Read the Book, Skip the Movie

EVERYBODY who likes to read has done it. You hear a film or a television series is coming out, so you read the book it's based on. Or, if you're pressed for time, you read the book after you've seen the film. So many of us do it, it must be human nature. If the experience of reading is more important to you than that of viewing, here's a simple suggestion: next time, forget the movie or series and just read the book.

Why? Take, for example, the Masterpiece Theatre presentation of ``The Jewel in the Crown.'' Critics couldn't find enough nice things to say about it, a vast audience watched it, was enthralled by it, couldn't wait for the next episode. I watched it along with everybody else. The series was based on Paul Scott's ``The Raj Quartet,'' a sequence of four long novels. When I was watching the series, I didn't have time to read them. I don't suppose many people did. Eventually, though, I did read them. And fervently wished I had never seen the series. There was the usual problem of being unable to conjure up my own visions of the characters and settings because the makers of the series had done all that for me. But my annoyance with myself stemmed more from the brilliant way Paul Scott tells his story in ``The Raj Quartet.''

What the series presents as a straightforward, chronological tale is in the novels a complicated, fascinating mosaic of characters looking back on the past. Endings come before beginnings, official reports intertwine with personal accounts, interviews, diaries. Once you've seen the series, you can never hope to appreciate Paul Scott's achievement. The whole story has been rearranged. More coherent? Probably. Less interesting? Definitely.

TV and movie tie-ins are often used to encourage reading, especially among young people. Public television recently showed a three-part adaptation of the first novel in C.S. Lewis's fantasy series, ``The Chronicles of Narnia.'' It was well-intentioned, well-acted, and, quite often, utterly ridiculous.

A number of Lewis's characters are animals; the series uses people to portray them. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver have the inflated appearance of upright dirigibles, limbless, with hands and feet left to flap ineffectually. The effect is unsettling. Aslan the lion, Lewis's Christ figure, has a weird, lumbering gait more suited to an arthritic elephant than the king of beasts. His glassy eyes gaze blankly from his immobile face. The occasional stiff movements of his jaw bear no relation to the wise words we are asked to believe he utters. Any reader can do a better job imagining Narnia. No reader deserves to have these awkward visions imposed on Lewis's fantasy world.

Theatrical films based on novels tend to resemble those plot summaries harried students resort to the night before the exam. The film version of Umberto Eco's ``The Name of the Rose'' only managed to skim the surface of the novel's intriguing depths, substituting grotesque make-up and omnipresent filth for Eco's explorations of life in a medieval abbey: the daily routines followed by the monks, the constant friction among various theological factions, the unique organization of the abbey library on which the resolution of the plot hinges.

Yet, filming a short story rather than a novel doesn't guarantee success, either. John Huston filmed one of the greatest short stories ever written, James Joyce's ``The Dead,'' with reverence and care. But there's no improving on perfection. Perhaps the finer the literature, the greater the temerity of the filmmaker who tries to adapt it and the greater the ultimate futility of the effort. Next to Joyce's story, Huston's film can only be superfluous.

It's safe to say that filmmakers will go right on filming novels. The recent television adaptation of Larry McMurtry's ``Lonesome Dove'' received widespread critical acclaim. In this case, I can't offer a dissenting voice. I've been meaning to read the novel, so when the series came out, I took my own advice. I skipped it.

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