Hollywood ruins book characters

Many new movies are based on comic book superheroes, so we have an idea of what the characters look like before we buy our popcorn. Superman will have muscles, a firm jaw, a spit curl of hair over his forehead.

Novels are something else altogether.

When we read a book, we don’t generally have pictures of the characters provided for us. We have to use our imagination, which makes books better than movies. (Simmer down, millennials. Walk it off until you’ve realized I’m right.)

For generations, readers had to imagine what Captain Ahab looked like, and they weren’t disappointed when Gregory Peck picked up the harpoon in cinematic version of the Melville novel.

Huck Finn, Jo March, Gatsby, Lolita, Jane Eyre, Yossarian, even Alice – all just pictures in our individual minds until we watched them in the movies. The old man was one thing when we read Hemingway and another after Spencer Tracy gave him a face in The Old Man and the Sea.

When Dorothy Marie Johnson published a short story in 1953, she probably didn’t see John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart as the protagonists in the movie made from it nine years later, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Watching that film the other night, though, I know I couldn’t name two actors who could have done a better job.

Peck, Stewart and the Duke all did wonderful jobs of turning the page into film, but sometimes Hollywood doesn’t even try. Three instances come to mind.

The Shipping News (1993), by E. Annie Proulx, was a well-written book. Its protagonist, Quoyle, was a tall, fat, goofy, ugly man with a “great damp loaf of a body.” He had a “failure of normal appearance,” was “hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas ad cramp.”

Got the picture, the hideous picture? Now, do you remember who played him on film? Kevin Spacey. That’s right. The star of House of Cards and American Beauty. The statistics say Spacey stands 5-foot-10, but he plays a foot shorter.

When I read Forrest Gump (1986), I didn’t picture Tom Hanks, although he was stellar. I realize he stands 6 feet tall and starred in Big, but Gump was, in the Winston Groom novel, already 6-foot-6 by the time he was 16. Grow, Tom, grow!

My wife has a complaint about a series of books she reads by Lee Child and featuring investigator Jack Reacher (he could “reach” high shelves). He is 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds: “He was extremely tall, and extremely broad, and long-armed, and long-legged.”

Maybe you’ve seen the movie version. Reacher is played by Tom Cruise, who is half that size. My wife isn’t rushing to the theater.

I just noticed that all three characters I cited were tall in print and short on film. Pure coincidence, but I wonder whether you have complaints about what Hollywood does to your favorite book characters. Let me know.

Reach Glynn Moore at glynn.moore@augustachronicle.com.

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