The hassle of my moving house recently was mitigated somewhat by the pleasure of seeing old books emerge from long-stored boxes. I did a cull as well, gritting my teeth as I sent away books that I’d thought I should’ve read but hadn’t, books that I’d read but didn’t love enough to keep, books I wasn’t sure why I had, books that reminded me of paths I’d started down before I turned elsewhere. I decided that, aside from a few particularly nostalgic items (like Solomon Shag, the earliest book of mine that I still possess) the books I kept would be ones that were a part of my present life and interests. I wasn’t going to maintain an archive of abandoned enthusiasms. But all those stories and ideas! All that untapped thought! Still, too much, must make choices.

I’ve got a few mutually-incompatible shelving systems going now, and one section I thought I’d create was ‘Books That Have Been Adapted Into Movies’. A few observations about my little collection:

  • None of them have movie tie-in covers. Last week I overheard a twentysomething couple at a bookstore: “No, not that one, it’s got the movie cover on it”, and I feel the same way (I’ve written about tie-in covers before). The exception is maybe Dracula, though I suspect the image of Bela Lugosi is appealing to the recognizability of the Count rather than to any viewers of the 1931 film.
  • I came to most of these books from seeing the movie first (not a great thing for someone who majored in English Lit to admit).
  • I’ve noticed that my copies of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and Ways of Seeing are missing (TV, I know, but since I’m forging ahead with fuzzy categories they’d be on this shelf).
  • Some of these books are borrowed.
  • Umberto Eco is now sitting in about five different sections around the house.
  • Only one of these movies has Kevin Bacon in it, as far as I know.
  • Of the five nonfiction books, three have been made into movie dramas.

It’s interesting that fewer of the nonfiction books became documentaries. They were also the only books on this shelf written at the same time that the movies were being made. Sebastian Junger’s War was part of the same project that became Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo, and Standard Operating Procedure was written by Phillip Gourevitch & Errol Morris from the same source material that Morris’s documentary was based on. I could probably place Nubar Alexanian’s Nonfiction next to Standard Operating Procedure as it’s made up of photographs from Errol Morris’s film sets and locations, but it’s too big for this shelf. (In a Morrisonian kind of way, leaving it with the photobooks makes evident the contradictions of book shelving: some books by subject matter, others by form, others by size. And anyway, why don’t I just shelve the DVDs with the related books?)

I guess it’s partly because of the formal differences between books and movies. You can write about something that has already happened, but you can’t photograph it retrospectively. The ‘Based on a True Story’ movie drama is the more common cinematic translation for even bestselling nonfiction writing (think also of Catch Me If You Can and Moneyball; in fact, have a quick glance at this Wikipedia list). Are movie-drama narratives more engaging than documentary ones? I don’t believe this. Plus, I’m not sure how long you could assert that there’s  a difference in narrative styles, since lots of fiction films look like documentaries and vice versa. Is it just that a movie with film stars is still trumps? Or that the most appealing way of conveying a first-person narrative in cinema (aside from filming it as you go) is to reconstruct it as a movie drama?