30 July 2010

One Flew East, One Flew West, The Book or the Movie, Which Was Best?

Crazy, man, crazy.

Finished reading Ken Kesey's novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest last night. Hadn't read it before (hey, it's only been out for 47 years!). Moments after finishing the final page I realized that I'd read what has been correctly labeled a classic of American literature.

Today, courtesy of Netflix, I popped a copy of Milos Forman's 1975 cinematic version of the book into ye olde DVD player. The movie I had seen -- though not for many, many years -- and very much admired.

So now it's time again to play: so what did you like better, the book or the movie? Not so fast. I don't like to play that game. Books and films are two very different art forms and indulging in comparisons creates a false dichotomy. After all would one compare a song with a painting? But people do compare books and movies when the latter is based on the former, after all they are both forms of narrative so the question can be raised: which did a better job of telling the story?

Sounds a reasonable posit, but again misleading. After all each medium has very different ways of telling that story. One can utilize visual imagery, the other can explore the mind's of characters and give deeper background.

So the debate rages on....

But I confess to this, I'm slightly less impressed with the film after seeing how it diverged from Kesey's novel. Kesey told the story from the perspective of  Chief Bromden and it was very much an allegorical tale about the United States. Adding a character, dropping one compositing a few, taking out scenes and changing others is often a necessary evil when translating literature to feature film, but here the tone of Kesey's novel is changed.

Kesey was reportedly very upset about the way his story was treated and has steadfastly refused to see the movie. I understand his frustration. He told a very important story in a manner that is the equal to what the greats of American literature have accomplished and its largely missing in the movie. On the other hand he's missing one helluva good show.

Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher as McMurphy and Nurse Ratched respectively brought the two main characters to life. It is impossible to imagine any actors doing more justice to the roles. (That they won the Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars, demonstrates that the Academy does sometimes make the right choice.) The rest of the cast is similarly inspired, including up and comers named Danny Devito and Christopher Lloyd who would share small screen time in Taxi, one of the great sitcoms of all time.

The film catches much of what Kesey was saying about institutions, rules, rebellions, power and any number of related topics. The pacing, the very rhythm  of the film, its occasional bleakness and sometimes manic moments are cinematic gold.

It's what is missing, however, that was evident to me. I believe the filmmakers took the easy way out. They put the focus on Nicholson and Fletcher and made some easy points through their relationship and the whirlwind of activity and emotion that their psycho dialectics wrought. For their troubles they ended up with a critical and commercial success. Not too shabby.

But the large sums of money the movie made must have been cold comfort to Kesey. This did not reflect on the thoughtful story he was telling of American power as symbolized by "the combine" described in the book. Chief's feigned deafness, the McMurphy vs. Ratched battles and the mental institution itself were all powerful metaphors. You could have told that story in the movie. Because of the movie's success it has become iconic and will not be re-made in a way that Kesey would find more pleasing.

So am I in fact yielding in my long-held position that you cannot compare a book and a movie based on that writing? No. Particularly when said movie is almost invariably described as "based on..." That the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is not of the caliber of the book upon which it is based does not make any less of film. They are independently and separately outstanding pieces of art. Let's leave it at.

(By the way I'm well qualified to make judgments on books and movies that purport to tell stories set in insane asylums. You see, I taught middle school for nearly 20 years....)


Anonymous said...

I must take the lazy route with my answer by proclaiming that I have enjoyed both with equal measure. The book is extremely entertaining to read. In the movie Jack Nicholson IS the character and not just portraying the character. I cannot dissociate the character from the actor anymore.

Tudor Queen said...

Fascinating piece, very evenhanded, but one very minor nitpick. Louise Fletcher won Best Actress for her performance, not Best Supporting Actress.

Richard Hourula said...

I stand corrected and will make the change. Thanks for pointing that out.