Books vs. Movies: Contrast and Compare

This weeks BTT was suggested by: Superfastreader:

Books and films both tell stories, but what we want from a book can be different from what we want from a movie. Is this true for you? If so, what’s the difference between a book and a movie?

I hate to rehash old stuff, as sometimes I think it makes me look lazy. However, I could not help but read this question and think back to an assignment I had in college. The instructor was a fan of Capote’s and had us reading biographies about him and a book he had written. In addition, he had us watch the movies made from each of these: the biographies as well as two different versions of that book, which was In Cold Blood.

Our assignment was to choose our favorites and explain why. Here was my essay that I turned in, and as you will see, I feel it does justice to the question asked this week. It may not answer the question exactly, but I think you will see how I tend to judge…or should I say compare books to movies, as well as books which cover similar topics.

Tone, Timing, and Topic

Truman Capote once noted, “Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.” In all mediums used to convey a message, the tone, timing, and topic are of utmost importance, yet each are rarely if ever completely objective. This became apparent to me while reading the assigned biographies.

Gerald Clarke’s 1988 book, Capote: A Biography was begun before Capote’s death. Mr. Clarke spent many hours interviewing the famous author, as well as others who were involved with Capote during the years writing In Cold Blood. Not only did Mr. Clarke get to know his subject intimately, his book allows us to do the same. Even in the author’s style, one can sense Capote’s spirit, his gift of melodic prose as when he writes, “Such a kaleidoscope of contradictory emotions.” (326) The majority of the book was written while Capote was still alive, and published only four years after his death. While reading, one can sense that a truer interpretation resides within the pages of this book.

George Plimpton’s book, Truman Capote: In which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, was published many years after Capote’s death. Plimpton chose to write his book as an “oral biography”. As he explained in an interview, “an oral biography consists of edited transcripts stitched together in chronological order to form a seamless whole.” This format offers the reader many points of view leaves him or her to decide which is true, or at least what accounts they want to believe is true. It is a biography of opinions about the man, not the man himself. Plimpton once stated in an interview that Gerald Clarke’s biography is more about Truman’s life whereas, his is a “series of sketches rather than a portrait.” Due to the nature of this style, Plimpton’s book paints a less flattering view than Clarke’s does.

Both print biographies were published years apart; however, the movies were filmed at the same time. Each is as dissimilar in tone as their literary counterparts. “Capote” is muted in tone, colors, and speech. “Infamous,” on the other hand, is clear to put Capote’s outrageousness on display. Toby Jones’ portrayal in “Infamous” is more accurate in terms of Capote’s flamboyant character and his life before going to Kansas. However, Phillip Seymour Hoffman captured a side of Capote that one would expect due to the strain of his involvement with the killers, and the obsession with finishing a book dependent upon matter and timing of their death.

Both movies, and actors, are similar in that they poignantly portray Capote’s growing obsession in writing the book he “was always meant to write” and the devastation that followed his achieving that goal. As noted by his biographer Gerald Clarke, Capote would never have gone to Kansas if he had known the cost. He “would have driven straight on. Like a bat out of hell”. (320) Unfortunately, due to the nature of Plimpton’s oral biography, it is difficult to determine the accuracy of each film, as even within his book there are contradictory accounts; most notably, whether or not Capote stayed to watch Perry Smith’s execution.

There were two adaptations of Capote’s novel In Cold Blood. The more striking of the two is Richard Donner’s 1967 version. Due to the skill of the director and the actors, the film evolves as more of a documentary than a fictionalized account. The film was released less than a year after the book was published, and no more than two years after the killers hung on the gallows. To add to the realism, the director used members of the community and jury to play their own roles, and filmed on location in Holcomb, including the Clutter Farm. Moreover, in the final scene, it is astonishing to learn that the executioner who pulled the lever on the real killers, Hickcock and Smith plays himself. It cannot be underestimated the impact this film has on those who realize the accuracy of the events being depicted. The only significant discrepancy is a character that was in neither the book, nor part of the original events. He is Bill Jensen, a reporter very loosely based on Capote. He was portrayed as everything Capote was not. One telling difference was Jensen’s ability to immediately gain the confidence of Alvin Dewey and the local people, something Capote struggled with for months after his arrival in Holcomb.

In 1996, In Cold Blood was remade as a television movie. One similarity to the earlier film is that the script remained faithful to Capote’s book. Other than the movie being in color and a soundtrack that at times seemed disconnected from the action, there were no significant differences. Yet it cannot compare to Donner’s version. This would especially be true for the older members of the audience who remember the headlines, seeing the actual killers on the evening news, and the stark realism of the 1967 movie. After watching both, the Donner film by far has the authenticity and the intensity to draw, and entrance an audience while taking it for a dark and horrifying ride.

Gerald Clarke’s Capote: A Biography, the movie “Infamous”, and Richard Donner’s “In Cold Blood” are my choices as several sources I would refer to in order to conceptualize who Capote was, and how he came by the nickname, ‘Tiny Terror’. Clarke’s biography shows a side of the man which had to have existed even though it was hardly, if ever shown in public. Much has been said and written regarding his outrageous behavior, mannerisms, and voice. In Capote: A Biography, we learn that he was human, with human failings, and suffered for them as much as anyone else would have if faced with the same.

“Infamous” shows the other side of Capote, the side he wanted everyone to see – and hear. Capote himself once said, “Well, I’m about as tall as a shotgun, and just as noisy.” The movie epitomizes the public persona of this famous and troubled author. It shows more of the relationship he had within the New York social circle he adored, as well as the humorous and raunchy side of him that must have made him the hit of every party. Primarily it was the scene in the prison as he walked to Perry’s cell that made it evident how he earned the nickname “Tiny Terror.” Capote’s humor had a sharply honed edged and heaven help anyone on the wrong side of that blade.

Richard Donner’s “In Cold Blood” delivers the book visually nearly word for word, act by act. Donner sought, and succeeded, in bringing “honest realism” to the screen. Capote provided the words; the film sight and sound. The event becomes more alive and frightening, as the director skillfully uses his medium to ensure that the audience who previously could only imagine what must have really happened, to being shown how the terrible events actually unfolded. Capote created a solid framework for Donner to build upon, and it is for this reason that you must believe that this was the “book he was always meant to write,” and that he was a truly gifted writer regardless of his own personal failings.

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gautami tripathy

CReativity comes in making a movie too. But we get see the director’s own interpretation of a book. In books, we can draw our own conclusions. Great post. I like it!

Here is my BTT post!