It was in a conversation about the ubiquitous The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that I brought up a homily that’s been repeated many times elsewhere: A mediocre book can often be made into an excellent film, and many of the best books—even those without terribly radical storytelling or use of language—are all but unfilmable.
I was late to the Dragon Tattoo party, I admit. I already knew the bare outlines of the story—and the backstory, which is at least as interesting as the books themselves—and was able to read the first volume equipped with that understanding. But what was good about the story, the various interlaced knots of intrigue and the ways Lisbeth Salander takes revenge on her tormentors was buried under prose so pedestrian and unabsorbing I could barely sustain an interest.
I’m more than willing to forgive a book for having an unoriginal prose style if it spins a fun yarn, but let’s face it: the last thing I read in roughly this category was Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, where most every sentence is a zinger. See for yourself:
I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.
There’s nothing “fancy” about the language, but it’s closely observed—it’s attuned to the way people talk and listen, and it’s redolent with observed details that make the very act of reading the book a pleasure. Every sentence bristles with that kind of smart, snappy thinking and looking.
Here is a passage from Dragon Tattoo:
[Lisbeth] needed a fast, modern machine. Unsurprisingly she set her sights on the best available alternative: the new Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHz in an aluminum case with a PowerPC 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity Engine, 960 MB RAM and a 60 GB hard drive. It had BlueTooth and built-in CD and DVD burners. Best of all, it had the first 17-inch screen in the laptop world with NVIDIA graphics and a resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels, which shook the PC advocates and outranked everything else on the market. In terms of hardware, it was the Rolls-Royce of portable computers, but what really triggered Salander’s need to have it was the simple feature that the keyboard was equipped with backlighting, so that she could see the letters even if it was pitch dark. So simple. Why had no-one thought of that before? It was love at first sight.
This isn’t observation; it’s a shopping list. Anyone reading this could have found a more creative way to talk about this material. There’s no sense that the author wants to do anything but give us information, or any sense that he knows how to do much more than that. The detail about the illuminated keyboard, for instance, could have been turned into a great punchline (think of what Kinky Friedman or even Andrew Vachss would have done with a detail like that), but it just sits there. Heck, in David Seltzer’s The Omen, not exactly high literature, there was a line about a zoom lens that could film “two flies mating on the moon”, a line that had me grinning through to the bottom of the page.
Prose this airless makes the job of reading Tattoo about as fun as chewing straw. (I am not going to get into the possibility that the book was mangled in translation; I can only work with what I have, sorry.) So why, when the book was so bland, did the original movie (I have yet to see David Fincher’s remake) turn out to be that much more engaging?
When you make a movie of any book, you are presented with any number of decisions about what to keep and what to throw out. That said, you have almost no choice but to throw out the very words the book is written in, with some exceptions; e.g., Fight Club’s voice-over narration (the most basic way to do it, and in that case the most direct and effective).
With Dragon Tattoo, the juiceless prose was replaced with darkly attractive photography, and the blunt, stripped-down dialogue works far better on the screen than it did on the page. Especially when that dialogue was, again, surrounded by prose that was equally bare, and not always by design. Georges Simenon, another author of thrillers fueled by guilt and sin, never wasted a word in his novels. The effect was magnetic, not interminable. Go read The Widow or The Engagement (the latter made into the remarkable film Monsieur Hire) and see how he made one word do the work of twenty, or two hundred.
Movies work best when we are presented with character in the form of action and setting, rather than description or internal rumination. You can take pages on end to describe a town in Belgium, or you can show it in a minute’s worth of well-chosen coverage. Even those two things do not map to each other: a description is not the same as a depiction.
It’s even harder to show someone struggling with the consequences of a bad decision, unless you have them blather it out to another character, or have them mutter about it on the soundtrack as a voice-over … or unless you just show your actor’s face expressing a distilled form of the emotion and be done with it. Or unless you embody all that in the action they take over the next several scenes, which is the best way to do it in my opinion.
All of those choices are compromises, and that’s probably why you can make a good film from a not-very-good book: you don’t have to make as many choices like that, because they’ve already been made for you. You are left with a base upon which you can build back up, and a talented filmmaker can use even the most rudimentary material for a great film. Case in point: Au hasard Balthazar, which is a great movie about a … donkey.