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Do authors ever prefer the movie to their own book?

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It's common to say that the book is always better than the movie, but sometimes that isn't true. Occasionally, a movie will come along that transforms its source material into something greater than the original. But how often do authors feel that a film adaptation has truly trumped their own work?

It's natural for authors to feel protective of their own novels, of the worlds and characters and ideas that they nurtured from the opening sentence. In some cases, that puts the author at odds with the film's audience; Stephen King famously hates Stanley Kubrick's The Shining because of Kubrick's thematic changes. However, change is not always a bad thing from an author's perspective. While Ira Levin was charmed that Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby followed his novel so closely, Diana Wynne Jones was thrilled with Hayao Miyazaki's take on Howl's Moving Castle, alterations and all.

Many authors are content to say that the movie is a different creature from the book, one that belongs to the director, warts and all. They'll talk about changes they agreed with, changes they disagreed with, and occasionally they'll rail against the forces who mangled their story and repackaged it for Hollywood. Every now and then, though, an author will see something special in a film, some power the film possesses that the book does not. Sometimes it doesn't shake out as simply as preferring one version to another, but it's interesting to explore the author's feelings about the films that they felt improved upon—or went somehow beyond—the source material.


Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? vs. Blade Runner

Although clearly inspired by Philip K. Dick's novella, Blade Runner is very much its own animal. Sadly, Dick died four months before the theatrical release, but based on what he did see, he believed that it would transcend its source material. In 1981, he wrote this letter to Jeff Walker of the Ladd Company:


What's interesting is why Dick felt so strongly about Blade Runner. It goes far beyond questions of theme and story; in fact, Dick disagreed profoundly with director Ridley Scott on certain directions for the film. This letter suggests that he felt Blade Runner was a significant contribution to culture, an important new look at science fiction. He seemed to be thinking not just about Blade Runner as a solitary film, but as a piece of media with the potential to have a lasting impact on how we view the future.


Edit: I should note, since this came up in the comments, that Dick was famously not on board with Blade Runner during much of its production. Walker encouraged Scott to involve Dick more (although Scott has said his meeting with Dick was after principal photography wrapped). Scott screened some of the footage for Dick, and the latter was said to have been delighted, saying the environment was just how he imagined it. It was after the screening, and discussions with Scott, that Dick became such a booster for the film.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange vs. Stanley Kubrick's Fable

Anthony Burgess had a complicated relationship with both his own version of A Clockwork Orange and Stanley Kubrick's adaptation. After banging out the book in, he claimed, a mere three weeks, Burgess sold the film rights first for $500 to Mick Jagger, who thought the Rolling Stones might have a go at playing Alex and his droogs. Eventually, though, Kubrick acquired the rights, cast Malcolm McDowell as Alex, and filmed a modern classic.


When A Clockwork Orange was first published in the United States, the publisher, according to Burgess, insisted on removing the book's final chapter, in which Alex contemplates giving up his wicked ways. This is the version of the book that Kubrick filmed. In fact, he never gave any consideration to including the 21st chapter in his screenplay; later, he would say that he suspected Burgess' initial publisher forced him to tack on the happier ending. Burgess would say that this omission made the American and Kubrickian A Clockwork Oranges less novel than fable.

Despite this alteration, Burgess regarded the film as great art, calling it in 1973, "a remarkable work, probably already a classic." He was not so kind to his own book, frequently dismissing it as one of his minor works. Later in life, he world call it, "a work too didactic to be artistic, pure art dragged into the arena of morality.” (Intriguingly, he calls it that because of the oft-omited 21st chapter, admitting "my aesthetic judgement may have been faulty.")


However, it might be too simple to say that Burgess felt Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange was a greater work than his novel. It might be, rather, that Kubrick's film so greatly influenced his feelings about the novel that he tended to downplay its artistic value. Burgess likely felt that the film caused that "minor novel" to overshadow his other works, and he came to resent the impact Kubrick had on his legacy. "I should myself be glad to disown [the book] for various reasons," he wrote in his 1986 essay A Clockwork Orange Resucked, "but this is not permitted." There's a sense, begrudging though it may be, that Burgess recognized the power of Kubrick's film even as he longed to cast aside its source material.

And, after years of fielding questions about the violence in Kubrick's film, it seems Burgess was simply sick of the book that spawned it. He wrote in his 1985 book Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence:

The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d'esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation.


Still, in 1989, Burgess urged Kubrick to make the film once again available in the UK, where it had been withdrawn from circulation. Burgess might have been ready to repudiate the book, but he felt that people should still have the opportunity to see Kubrick's film.

Stephen King, The Mist's Ambiguous Ending vs. Frank Darabont's Horrifying One

Sometimes, though, the preferences are small. King can come across as crotchety about adaptations of his films, but he's frequently delighted by what he sees on the screen. Tony Magistrale's book Hollywood's Stephen King starts with a fantastic interview in which he catalogues the various virtues and sins of his film adaptations, and he lauds Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, Dolores Claiborne, and The Green Mile (though he calls the latter "a little soft"). And he sees power of theatrical presentation as equal to books, describing The Storm of the Century, the TV miniseries he penned, as "as good as the best of the novels."


And sometimes, King finds something in the films that he likes better than what he wrote. King ended his novella The Mist in uncertainty, with the surviving characters driving toward Hartford, hoping that they will find sanctuary from the mist and its monsters. When adapting the story for film, Frank Darabont wanted a more definitive ending, and so he created one that was horrific and heartbreaking. In interviews Darabont says that he was relieved to find that King not only liked the ending, but said he wished he had thought of it himself. King himself has said, "It is the most shocking ending ever and there should be a law passed stating that anybody who reveals the last 5 minutes of this film should be hung from their neck until dead." And this wasn't the creation of one of the greatest films of all time or the creation of a new type of genre film; it was a simple rewrite, one that could (and some would argue, should) have been in the original text.


Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club vs. David Fincher's Fight Club

King isn't the only author who has felt the benefit of a movie rewrite. Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk has said that it's a tad painful for him to watch David Fincher's adaptation of his novel precisely because the movie makes certain improvements on the book:

Now that I see the movie, especially when I sat down with Jim Uhls and record a commentary track for the DVD, I was sort of embarrassed of the book, because the movie had streamlined the plot and made it so much more effective and made connections that I had never thought to make. There is a line about "fathers setting up franchises with other families," and I never thought about connecting that with the fact that Fight Club was being franchised and the movie made that connection. I was just beating myself in the head for not having made that connection myself.


And while Fight Club is sometimes reissued as a science fiction novel, Fincher's film—especially the ending—nudges the story slightly further into speculative fiction space. I wonder if Palahniuk would have felt as blown away by the movie if it hadn't contained that city-shattering ending, with its sense that the world has suddenly shifted. Perhaps, like Dick, Palahniuk finds a certain appeal in a film that doesn't just adapt a story, but also challenges our notion of genre.