Not DRIVE’n to see the movie after reading the book

The trailer for Drive, adapted from the novel by James Sallis, is out now and it got me thinking. I read Drive and liked it. The trailer looks great, the film even won best director at Cannes, which is rare for a crime drama in a non-Tarantino year. Yes, I may see the movie, but then again I may not.

As I said, I’ve read the book.

I don’t get it. People LOVE to see the movie of a book they’ve already read. In fact, box office would indicate that people are more likely to go see a movie if they’ve read the book. (Harry Potter anyone?) I have never understood why. 

I know I’m in the minority here (Again: Harry Potter anyone?) but it seems odd to me that you would want to go see a story you already know. Doesn’t that kind of take the excitement out of it? 

Yes, Hollywood changes things around, removes sections, often even changes the endings, but these things usually result in an angry backlash. I may not fully understand why you chose to go see a story you already know, but I certainly do NOT want to hear you bitch about how they “ruined” it.

The casting was wrong, they left out the best scene, that’s not how I pictured his apartment. The post-screening whining is endless when it comes to adaptations. To which I say – then why did you go? If the story was so sacred to you, why bother with someone else’s interpretation of it? Much of the thrill of reading is our mind’s ability to play director, casting agent, set designer and composer all at once.

Movie Poster: Gone with the Wind
Wait, you don’t like this casting?
The cinematic grousing goes way back, too. They may not have had message boards or Facebook pages to gripe on, but people were up in arms over casting choices in Gone With The Wind. And that film, still the record holder in most tickets sold, surely had legions of ticket buyers walking out of their 10 cent movie with a casual and derisive, “Meh. The book was better.”

I’ve always wondered if it goes the other way. How many people have seen a movie and then gone to read the book after? And how many of those people think the movie was better? 

It certainly would change the way you read. The images in your head would now match the actors on screen. An iconic scene would play out in vivid flashbacks complete with score instead of being fully rendered in your mind like reading a book fresh.

Would that hinder the reading experience? Depends on the reader I guess.

But people seem to like familiarity. It’s why series of books and movies do well. People come to know what to expect and that comforts them. Have you ever been in a theater and found the audience laughing the loudest at jokes that were in the trailer? They knew the punchline so why are they laughing now? Comfort. Familiarity.

If I know the major plot points of a film because I read the book I end up just waiting for the next mile marker to pass by on what amounts to a very flat road. The air is removed from the balloon and in a crime film trying to build suspense, I find a distinct lack of it. No suspense = no enjoyment for me.

DVD Cover of Fight Club, the movie
The first rule of thrillers is…thrill me!
If I came to be thrilled why would I want to know the secret behind the curtain? Case in point: Fight Club. Did anyone who read Chuck Palahniuk’s book have the same mind-blowing moment I did when the ending was revealed? No. They did not. If you say you did you are lying.

Speaking of David Fincher, his adaptation of Steig Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a guaranteed blockbuster just by looking at the number of books sold. Why isn’t that math reversed? Why don’t studios balk at a juggernaut of a book and think, “But X million people already read it. They won’t come to see it the same story again on screen.”

But they do. Yet another reason why I’m not studio executive. 

And the argument against cutting anything out or making any adjustments in the narrative to suit the screen vs. the page is a bunch of crap. They are two different mediums. You simply cannot put every line of a book on screen. Stop expecting it. And while you’re at it, stop comparing the two to determine which is “better”.

They can both be good. See The Body and Stand By Me. Some movies are slightly better like Jaws or The Exorcist, or they can be wildly different in quality. See Bonfire of the Vanities. Actually don’t see it. Ever.

The Godfather I’m Gonna Make You An Offer Poster
Not safe to complain about this one…
Crime stories usually make pretty good fodder for adaptations though. The Godfather sure as hell worked. Not a lot of complaints from people leaving the theater on that one. 

Now, I’ve never read The Godfather by Mario Puzo and I honestly don’t know of anyone who has. It’s a case of the film transcending the book in popular culture. But there are several moments in that film that would have had none of the impact had I know the story ahead of time. My enjoyment of the film would have been diminished.

But two hundred million Lord of the Rings fans prove me wrong. I’m the odd man out.

So will I see Drive? Still a maybe. I read the book a while ago and honestly have forgotten the details enough that it will still probably be fairly new to me. I got along fine with A Simple Plan. Loved the hell out of the book and the movie.

So it can be done. I’ll still never understand the hot frothy excitement an adaptation gives some people. My wife sure goes into overdrive when a new Twilight film comes along.

But, fair warning: the next person who says, “the book was better” gets a punch in the mouth.

Eric Beetner is an ex-musician, one time film director, and a working television editor and producer, as well as author (with JB Kohl) of the novels One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two daughters, and one really great dog. His upcoming novella Dig Two Graves will be out later this summer, along with short stories in the anthologies Pulp Ink, D*cked, and Grimm Tales.


  1. Jake Hinkson

    Funny to read this. I just ordered the book the other day. Looking forward to the movie, too. By and large, I think I can just view a book and movie as separate entities. The Maltese Falcon works both ways. So does The Big Sleep. Something like Eastwood’s Bridges of Madison County is a movie I consider a masterpiece–one of the best romances I’ve ever seen in fact–but it’s made from a book that is unreadable. The only experience I’ve had when I read a book and refused to see any movie made from it was The Road. That book was simply too amazing to be fucked with.

    Books have formed the basis of movies from the very beginning of medium. So, I’m okay with adaptation. Still, I get what you’re saying. Reading a book is an inimate experience. It’s weird sometimes to see that experience morph into something by someone else.

    Great post, per ususal.

  2. Lauren

    Generally, I’m with you, Eric. But the reason I do often go see movie adaptations (and I generally ALWAYS read the book first in those cases), it’s because of one simple fact: I don’t want to miss out on the occasional gem (read: Winter’s Bone – and Woodrell is my all-time favorite author, so we all know how this COULD have gone). I also try and treat the movie and book experiences as just that – different experiences. Granted, you can’t undo knowledge of the twist at the end (unless it’s been drastically altered), but if a movie is well-done I usually like seeing how someone else envisioned the source material.

    As I was thinking about why I always read the book version before seeing the movie, I realized it was because I don’t want the movie “ruining” my own visualization of the book. In other words, it appears I’d rather read a great book with my own visuals and have a movie adaptation suffer than vice versa. Which is another discussion altogether, but I hadn’t even thought of it that way before. Off to contemplate that over coffee…

  3. Eric Beetner

    Jake – nice to see some love for Madison County. I thought Eastwood did a great job with that. I think you’ll like Drive. I bet I’ll end up seeing the movie since, like I said, I forgot most of the details.
    Lauren – Sounds like you’re doing it right by realizing they are different mediums. Not too many people do that.
    And true that it can be done well. I guess I just like to see those as little movie gems and be satisfied with that. Guess that’s why Winter’s Bone languishes on my shelf waiting to be read. Someday when the film fades from memory.

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