“You ever talk about a movie with someone who happens to have read the book?” Jim Gaffigan once asked during a stand-up special. “They’re always so condescending: ‘Oh, the book was much better.’ Oh, really? What I enjoyed about the movie? No reading.”
For as long as Hollywood has been churning out literary adaptations, audiences have made the same complaint that Gaffigan was poking fun at. Usually this is true: Reading allows us to visualize stories as we see fit, is unconstrained by run times, and has the benefit of not having to live up to any source material.
But on the rare occasion that someone reads a novel after seeing the movie based on it, the question of which was better becomes more difficult to answer. It was with this in mind that I decided to tackle two imposing tomes whose adaptations happen to arrive in theaters on successive weeks: Stephen King’s “It” and Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch.”
I can’t have been the only one. 2017’s adaptation of the first half of “It,” which went on to become the highest-grossing horror movie of all time, surely generated more interest in what was already a bestseller; Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for her third novel, while the likes of Nicole Kidman, Ansel Elgort, Jeffrey Wright, Finn Wolfhard and Luke Wilson all lend star power to a prestige picture being helmed by “Brooklyn” director John Crowley. In starting what was sure to be a long process for this slow reader — taken together, the two works are just under 2,000 pages — I began to question the impulses behind it.
Having studied literature at the same small college Tartt attended before going for a master’s in film studies, I wasn’t exactly new to this conflict: I’d previously read “No Country for Old Men” and the fourth “Harry Potter” book just in time to watch their respective film adaptations.
The more sophisticated the source material, the stronger the obligation felt: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gone Girl” were mere airport novels, I told myself, so no pressure there, and I certainly wasn’t going to parse George R.R. Martin’s entire “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga just to watch “Game of Thrones” guilt-free.
And yet I still haven’t watched Hulu’s recent “Catch-22" miniseries for the simple reason that Joseph Heller’s classic remains on my to-read list. To do so, it seems, would only add to the shame of never having read one of the Great American Novels. And besides, what if watching the TV series actually made me less compelled to finally tackle the book?
“Catch-22" isn’t currently at the top of my reading list, but if I abstain from the miniseries, I can at least pretend that sooner or later I’ll do things the “right” way — and when I do, you can be certain I’ll avoid buying the version with Hulu’s big green logo on the cover. Doubtless this is a kind of snobbery, and yet it feels somehow noble as well.
Occasionally the process goes in reverse. I enjoyed “Sideways” and “Winter’s Bone” enough to go back and read the novels on which they were based, in both cases finding the source material inferior to the adaptation — but were they really, or was I simply inverting the book-was-better axiom because I’d been exposed to the movie first?
I didn’t entirely abstain while reading “The Goldfinch” and “It,” however: I caved and watched the trailers. In addition to being a slow reader, I have a decidedly un-visual imagination that makes picturing the happenings of a book more difficult than I’d like (these two conditions are surely linked), so getting a sense of what awaited me on the other side of things proved helpful. I also took my sweet time, finishing “The Goldfinch” with more than a month to spare but not completing “It” until the day before “It Chapter Two” hit theaters.
Doing so had zero negative effects on my experience of the movie, which I enjoyed enough to not mind how often I found myself thinking that wasn’t in the book on opening night. “It” is a deeply weird, ungainly novel, and a truly faithful adaptation would have not only the infamous orgy scene to contend with but also a turtle god who created the universe by vomiting it up after a stomachache, among myriad other oddities. Whatever its flaws, “Chapter Two” does an admirable job of streamlining a story that was anything but in its original form.
It also helped that, apropos of the novel itself, whose adult heroes can’t remember their childhood deeds of valor (or, indeed, each other), I quickly forgot the particulars of “It’s” increasingly convoluted narrative. The same wasn’t true of “The Goldfinch,” which is even more of a page-turner. King’s tale of the porous boundary between childhood and adulthood didn’t resonate enough for me to mind any deviations from its plot, but I was ready to pounce on Crowley’s film if it betrayed the spirit of Tartt’s wondrous novel — something that, luckily, I didn’t have to do. It’s both a faithful adaptation and a moving experience in and of itself, the rarest of combinations.
Is it as good as the book? No, but it doesn’t have to be. When the stars align on these things, the two works can complement each other as two sides of the same coin. We may never be fully satisfied with the movies based on our favorite books, but at a certain point that’s less about the films themselves and more about the expectations we bring to them. I take comfort in that, as well as the fact that I still have a few months to finally read “Little Women” before the movie comes out.