Morten Tyldum, 2011.
imbd: 7.6 (down from 8.8 in June 2012)
Ebert: Three and a half Stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 92% (93%) Fresh
Movie adaptations of books are a tricky business. A picture is not, as any thoughtful reader knows, worth anything near a thousand words, so even though movies can hurl 1440 images a minute at us with speech, music, and sound effects thrown in for good measure, a film adaptation must still make deep cuts into the depth and complexity of all but the shallowest novel.
Often, that means that the book was better than that movie. It’s a cliché, because it’s true. But not always. A fairly long-winded business by Mario Puzo, to take one example, might be condensed into a masterpiece. The Big Sleep, a pretty good piece of detective pulp by Raymond Chandler, might get its plot reduced to incomprehensibility, but escape with its best qualities not only preserved but enhanced. E.M. Forster’s Room With a View might be shifted from its native minor key to a lighter C Major, and come out as a charming crowd-pleaser. All sorts of things can happen!
Here is a case study of a book and its adaptation, as experienced by one guy, Michael5000, who has a blog.
#1: The Movie. In 2012, I watched Headhunters, the biggest hit of all time from the Norwegian film industry, of which I am fond. I thought it was great fun. I reviewed it here.
#2: The Book. A few weeks ago, I read Jo Nesbo’s novel Headhunters, on which the film was based. Well, I read the English translation of Nesbo’s Hodejegerne, of course, as my Norwegian is really rather rusty. (I watched the film with subtitles, too. I don’t speak a word of Norwegian.) And, to get more specific, I “ear-read” the novel, which is to say I listened to it on an audiobook.
I enjoyed the book very much. It had the same mood of antic, comic menace that I remember from the film. The characters were vividly written and familiar from my earlier viewing, and all of the key episodes I remembered from the film were present, but written in the sardonic deadpan of Scandinavian noir fiction. It was not an especially profound text, mind you, but it was a very satisfying thriller, and in retrospect the film seemed like it had been a highly successful adaptation, capturing both the spirit and the essential action of the book.
#3: The Movie: GRUDGE MATCH. Then, fired up by all of this nutty Headhunters entertainment, I decided it would be fun to watch the film again. And that, dear reader, was probably pushing things too far. Headhunters, the film, was still entertaining on rewatching, but in the immediate shadow of the novel it also felt a lot less smart than it had the first time around. Parts of the book that I liked were missing, and this time around I knew to miss them. In their condensed film versions, supporting characters – the mistress, for instance, and everyone in law enforcement – no longer seemed to make any sense. The ending seemed less well constructed. The film had changed: it wasn’t as good as it had been before I read the book.
(The film also suffered from an unrelated peril of rewatching: one of my favorite scenes mysteriously changed from the way it was in my memory. In my original review, I wrote
At one point in the movie, the protagonist is naked but covered in a thick layer of human shit, desperately trying to outrace an ominous black SUV down a forest road, at night, driving an antique farm tractor on the front forks of which an enormous white dog has recently been impaled. That's a really bad day. The dog glows luminously in the Scandinavian night, and the lights of the SUV play through the steam coming off of his smear of filth.In fact, the character is fully clothed at that point beneath the thick layer of shit, and there isn’t nearly as much steam as I had remembered. I apologize for misleading you in my earlier review.)
Prognosis: When you watched something on the big screen and found it delightful, is it fair to come back and reassess it after reading some source material and rewatching it on DVD? Sure it is! Good movies only need to reward you the first time around. A great movie is one that continues to reward you every time you watch it.
Michael5000's imdb rating: 7 (down from 8).