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Books as Movies

Books as Movies — How ‘The First Wives Club,’ ‘The Grass Harp,’ ‘Jude,’ and ‘The Chamber’ measure up against the novels they’re based on

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Shakespeare, Austen, Capote, Hardy, Grisham, King: Movies adapted from literature both classic and pop are almost as common these days as films in which the hero accesses secret information on a computer screen. This fall’s crop of book-to-film translations is of reasonable quality. There are no howlers like Demi Moore’s The Scarlet Letter, and a few performances are great. So why read?

A sampling of four current book-movie combos provides four good reasons.

Literary lyricism! Truman Capote published The Grass Harp in 1951, basing the central character of the gentle, whimsical spinster, Dolly Talbo, on his elderly cousin Miss Sook Faulk, who made the author’s lonely childhood in Alabama tolerable. ”She was one of those people who can disguise themselves as an object in the room, a shadow in the corner, whose presence is a delicate happening,” Capote wrote. In Charles Matthau’s dainty movie telling, we see Dolly’s birdy lovability in Piper Laurie’s soft movements, and we see many pretty shots of the wind waving through the singing grass. The cast is A list — including Walter Matthau (the director’s father), Sissy Spacek, Jack Lemmon, and Edward Furlong. But how can Roddy McDowall’s star turn as the local barber, for instance, live up to Capote’s description: ”A little monkeyman who had to stand on a box to cut your hair, he was agitated and chattery as a pair of castanets.” Read the book; you’ll savor more.

Story development! Characters don’t come more troubled or psychologically complex than Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead, the suffering couple in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. His dreams of scholarship thwarted, tricked into marrying a local pig farmer’s daughter, and living with his cousin Sue out of wedlock, Jude lives a miserable life in the face of societal disapproval. Sue, meanwhile, is a tortured woman who loves unorthodoxy but is afraid of sex. She thinks she’s a freethinker, until tragedy turns her into a deadened conformist. Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet make a fine Jude and Sue in Jude the movie, but the filmmakers have pared the novel’s scope considerably. See only the movie, and you’ll never know that Jude remarries his first wife and turns to drink. Or that Sue returns to her husband. Read the book; you’re entitled to the whole story.

Plot logic! Let’s not go crazy here; this is John Grisham we’re talking about, and the movie version of The Chamber carries about equal weight as his machine-made high-stakes legal thriller. But on the page, the story of Klansman Sam Cayhall’s crime (a bomb kills two Jewish children), and the arrival of Sam’s grandson, Adam Hall, to defend him, unfolds with greater attention to detail, to conversation, and to a-follows-b logic. Family connections are strengthened. (Adam’s sister shows up.) Religious repentance is allowed. Read the book; stuff gets explained.

Sex! Olivia Goldsmith sold The First Wives Club to the movies before she sold it to a publisher; it was only after Sherry Lansing at Paramount optioned the manuscript that publishers got interested in what became a dishy best-seller in 1992, and is now this fall’s movie hit (and a best-seller — again). Robert Harling’s screenplay, tweaked by Paul Rudnick, is peachy, but Goldsmith’s wicked Screw you! fantasy novel is equally rich. You can take it into the tub with you. And best of all, you can read the sexy subplots that never made it to the screen, like Elise’s affair with a younger man. Read the book; it’s full of naughty bits that’ll fire your imagination. And isn’t that what literature is all about?