Since today was officially declared a snow day about 10 minutes ago for me, and I’m already up, here’s a rant for you on movies and books. (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT)
Last year, at a reading workshop at my alma mater, I got Jodi Picoult’s book My Sister’s Keeper, and although I was a bit skeptical at first (it seemed like a girly book, and yes, there’s still a part of me that’s acutely aware of literary taboos like reading books that are meant for another demographic altogether), I was pleasantly surprised at the level of complexity in both the primary issue of the book and in how the book was set up and told through a multitude of voices. The level of detail in Picoult’s research on the medical issues in the story was also remarkable, and it added a level of verisimilitude that isn’t too common in books these days.
So with expectations high, I watched the movie version be hyped up and wondered, as I do with all movies-based-on-books, how badly they’d screw it up. The first indication of this was hearing that the character of Julia, the social worker who serves as guardian ad litem for Anna and who has a past with Anna’s lawyer, Campbell Alexander, was cut from the movie altogether. That made me think that the result might be something good but not something like the book.
Before I discuss the last thing that made me hate the movie after finally watching it last night, let’s stop for a moment and talk about the issue of why books always seem to be better than the movies. I’m admittedly more of a bibliophile than a cinephile, and that might color my opinion somewhat, but I think it’s more than that. There is a tendency to value the original authorial intent over any changes to it, even by the same author or creator; one need only look at the criticism George Lucas got at going back with his original Star Wars trilogy (IV-VI) and making digital changes to it, like inserting Hayden Christensen at the end of Return of the Jedi alongside Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi (despite Christensen only having been born two years before Return was released in theaters). Fans don’t seem to care that Lucas wanted these changes, so they are authentic; we just want things the way they were first, when they were “right.”
That may explain the general tendency toward the attitude that “the book is always better than the movie,” but I don’t think it encapsulates why I ended up hating the ending of My Sister’s Keeper. I thought most of the movie was fairly true to the book, even down to some of the sarcastic lines that Campbell Alexander threw out in response to questions about his service dog (and I will also admit that Alec Baldwin fit the role quite nicely). But the ending seemed to betray the effect that the book’s ending was meant to have.
The book’s ending has a dramatic twist: after the court battle, Anna wins her case but is now willing to give up her kidney. Before anything can happen, Anna and Julia are in a car accident that Julia survives but Anna does not. Brian, Anna’s father, is a fireman and arrives on the scene to find Anna dead, and they rush her to the hospital so that her kidney can now be donated to Kate, the sick daughter. As a result of this ironic twist – since the whole book is about Anna’s resistance to being a donor, and her eventual acquiescence results in her donating in a very unexpected way – Kate lives and largely recovers from her illness. In other words, Anna does end up saving Kate’s life, but not like you’d expect.
In the movie, Kate dies, and everyone moves on. WTF?
I’ll be the first to admit that the book’s ending caught me off-guard when I first read the novel, and so I can understand why it wouldn’t be that great for a “Hollywood ending.” And maybe Picoult’s ending seems a little bit far-fetched, to have the one sister dramatically killed and the other survive and go on to live a normal life; cancer is far more brutal than that for most people. But still, it just doesn’t seem true to the impact of the book, and that makes me hate it.
It almost makes me think that Hollywood should stay away from good books – except for the fact that seeing a movie can often be incentive for some reluctant readers to go read the book after watching the movie. (Then again, it’s also an excuse for lazy readers not to read the book, so maybe it evens out.) After all, this isn’t the first time a movie-based-on-a-book has been changed substantially from the original; I remember reading an article in English Journal that made me aware of the fact that the book I Am Legend had a dramatically different ending from the movie, so much so that the meaning of the title was horribly skewed. While the movie played the title off as referring to Robert Neville’s legendary status fighting the vampires and trying to find a cure, the book was built around the idea that Neville was legendary to the vampires in the same way that vampires are legendary to us: that is, that the vampires in their new post-apocalyptic society built a mythos around Neville as a scourge that tortured and killed their kind in the night. It is such a significant change that it hardly seems like the book and the movie are based on the same central idea.
That’s of course not to say that you can’t enjoy the movies of My Sister’s Keeper or I Am Legend; personal enjoyment never did much depend on whether or not you read the book. All I can hope for is that they don’t mess up Famous Last Words – not that the movie industry has given me much to hope for.