have You Read the Book: 52 Literary Gems That Inspired Our Favorite Films (Running Press, 2023)—all the more interesting. Lopez’s book doesn’t offer in-depth comparative analyses of the various works it covers but it does offer fascinating discussions of films that have been faithful to, departed from, or fully upended the books upon which they are based.

The books and film adaptations that Lopez discusses are arranged chronologically and include these 52 standouts: Frankenstein (1931), The Thin Man (1934), Wuthering Heights (1939), Rebecca (1940), To Have and Have Not (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Psycho (1960), Dr. No (1962), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Haunting (1963), In Cold Blood (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1967), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), True Grit (1969), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Last Picture Show (1971), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), The Godfather (1972), Jaws (1975), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), The Shining (1980), Blade Runner (1982), The Color Purple (1985), The Princess Bride (1987), Goodfellas (1990), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), The Joy Luck Club (1993), Jurassic Park (1993), The Remains of the Day (1993), Clueless (1995), Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), The Virgin Suicides (1999), Cruel Intentions (1999), Fight Club (1999), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Children of Men (2006), No Country for Old Men (2007), Coraline (2009), The Social Network (2010), The Hunger Games (2012), The Great Gatsby (2013), Call Me By Your Name (2017), Crazy Rich Asians (2018), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Little Women (2019), Dune (2021), and Passing (2021).

I’ve seen about 80% of those films but have read only about a dozen of the books discussed in this work. Spoilers abound throughout, but what’s really nice is how Lopez delves into the context of the various movie adaptations, which often helps us to understand why there are such differences between the literary and cinematic arts. There’s a lot of Hollywood history here, including an exploration of how the Hays Code impacted earlier adaptations. Many interesting sidebars offer information on other adaptations of the various works under consideration. Even the book’s illustrations (by Jyotirmayee Patra) are lovely additions to the text.

There are tons of omissions—but that’s to be expected in a guide of this sort. I was, however, particularly pleased with how Lopez challenges us to rethink our presupposition that the book is always better than the film. Indeed, certain films offer streamlined improvements upon their source materials. For example, Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws, included a whole subplot involving an affair between Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss in the film) and Brody’s wife, Ellen (played by Lorraine Gary) that would have needlessly cluttered the Spielberg masterpiece.

As an author myself, I genuinely appreciated Lopez’s shining final sentences, in which she expressed gratitude to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for providing “a place of quiet and respite in the final months of writing this. Thank you for allowing me to indulge my inner Jack Torrance in your beautiful hotel.” All work and no play, y’know [YouTube link].

A nice guide for film buffs and fiction fans alike. Check it out!

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