Alexandre Dumas on film
February 2, 2002 3:12 PM   Subscribe

Alexandre Dumas on film This AP/CNN article says Dumas’ books make good movies, but aren’t being read as much as they used to be. Do the changes the movies make improve the books, or would more faithful adaptations be better?
posted by kirkaracha (15 comments total)
I’m seeing The Count of Monte Cristo this afternoon even though I hated last year’s The Musketeer. I love Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (which were filmed at the same time, take that Lord of the Rings). (I haven’t seen Cheech and Chong’s Corsican Brothers, though.)

I read The Three Musketeers every couple of years. It's very entertaining (most of the humor in the Lester movies is straight from the book) and I think it's held up very well.
posted by kirkaracha at 3:13 PM on February 2, 2002

A majority of the times, when a film is adapted from a book, chances are the film is going to suck, especially if they change the time setting or location the book was set in (among other things). The studio does this to appeal to a wider audiance, but often it is a huge mistake, as it takes away from the story.

A good majority of Stephen King books turned movies suck, with the exception of The Shining with Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall. The best adaptation of film from a book, has to be, the Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Of course, LOTR wasn't bad either, but I have yet to read the book ...
posted by Rastafari at 4:09 PM on February 2, 2002

I love Alexander Dumas and hate what Hollywood has done to his books. With the exception of Richard Lester's Musketeers films, which were terrible adaptations of the book but great nonetheless, the movie industry just can't seem to get their arms around him.

Another fantastic classic author who has spawned a plethora of bad films is H. Rider Haggard. I'll admit to liking the Hammer version of "She" because Ursula Undress is in it, but that Richard Chamberlain/Sharon Stone abomination "King Solomon's Mines" still makes me grind my teeth in sheer frustration at the colossal waste of celluloid it represents.
posted by MrBaliHai at 4:58 PM on February 2, 2002

The best movie-to-book translation has to be Slaughterhouse-5.
posted by noisemartyr at 5:09 PM on February 2, 2002

This was pretty good.
posted by rushmc at 5:20 PM on February 2, 2002

It's a given that a movie can't be anything more than an interpretation of the novel. For one thing, even novels written in omniscient voice depend on a narrator's point of view, which is very hard to duplicate on film. Private thoughts won't work unless they're turned into a voice-over, but there are only limited types of stories where that will work. At the very least grand chunks of the plot have to be excised; and the task of finding the 3 or 6 best lines to communicate a scene can be a challenge, especially working around the required action.

The Bond movies (uh, yes, I'm watching ABC tonight) are generally pretty good -- as long as you think interpretation rather than strict adaptation. The 007 of Fleming's novels is a bitter, self-hating contract murderer who uses drink and women to salve his wounded soul. The dapper, suave gentleman of the movies is a creation that bears only passing resemblance to the one on the page. Yet I love them both equally for what they are. I'm a deep Bond fan who thinks Dalton came the closest to interpreting Fleming's Bond (though, alas, he was given only middling screenplay material to work with), but I also recognize that's not why most people go to the movies. They have to exist on their own terms.

I also think it's false to say that the movies almost always do a bad job of adaptation. Look at IMdB's Top 250 -- 5 of the top 10 movies of all time, and at least 20 of the top 50, are adapted from other material. I do find that people who are fans of a book may dislike the movie without taking into account the limitations of the medium or the collaborative effort required in the creation. Noone loves LOTR more than I do, but I definitely liked the adaptation. (I don't agree with the list that it's the 2nd best film of all time(!), but those ratings peak early and tamp down over time.) I think the purists are being sticklers for the unimportant, e.g. how could one add in Tom Bombadil without stretching out the movie another 20 minutes? Ideally the full LOTR adaptation would probably take 18 hours of screen time, or 6 long movies, to tell well. That's economically impossible, so compromise is required. The changes are comparable for even much shorter works. So I generally try to judge the works separately. What makes a novel work may be thoroughly unworkable on screen, and vice versa. (Could you imagine Fleming doing 20-page descriptions of gadget-laden car chases? Of course not, but they're generally the high point of the 007 movies.) Then you have to balance out the times that a film far surpasses its source material -- for example, Jaws.
posted by dhartung at 6:21 PM on February 2, 2002

Salon really slammed the latest Monte Cristo adaptation for being over-simplified.

My two favorite book-to-movie adaptations are "The Andromeda Strain" and "The Silence of the Lambs". In some ways, those two adaptations actually improved on their source material.
posted by Potsy at 6:34 PM on February 2, 2002

Well of course the Andromeda Strain made for a good adaptation. It consistently amazes me that Michael Crichton is so beloved an author, when most of his books read like adapted screenplays. I strongly suspect that he writes with the probable screenplay in mind.

We just watched The Count of Monte Cristo, and I had the good fortune to listen to the unabridged version on a long bus ride to Atlanta. The problem is that it's a book probably longer than the Lord of the Rings, and with an unbelievably convoluted plot that spans almost 30 years in time. The movie made some improvements over the book collapsing the large variety of servants used by the Count into one character. On the other hand a lot of the plot changes were fairly unnecessary and really detracted from the whole revenge plot.

For example, (and I'm revealing here nothing that isn't revealed in the trailer) Edmund and Mercedes have a gratuitous love scene early in the movie, while Dumas takes great pains to point out the purity of Mercedes and Edmund. In fact, one of the whole themes of the novel is how Edmund transforms from a basically honest and conventional guy to a rather scandalous and psychopath figure.

And here are a few minor spoilers. The movie has Edmund's father hang himself while Dumas sends the father to a more horrifying death from voluntary starvation. The entire plot of the twisted banker becomes a plot of the twisted shipping company owner. The movie rewrites the lurid crimes exposed in the book to rather bland and pedestrian varieties of murder and piracy. The movie tries to insert some class rivalry into a novel in which all of the major characters are self-made men through rather dishonest means by elevating Fernon to the status of Count at birth.

Perhaps the most critical change in the movie is the transformation of Edmund from being the righteous hand of God's provenance, to a nonbelieving atheist focused only on revenge. In the book, the Count's belief that he is acting on behalf of God is central to the moral dilemma in which the Count attempts to balance his crimes with excessive generosity toward the victims and children of his enemies. In the book the Count destroys the Vilefourt family only to shower the daughter with massive riches. The book pulls no punches in revealing that the Count is a deluded psychopath, who probably should be played somewhat similar to Hannibal Lecter. The movie just turns it into a basic revenge plot.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:14 PM on February 2, 2002

Rastafari: The best adaptation of film from a book, has to be, the Godfather and The Godfather Part II.

I couldn't agree more. The book is actually pretty bad, but the movies are great. (Yes, a lot of the dialogue and story is from the book, but there's a lot of stupid lurid stuff in the book the movies are too classy to include.)

Two other excellent movies-from-books are The Maltese Falcon (reading it is like reading the shooting script) and the 1984 version of 1984.

Rastafari: especially if they change the time setting or location the book was set in

This happens a lot with Shakespeare, too. There's only so much you can change before you're just making something different.

dhartung: nice observation about the movie Bond versus the Bond in the books. There was the one scene in the Dr. No movie where Strangways tries to kill him. Strangways fails and is defenseless, and Bond basically murders him.

I like the Lord of the Rings books and enjoyed the movie (I just re-read the books). I think the movie makes one improvement over the books. When they realize the danger the ring represents in the movie, they immediately set off to destroy it. In the book, they realize the ring's danger, then chill out for a couple of months (must've been all that pipeweed).

Potsy: Silence of the Lambs is better than the book, but there's a passage in the book about the Jack Crawford character (Scott Glenn in the movie) losing his wife that's one of the most beautiful things I've ever read.

KirkJobSluder: Michael Crichton also directs, so it's natural that his books are movie-like. John Grisham writes bad books that get turned into mediocre-to-good movies.

I really enjoyed the Count of Monte Cristo movie. I haven't read the book, but the movie made me want to read it, and your description certainly makes it sound more complex and interesting.

Changes from the book to the movie used to really bother me, but lately I feel that they're two different ways of telling a story, and each way is capable of revealing things the other is incapable of, and try to just the works on their own merits.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:49 PM on February 2, 2002

Dassin did a good job from Le Bretons, "Du Rififi chez les hommes". Flemings, "The Diamond Smugglers" is good, though no movie was made from it. (am iffy on allens new "Curse of the Jade Scorpion")
posted by clavdivs at 9:21 PM on February 2, 2002

I read the abridged versions of Dumas' books as a kid. LUVED that stuff. luved the 'The Count of Monte Cristo'. Never got around to reading the original stuff which from KirkJobSluder's post appears to be a differerent animal altogether. Two key things to remember when reading Dumas:
- Apparently not all books credited to Dumas are actually written by him. When he became very popular, people would apparently ghost write for him. Hence the uneven qualities of his works.
- His books were originally published serially in magazines. People would wait avidly for the next month's content. He would tend to drag the story in order to keep getting paid.

Mostly, I like books more that their movie adaptations. Movies are usually a disappointment after the book. Sometimes I have stopped myself from reading a book until after I have seen the movie.

LOTR was an exception. Other adaptations that I liked as much as the books: 'Gone with the wind', 'To kill a mocking bird' and 'Pather Panchali' (a Bengali movie by Satyajit Ray that you may not have seen, but is really good). One recent movie that I think is awesome is 'In the Bedroom'. It is one of those rare occasions where I now want to read the writer whose story inspired the movie.

On the flip side - love James Clavell's books. Didn't like the adaptation of Noble House (it wasnt as good a book as 'Shogun', but nevertheless).

Haven't seen 'Count of Monte Cristo' yet.
posted by justlooking at 10:16 PM on February 2, 2002

Kaushik: [Dumas'] books were originally published serially in magazines. People would wait avidly for the next month's content. He would tend to drag the story in order to keep getting paid.

An excellent point. Dumas, like Dickens, also got paid by the word, so they wrote some long-ass books.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:07 PM on February 2, 2002

The adaptation that I've enjoyed the most is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I saw the movie first, and then read the book. I hadn't anticipated the Chief being the narrator of the book, from watching the movie.

I've never read Dumas, but have watched a number of adaptations. After reading this thread, I found some online copies of his works, and I'll probably read the rest of The Count of Monte Cristo after finishing the first chapter. The writing style is more passive then what I'm used to seeing, and that may play a part in the decline in popularity of the novels.
posted by bragadocchio at 11:11 PM on February 2, 2002

The changes in the movies screw the books up. I couldn't believe how bad they made Musketeer. When you sit down and look closely at how much they mangled the story, you get repulsed.
posted by azazello at 10:42 AM on February 3, 2002

Hey, what about Lynch's Dune? (explodes)
posted by Ty Webb at 7:07 PM on February 3, 2002

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