Sometimes, The Book Isn’t Better

Over the past month or so I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I know some people out there don’t like audiobooks, but I really enjoy them. As someone who’s always been fascinated by voice acting, I love hearing a good performance of a good book. I thought Gone Girl was pretty good. Not great, but good. Having already known that David Fincher is attached to direct the film version when it hits theaters in 2015, as soon as the audiobook was over I had one thought – I’ll bet the movie’s better. Which is kind of backwards to popular opinion, isn’t it?

We’ve all heard it before. Most of us have probably said it ourselves, and probably more than once.

“I saw _Insert Movie Title Here_ the other day.”

“Oh yeah? How was it?”

“It was okay. The book was better.”

I used to think (and sometimes still do) that some people would say that no matter how good the movie was, just as a sort of humblebrag to let people know they’ve read a book. But there’s a reason all of us have heard that and most of us have said it – it’s usually true. There are things in books, be they physical descriptions, what characters are thinking, etc. that can be hard to convey on film. Then there’s the matter of the story itself. Some stories just lend themselves to the written word better than any other medium. So the movie that really is better than the book can be a rare bird indeed.

The Ground Rules

First off, as usual with my “list” posts, I’m limiting this to five. Also, I’m keeping it honest by only ranking books I’ve actually read. It would’ve been easy to include books I hadn’t, as the same books populate every other similar list – Jaws, A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner, The Godfather and many others. And seriously, is there any way humanly possible the book Wise Guy by Nicholas Pileggi could be better than Goodfellas? But I resisted temptation. Finally, I’m limiting the list to just one Stephen King book/movie adaptation. I’ve read his work far and away more than any other author, and could easily devote an entire post solely to films based on his work.

The Honorable Mentions

Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986) vs Red Dragon (Thomas Harris, 1981)

manhunter                          reddragon

This was a tough call for me, so I decided list it as an honorable mention just to give it some recognition. Although I haven’t read it in several years, the first of the Hannibal Lecter books has long been one of my favorite thrillers. When you take a book that good and adapt it with Michael Mann directing, you’re going to get a good movie. And you do. Manhunter is very good, and it may very well have made my list if it weren’t for one thing: the ending. Some people consider the end of the novel to be a bit cliche, but I liked it. The movie changed it for whatever reason, and it left me disappointed. That being said, Manhunter is still a great movie. Although Anthony Hopkins would eventually claim the character as his own, it’s very interesting to see how Brian Cox plays Dr. Lecter.

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) vs The Shining (Stephen King 1977)

jack                         shiningbook

Like I said, I’ll keep the list limited to one Stephen King adaptation, but if I’m doing honorable mentions I may as well go ahead and mention The Shining. It is my all-time favorite horror movie, and I usually end up watching it every October when channels start running horror marathons leading up to Halloween. Thing is, I really like the book, too. It’s scary in its own right, and I think over the years the movie has overshadowed it, which kind of sucks. But, as much as I hate to disagree with the master, I like the movie better. King purists (which are a rabid bunch) vehemently disagree with me, but I’ll stand my ground. The film is actually much darker and funnier at the same time. The movie is a bit like the book on LSD. So what Stephen King work did I rank higher? Funny you should ask, because that brings us to…

The List

5. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994) vs Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (Stephen King, 1982) *from the book Different Seasons

shawshank                 differentseasons

This is a case where the movie really didn’t change too much; just some small tweaks like combining multiple characters into one, adding the death of a character to heighten the drama, that sort of thing. The story itself was really not altered. It’s just that the movie was that damn good.

As big a fan of movies as I am, I don’t always notice things like cinematography, art direction, lighting, etc. After writing, acting, and directing the other technical aspects of a film can go unnoticed. When I watch Shawshank I may not necessarily recognize exactly what it is that sets it apart from so many other movies, but I know it’s special. It’s a bit like eating a delicious plate of food. You may not be able to pick out each specific ingredient, but when you taste all of it together you know it’s something extraordinary.

This movie is also the very, very rare exception where I wholeheartedly approve of the “Hollywood ending.” Honestly, was there any other way this movie could’ve ended other than with Andy and Red meeting up on the beach?

4. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007) vs No Country for Old Men (Cormac McCarthy, 2005)

nocountryfilm                   nocountrybook

I have a confession to make: I’m not a huge Cormac McCarthy fan. When The Road came out to such acclaim, I thought I should give it a look to see what all the hubbub was about. I think I made it about 35 pages, then gave up. A couple months later I picked it back up and finished it. It was a challenge, though. I guess his writing style is just not for me. I obviously see the talent Mr. McCarthy has, but it’s lost on me. It’s like listening to Mozart when you’d rather just crank The Ramones.

That being said, even after my experience with The Road I wanted to give him another shot. I had already seen the Coen Brothers film and really liked it a lot, so I decided to try the book. I did like it better than The Road, but something about it just never really grabbed me and pulled me in. Like Shawshank, the movie barely changed a thing story-wise, but it just heightened everything to a new level. I felt a tension and sense of dread watching the movie that I didn’t feel with the book. Maybe reading the book first would have had a different effect on me, but after reading a few pages of Blood Meridian, I think it’s safe to say my Cormac McCarthy collection will never take up much space on my bookshelf.

3. Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) vs Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk, 1996)

fightclub                 fightclubbook

Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favorite authors, easily in my top 5. The thing about his books, though, is they don’t necessarily make for an easy transition to the big screen. Which makes Fight Club that much more remarkable. David Fincher took a very complicated story and managed to make it easier to follow without dumbing it down at all. He turned a good book into an excellent movie. The casting and direction were also top notch, and I can’t imagine the book being adapted any better. Palahniuk himself has said that the film is superior to his book, and I have to say, he’s not wrong.

2. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997) vs Rum Punch (Elmore Leonard, 1992)

jackiebrown                 rumpunch

Again, an author in my top 5. Elmore Leonard has a gift for writing dialogue that sets him apart from most other writers. I got a box full of Leonard paperbacks for Christmas a few years ago and tore through most of them in no time flat. Writing this reminds me I need to go back and read the rest to remind myself why he’s a master.

At this point in the list we reach movies that really made some changes. In the case of Jackie Brown, some pretty significant changes. For one, the ethnicity of the main character. In Rum Punch, Jackie is white. Casting Pam Grier, changing the character’s last name to Brown, all the awesome music, creating an homage to ’70’s Blaxploitation films? All Quentin Tarantino.

He still could have made a good movie without making those changes, but it’s those changes that make the movie what it is. Following the blockbuster success of Pulp Fiction, I think this movie let some fans down who were perhaps looking for something a little more violent. That’s really a shame, because I think Jackie Brown is nearly flawless. Robert Forster was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work here, but lost to Robin Williams for his performance in Good Will Hunting. Robin Williams was great in that, but part of me feels Robert Forster was robbed.

1. The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006) vs The Prestige (Christopher Priest, 1995)

prestigefilm                        prestigebook

This film tops my list for two reasons: it’s my favorite film of the five, and it changed the source material the most. Christopher Priest’s novel is intriguing to say the least, but Christopher Nolan took that novel and made something truly awesome.

I should mention here that I really can’t stand period pieces. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a dude, or because I’m American, maybe both; all I know is if a story is set before, say, the 1950’s I’m generally not interested. So when I heard the plot of The Prestige – two rival magicians in nineteenth century London feud while trying to one-up each other performing the ultimate illusion – I was less than thrilled. But given Nolan’s track record (Memento is another one of my favorites) I decided to check it out.

I loved this movie, and I feel it’s one that practically demands repeat viewings. The way elements of Priest’s novel are taken and tweaked are so masterful that I felt like it made the book seem vastly inferior. The way the film unfolds in the same manner as a magic trick blew me away, and I think is something that may be lost on a lot of people, which is why the film asks you, “Are you watching closely?”

Like with No Country for Old Men, I read the book after seeing the film; reading the book first may have changed my opinion.

Well, there you have it. As always, these are just the subjective opinions of some geek on the internet. Feel free to agree or disagree as you please by leaving a comment below. If you’ve read one of the books but not seen the movie, or the other way around, do so and see what you think, and please, let me know.

The Books of Jobe Not-Really-A-Book Review – Born Standing Up, Steve Martin

stevemartin

There are a select few people out in the world who I consider to be flat-out awesome. Call it what you will – my idols, my favorite people, the people I know would be best friends with me if we could just meet, whatever. It’s people like Ray Charles; Martin Scorsese; B.B. King; Stephen King (no relation to B.B.); but perhaps more than anyone, Steve Martin. He’s  a musician, songwriter, actor, writer, and up until just a few years ago when Dane Cook broke his record (really? Dane Cook?), he had the highest-selling comedy albums of all time.

I tell you that so you understand this is not an unbiased book review. To be honest, it’s not going to be much of a book review at all. But I’ll get to that.

As a native of Southern California, it was fascinating to read about young Steve getting his first job at Disneyland right after it opened. He was all of thirteen and would ride his bike there everyday after school to work at the magic shop inside the hallowed grounds. He quickly became fascinated with how the more experienced magicians (the adults) would get laughs from the customers and learned everything he could from them.

The small magic shop couldn’t contain his performing bug, so he eventually moved up the road to the Birdcage Theater inside Knott’s Berry Farm. If you’ve never heard of it, Knott’s is a bit like Disneyland’s little brother. He worked there for a few years before leaving to attend college and begin working on a stand up routine.

That is merely the tip of the iceberg, and I would highly recommend the book to anyone who enjoys Steve Martin, stand up comedy, show business, the L.A./Hollywood scene of the late sixties, or tales of the pursuit and achievement of one’s dreams turning out to be different than imagined. He explains why he quit stand up never to look back, and I found it quite interesting.

The real reason I wanted to discuss this book, however, is this: as I was reading, he was discussing how excited he was about pretty much everything going on in his life in his early twenties – his thirst for knowledge, his never-ending quest to perfect his stand up, and his willingness to jump at any chance to learn something or do something new. At one point during a road trip to New York, he wrote his girlfriend a postcard about how he’d had a breakthrough regarding the direction of his comedy routine and made broad proclamations as to what he was going to do about it. Then there was this line:

“Through the years, I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.”

That line stuck in my head with such force that the next few sentences I read didn’t even register. I had to stop reading for a minute and go back and read the sentence again.

“…there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.”

Truth be told, it came as quite a relief. Since I started trying to take my writing more and more seriously, I’ve been constantly trying to keep myself grounded. I’ve known from the get go the chances are slim to none I’ll ever make money writing, but I would still find my mind wandering to magical lands where my books were published and some people even paid money to read them. What’s more, they actually liked them.

I tried not to dwell on such thoughts; the way it seems to be spelled out is as follows: writers write, edit, rewrite, edit, revise, edit, edit their edits, submit, repeat. Success could happen but you couldn’t worry about it, you just keep writing.

I understand that philosophy, and I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with that. But for some of us, you’ve got to allow a little leeway to daydream some. You’ve got to believe there’s at least some chance you could be hugely successful someday, and thanks to Mr. Martin I know it’s okay to picture myself doing readings and book signings once in a while.  Who knows, with enough commitment, dedication, and hard work, someday some of it may not turn out to be a delusion after all.

PS – If you enjoy comedy and haven’t seen Bowfinger, check it out. I’d say it’s one of the most underrated comedies of all time.

PSS – I’ve added another (very) short story titled Blue Skies to my Readwave page. You can check it out, as well as my other short stories, here.

Everyone Likes A Strong Climax

So, I’m getting pretty near the end of my work in progress and something hit me. Stopped me in tracks, really. I don’t have faith in my ending. I’m only a few thousand words from the end, and so far…the climax seems sort of anti-climactic.

I wrote a (very) rough outline of the story before I started, but I left a lot of room to just write off the cuff, because I like doing that and feel like I do it fairly well. I had a final scene in mind that I really liked, but nothing that really led up to that final scene. I was happy with the story up until the last couple chapters; then I started to feel like I heading toward an impasse.

I stopped writing it for about a week. I edited the second novella, I wrote the rough draft for a short story, then today I forced myself back into the WIP. I plowed through a couple of paragraphs, and things started to flow a little better. I feel better about it now than I did a week ago, but still, it feels….a little weak. I’m bound and determined to get the rough draft finished as soon as I can, because work becomes more of a burden in the summer months, so maybe if I put the story away for two or three months and look back at it in the fall a better ending will jump out at me.

I am curious, though…any writing Jedis out there have any advice for when you feel like you’ve written a good story that just falls flat? And for the non-writers out there, are there any books or movies that stand out to you as being especially anti-climactic?

A quick search of a couple of websites that addressed the topic led me to believe No Country For Old Men especially frustrated people. I really liked that move, and while I can see why people weren’t satisfied by it, I liked the ending. If I’m going by my own tastes and memories, I’d say…forgive me, any other Stephen King fans…It. All that build up, a thousand freakin’ pages, and it’s a giant spider? I was a little let down, to say the least. But please offer up your opinion in the comments.

The Usual Suspects – Use Of Red Herrings and Twist Endings

*Ridiculous spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen this 18 year-old movie, you decide whether or not to keep reading.

animated suspects

This is one of my favorite movies. Maybe not in my top five, but definitely my top ten. From what I gather when talking about the movie with people, your enjoyment of this movie will largely depend on what you think of the twist ending. Some people say the ending is all that makes the movie, and therefore it’s just a gimmick movie. I don’t know if I’d go that far. In my opinion, gimmick twist endings are ones you see coming. You may not necessarily be able to call it, but you know a twist ending is coming, and when it finally comes, it invariably sucks.

Obviously, the best twist endings are the ones you don’t see coming. You have to be invested in the characters and the story enough that you’re not looking for a twist. I think that gets lost on people sometimes. It seems like people use them as a sort of crutch or a safety net to save a lesser quality book/movie, not realizing you can’t…polish a turd (sorry, it’s the best I can do off the top of my head).

For those who don’t know, a ‘Red Herring‘ is a term to describe a plot device that serves to mislead the audience, and facilitate plot twists.  Since I started writing again, all the TV procedurals I used to watch with one eye open are now more interesting as I watch them with a more discerning eye, looking to see who they frame as the killer,  who they show as the plausible suspect, and who ends up being the actual killer.

My wife can call these shows like a psychic. 10 minutes in, the cops will be interviewing someone, and she’ll call out, “he did it!” and I’ll think, really? Eh, maybe. Then 45 minutes later I look over at her like, Holy crap! How did you do that?

In the past 15 (or so) years, when you mention a twist ending most people will think of The Sixth Sense. This relates to what I was talking about earlier; the foundation has to be solid, so people aren’t necessarily looking for a twist ending. That movie is perfectly plausible and interesting all the way to said twist, so when it’s revealed it’s especially surprising.

Which leads me back to The Usual Suspects. It leads you along a very believable trail before letting you know it was a huge  smokescreen and that you, along with the interrogating officer, have been duped. But depending on how invested you are in what you’re watching, you’re either left with your jaw hanging open, or you sigh and let out a disgusted pfft!

I’m curious, what are some of your favorite plot twists in books/movies?

Or, perhaps more interestingly, what are some of your least favorite plot twists?

usualsuspects

Recording Audiobooks

recording

This is not me.

I make my living with my voice. It’s not the way I would have thought things would turn out, but it’s true. I spend 40 hours a week talking to people. I’ve been doing it longer than I ever thought I would, and even though I’m not always thrilled about it, I have to say I’ve gotten pretty good at it.What’s always surprised me, though, is the recurring compliment I’ve gotten fairly regularly since I started down this road: ‘You’ve got such a nice voice!’

At first, I wrote it off. I’m naturally nice when I talk to people (while many in my field aren’t), so I thought it was something people said just to be polite. But over the years, the compliments kept coming. Finally, I realized maybe these random people out in the world were right; if they were, how could I use that to my advantage?

I got interested in the world of voice acting and voiceovers, and bought books that helped you craft your voice and learn how to read copy. But in the grand scheme of things, my timing was pretty bad; had I gotten into that field a few years earlier, it may have been a different story.

Jump to the present, and I’m back to my original love and writing again. As I’ve looked at my options for publication of my novella, it appears not a lot of indie publishers deal with audiobooks. So even if I find a publisher, I may well have to do the audiobook myself. That’s exciting to me.

I’ve looked at ACX, and it seems surprisingly legit — which makes me skeptical. Unless something changes my mind in the next month or two, I will probably go ahead with them anyway, because I don’t know what other options I have. Does anyone else out there have any experience turning their book into an audiobook? Did you do it yourself or hire a professional?

If you’re not a writer, what are some of your favorite audiobooks?

N is for No Boundaries

As I’ve mentioned before, my tastes tend to run toward the dark and demented. Be it books, movies, music or art, the stranger and darker it is, the more I like it. The two novellas I’m revising are not full on horror, but they both have some twisted elements to them. The novel I’m writing now (9,000 words in!) is my first attempt at full scale horror. But a while back I had an idea for another book.

I told my wife what I’d thought of, and she said, “that’s a neat idea.” Great, validation. But this idea is different for me. It very may contain absolutely no dark elements to it whatsoever. It may actually be, dare I say, heartwarming. So, I wondered:

1) Can I write something that style, and write it well?

2) Will people give it a shot if all I’ve ever written is dark fiction?

What I realized is, for number 1, the only way writers get better is keep writing. So I’ll make it the best it can be, and that’s that. And for the second one, of course they will.

As if the cosmic gods of writing needed to remind me, I was looking through some of my old paperbacks the other day. Completely at random, I pulled Different Seasons by Stephen King off the shelf. For the unfamiliar, it’s a collection of four novellas, two of which are Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (which produced the excellent movie with the shortened title), and The Body, which was adapted into the also excellent film Stand By Me.

standbyme

What I was interested in reading on this day was not any of the fiction in the book, but rather the afterword at the end. To briefly summarize, he talked about how Carrie turned out to be his first novel, and when it turned out to be a huge success his publisher encouraged him to send in what he was working on as a follow up. He sent two projects he’d been working on simultaneously, one horror and one not.  They both agreed the horror story was the better of the two, and that ended up being ‘Salem’s Lot.  He said that his editor was hesitant, even though he liked the book. His concern? That King would be dubbed “a horror writer” and never escape the confines that brought. It didn’t help that his third novel would be a little story he was working on about a haunted hotel, The Shining. By now his editor told him that was it, no escaping the trappings of being known as a horror writer.

In response, he said (paraphrasing), ‘If that’s what people want, I don’t have a problem with that.’ But he kept writing whatever he wanted in between novels, and that’s where the stories that make up Different Seasons came from.

I figure if Stephen King can get out of the box people tried to put him in, what do I have to be afraid of? Write what I want, and let the pieces fall where they may. Anyone can escape pigeonholing if they try hard enough. Except Jerry O’Connell. He’ll always be The Fat Kid From Stand By Me.

vern

Killing Characters and Playing God

God

In writing the two novellas I’ve finished rough drafts for, I noticed something interesting: I barely wanted any characters to survive. I’ve had to show restraint because I want to kill off nearly every character I create. A couple of them were untouchable, but I would still briefly consider offing them anyway. I think some of it may be a sort of rebellion against all the years of movies I’ve watched with “Hollywood Endings”, where the good guy saves the day and rides off into the sunset with the girl.

And if I decide I don’t want to kill them, I want to make their life as unbearable as possible. But that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? How boring would it be to read a story with a protagonist who doesn’t encounter any struggles or challenges? But I don’t just want them to struggle – I want them to suffer.

cartoonvillain

MWAHAHAHAHA!!!

Physical, mental, it doesn’t matter. They must go through hell. There is the seed of an idea for a story in my head that would turn this whole concept on its head, but that’s the exception. What I’m wondering, though, is where is the line in the sand? How far is just too damn far, where you kill someone off and the audience just gives up? If you put a character through too much and the payoff is not great enough, will it turn readers off? At this point, I’m sure I don’t know. But someday I may very well find out.