How often have you heard “The book was better”? It’s normally the truth. After all, a book can be as detailed or complex as the author wants, but a movie or TV show is bound by the limits of time — unless, of course, you’re talking about the Lord of the Rings movies which, like Wagner’s operas, go on forever.
Because it’s normally true that the book is better than the movie, I thought I’d discuss two notable examples.
The 1974 book by Peter Benchley was an unexpected hit, but no so unexpected that Steven Spielberg was unable to see it’s possibilities as a movie. The movie Jaws was released in 1975 with a score by John Williams, who also wrote the music for Star Wars, Superman, the Movie, ET, and numerous other movies. The ominous two-note minor second theme added to the suspense. The movie also benefited from Peter Benchley’s screen play which judiciously omitted the gratuitous adultery triangle that added nothing to the story of the book. The focus of the movie is the main protagonist and the shark. It benefits in every way from that focus.
In 1933, Earl Stanley Gardner wrote his first Perry Mason novel. Over 80 short novels later, it was only a matter of time before it was adapted to the smaller screen of TV, and 1957 saw the beginning of the Perry Mason TV show, which ran originally for 9 years and then returned in 1985 with a series of TV movies.
The Perry Mason books are intricate and clever, and they benefit from Gardner’s law background. But the books suffer from a mistake in crafting the character of Perry Mason. Mason seems willing to bend — even break the law — to free his clients. Of course, all his clients are innocent, but the manner in which he hounds witnesses and hides information from the police make him appear to modern readers to be arrogant and unpleasant.
The TV show mitigated this aspect of the books, and it benefited from the calm manner in which Raymond Burr presented Perry Mason. Perry Mason on the TV seems less crafty and more honest. Of course, the chemistry between Burr and his fellow actors (Barbara Hale and William Hopper as Della Street and Paul Drake) is legendary. They brought a form of camaraderie to the screen that is often lacking in the books. In the books, Perry Mason sometimes treats Paul Drake sharply. This never happens on the non-silver screen. Even Lt. Tragg as portrayed by avuncular Ray Collins is one of the family, and I remember my disappointment as a boy when he was replaced (upon his death) with Lt. Anderson.
No matter how good the movie is, the book is normally better. Just ask Harry Potter fans! But in these two cases, the books can be ignored. Just enjoy the movie — or the TV show!