I am aware that adaptations have been with us for centuries and that Shakespeare borrowed his best plots. But that doesn't stop this book lover from being suspicious when movies and plays glom onto my favorite titles.
With "Murder on the Orient Express" now on stage at the Guthrie Theater and upcoming TV and movie versions of "American Born Chinese," "Oppenheimer" and "Flamin' Hot" on the way, it's a good time to revisit the eternal dilemma of bibliophiles: If you haven't already done so, should you read the book before you see the movie/TV series/play?
I can see both sides with "Orient Express." I know the story well, so there will be no surprises for me. But the thing about one of Agatha Christie's classic mysteries is that it works even if you know how it turns out. It might even be more fun to watch the pieces fall into place if you go into the Guthrie fully aware of whodunit. But cast members I've spoken with hope theatergoers don't know the ending because word is that audiences at previous "Orient Express" productions often gasp at one of the most audacious mystery solutions of all time.
I'd still recommend reading the book, simply because it makes sense to me to enjoy the story in its original form first. But I think there's wiggle room, so I don't have any hard-and-fast rules.
Peter Schilling, on the other hand, does.
"I always encourage people to look at the book first," says the founder of the Cinema Book Club, which meets at Moon Palace Books and has discussed such books-turned-movies as "Women Talking" and "Cool Hand Luke."
That's based on personal experience.
"The book that inspired me to start this club was 'The Night of the Hunter,' one of my favorite movies. I'd seen it many times before reading the book and now I think the book is 300 times better. It's a masterpiece," said Schilling. "In a way, you're seeing the film in its earliest stage. Someone read this and was inspired to make a movie, and then made certain choices."
"Choices" is a key word in that sentence. Books give the reader more room to imagine things than plays or movies do; you get to envision the title character in "A Man Called Ove" instead of defaulting to the movie's decision that he looks exactly like a thin Tom Hanks.
On the other hand, the sumptuous costumes and locations dreamed up for either "Murder on the Orient Express" movie, a couple of TV versions or the Guthrie stage version can create a world that you might not have the wherewithal to envision, unless you have a lot of velvet fabric swatches and towers of tea cakes lying around your house.
In other words, you get to interpret the story when you read a book. But when you see a movie or play, you're getting an interpretation filtered through lots of other people. Both can be good (I love the 1974 "Orient Express" movie — which earned Ingrid Bergman an Oscar — almost as much as the book) but there's a good chance that whoever dreamed it up first did it best.