question of the day: Which movies are better than the books they’re based upon?

It’s official: Daniel Craig has been cast as Mikael Blomkvist in the Hollywood English-language production of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I still kinda don’t see the point of remaking the movie so soon — the Swedish-language version is fantastic — but there’s no escaping it now.

But it got me thinking about movies based on books in general. The vast majority of them cannot hope to match the excellence of the books they’re based on. Even when a film adaptation is really really really really really great: As amazing as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, can you imagine anyone saying they’re better than J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels? I can’t.
However: I’m in the middle of reading Stieg Larsson’s Man som hatar kvinnor — in the English translation, of course [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]; my Swedish is terrible — and It. Is. A. Slog. It’s a genuine chore to read, though I will carry on and finish. It’s not just a matter of translation, which would be forgivable, unless this is the shoddiest and most unfair translation ever, one that radically rewrites Larsson’s prose. For Larsson commits the cardinal sin of fiction: He shows rather than tells. Instead of dramatizing a scene for us — letting us eavesdrop on characters’ dialogue and actions — he describes too many things secondhand. (For example, in many instances, instead of letting a character speak their own words, he paraphrases for us what he or she said, which is particularly unforgivable when he’s telling us that someone told a joke but won’t tell us what the joke is!) The plotting wanders all over the place, and is sometimes ridiculous: in one bit, Lisbeth is hit hard enough by a car to damage the laptop in her bag but doesn’t even notice being hit!

The damaged laptop is a key point the plot turns on, and the movie handles it much better, and in a way that also contributes to the overall theme of story (about women and violence). Everything about the movie, up to and including the fact that the story is dramatized for us, is much, much smarter and sharper onscreen.

My favorite the-movie-is-better-than-the-book example used to be Contact, but now it’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I hope I’ll be able to say the same about the Hollywood version, too.

Your turn: Which movies are better than the books they’re based upon?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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