A couple of years ago, I read Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo for the RS reading group. What a chore that was! 1468 pages, or something like that—it was the unabridged version. Other people in my book group read the abridged version. I, of course, felt superior. On the other hand, I had to plow through a lot of dross. Prolix is the word for Dumas.
I was reminded of this grand reading chore a couple of days ago after watching an episode of Legend of the Seeker, which some people (fans of the books) are complaining about because it's not enough like the books. There are things in the book (the first one particularly) that I would like to see, but there are some interesting things they've done with the series that aren't in the books, so I'm okay with the series. Anyway, it reminded me that I prefer the most recent film version (2002) of The Count of Monte Cristo to the book. Not only did the film have an admirable succinctness to it, but there were other improvements. I've written about this before in another venue, but I want to include my thoughts here.
Reasons the 2002 film of The Count of Monte Cristo is better than the book:
1) In the film, Edmond ends up with Mercedes, which is right and just. In the book, Edmond ends up with his foster daughter/slave. Ew.
2) Fernand Mondego's reason for betraying Edmond made a lot more sense in the film than in the book. Also, Fernand's immense wealth made more sense in the film, too. Or maybe I, a product of the 20th century, just don't understand how a poor Spanish fisherman can somehow become a rich French nobleman. Even after 16 or 25 years.
3) Speaking of 16 or 25 years, the book was very confusing as to how long it took for Edmond to accomplish his revenge after escaping from prison. The film is much clearer on this point.
4) The film has just the right amount of angst. The book is dripping with melodrama: people blushing and gasping, people's hearts pounding and veins throbbing, their breath being taken away, themselves on the verge of fainting, their tears falling willy nilly, their faces turning deathly white one second and deep red the next. They tear their hair, they dig their nails into their faces, clasp their hands to their breast and fall weakly into chairs, they scream like sirens (okay, Dumas didn't actually say anyone screamed like a siren, since I don't even think there were sirens back then, I mean sirens like police or ambulance sirens, but he has them shrieking in a ghastly way), and they act in otherwise extremely over-emotional ways that would cause us nowadays to question their sanity.
5) In the book, Edmond is not a very nice person as the Count of Monte Cristo. He instigates (sometimes subtly, with nothing more than a conversation on a carefully chosen topic) his revenges but gives little heed to the "collateral damage" that ensues. The only thing he feels bad about, and which makes him question whether he really is God's instrument of vengeance, is that Valentine's life is threatened.
6) "Who's Valentine?" those of you who remember the film may be asking. She's not in the film, but in the book she's the daughter of Villefort and the girlfriend of Maximilian Morrel, who is also not in the film but who is the son of Monsieur Morrel, the owner of Edmond's ship at the beginning of the film. Which brings up another complaint I have about the book, and that is the multiplicity of characters. All right, it's an epic kind of book, and it's not the only book to have a cast of thousands, but the story could have been told so much more efficaciously without bringing in the dozens of minor characters and their insignificant relatives for paragraph upon paragraph.
7) Speaking of insignificance, there were a number of episodes that to me just didn't make sense. "Have I stumbled into another novel by mistake?" I asked myself while reading the chapters about Franz (Albert's friend, who doesn't really appear in the film unless he's one of those jokers that gets all excited when Albert tells his chums he gets to go to Rome for the Carnival) and the Count of Monte Cristo chewing hashish and downing opium pellets together in the Count's hidden grotto.
8) Albert was way nicer in the film, and his whole episode with the bandits in the catacombs of Rome was a lot more believably presented in the film than in the novel. And don't get me started on the murderous kidnapping bandit Vampa and Monte Cristo's entente cordial with him. Monte Cristo has a lot to answer for. A lot. Like Valentine's grandparents, Villefort's son (although blaming Monte Cristo for that one is a little iffy), and the diamond merchant. And there are others whom he really toyed with in matters of life and death, like Morrel and Morrel's son and others.
9) In the film, Edmond has Villefort arrested and taken away to prison. In the book, Villefort goes insane. Prison is a much more fitting punishment in the grand scheme of things than insanity.
10) In the film, Edmond tricks Danglars into exposing himself as a smuggler, and Danglars is arrested. In the book, Monte Cristo has Danglars kidnapped by Vampa's bandits, who charge him 50,000 francs or so for each meal he eats while in captivity (amounting to a number of cooked chickens and a few bottles of wine) until he has paid them the 5 million francs he stole from the hospital fund. Then Danglars tells Monte Cristo that he repents, so Monte Cristo lets him go free. Wrong wrong wrong.
11) In the film, Edmond decides to let Fernand Mondego go free, but then Fernand comes back to fight him, and Edmond kills him. That demonstrates a graceful balance in righting the wrongs in the world. In the book, Fernand's reputation is publicly destroyed, so he commits suicide. Wha--?! Where's the balance in that?
12) In the book, there is no Jacopo. Well, there's a Jacopo, but he's an extremely minor character, and he isn't Edmond's confidante/assistant like he is in the film. And he's cool in the film. That's one thing the book didn't have—any coolness.
Anyway, this is not to say that the film was perfect. I would have changed a few things if I'd been in charge. But overall, I find it superior to the book.
Usually, and I think most people would agree, the book is better than the film that is based upon it. There are a few instances where the film is so well done that it becomes a classic in and of itself, rivaling the book in perfection even though there are significant differences. For example, Gone with the Wind is one of those cases where both the book and the film are classics. Also The Wizard of Oz. And Random Harvest and Goodbye, Mr Chips. I'm sure there are others. Less often, though, a mediocre or downright lousy book is actually made into a film that improves on it vastly. Take The Black Stallion, for instance. Walter Farley had some good horse stories to tell, but he was not a very good writer. The Black Stallion is chock full of pedestrian prose and clumsy caricatures. But the film is a little gem.
Another film that I think outshines its source is Jurassic Park. Michael Crichton is a somewhat better writer than Walter Farley (who, I grant, may have improved over time, but I couldn't bring myself to read any more of his books after the first one). But his characters were all wrong in the book. The film version of Dr Grant was younger, thus giving the opportunity for the delightful and touching relationship between him and Dr Sattler. More importantly, as I recall, several of the wrong people died in the book: Dr Malcolm dies and the sleazy lawyer lives? Wrong wrong wrong. Yeah, so the film is better. (I think I'm in the minority, though.)
Another film that improves on the book is Not As a Stranger, which most people under the age of 40 will know nothing about. Anyway, the book is an overlong schlocky opus about a very dedicated—so dedicated that he is self-centered about it—medical student who becomes a dedicated, self-centered, selfish doctor who uses and verbally abuses his wife, who for some reason loves him. At least in the film he felt remorse at the end.
Patriot Games is the only Tom Clancy book that I was able to read all the way through and I almost gave up a number of times. The film trims the technofat (and yes, I know there are some people who read Tom Clancy books precisely because of all the minutely detailed technogabble in them) and makes Jack Ryan a more likable character and at the same time less sappy. But most of all, it replaces the smarmily (and laughably) uxorious Prince Charles with a fictional royal. As an added bonus, Anne Archer plays a very cool Cathy Ryan. My only real complaint about the film is the R-rated sexual silliness at the beginning, but I avoid that easily enough by watching the edited version on tv.
Finally, the last film that is superior to the book it is based on that comes to my mind is The Last of the Mohicans. I read Cooper's book back in my teen years and remember enjoying it well enough, but it must be remembered that, when I was just a few years younger, I thought Scooby-Doo was one of the best things on television. Young folks just can't be relied on to show good taste. Anyhow, I enjoyed it well enough as an adventure story, but when I went back to read it again 15 or so years later, I found it to be stylistically terribly antiquated. I'm now of the opinion that the only reason Cooper's books continue to be studied in school is that they are important, not because they are well written, but because they are among the first American novels to be popular. In other words, we keep them around for historical reasons, not literary ones. So yeah, the film (which acknowledges its indebtedness to the 1936 screenplay, which also tried to improve on the original) changes a few of the character relationships around, adds a few minor characters that help bring out certain themes, and totally redoes the dialogue so that the characters sound like humans instead of stock figures.
I have to admit that part of what influenced me against the author of The Last of the Mohicans was Mark Twain's very funny essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses". Twain exaggerates, of course, and, as the scholars say, "Generally, Twain's biting mockery of Cooper's characterization, plot, and setting is considered by contemporary critics as unnecessary and unfounded." But I still think it's hilarious and I can sometimes see Twain's point. If you have a chance to read that essay, do so. You don't necessarily have to be familiar with Cooper's Leatherstocking novels to appreciate what Twain was doing.
Anyhow, those are the books I can think of that don't measure up to the films' quality. There may be others, but they don't spring immediately to mind. If anyone can think of any others, I'd like to know what they are.