DID YOU LIKE THE movie better than the book? The question is as old as cinema itself, and the answer depends, of course, on the work. Texans despised Edna Ferber’s scathing novel Giant, but they loved it as a feature. The cinematic versions of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show and Elmer Kelton’s The Good Old Boys proved worthy of their literary inspirations. But then there are the busts: Lovin’ Molly, the film version of McMurtry’s Leaving Cheyenne, is forgettable at best, as is the adaptation of Dan Jenkins’ Baja Oklahoma . The latest addition to this dubious roster is Before and After, based on the 1992 best-seller by University of Houston professor Rosellen Brown.
Before and After follows the anguish that murder wreaks—not for the victim’s family, but for the suspect’s. With that twist, it’s no wonder the formidable actress Meryl Streep optioned the book. But, to some extent, Before and After just isn’t movie material. It is a painstakingly crafted examination of angst and sorrow, embellished with Old Testament references and apt analogies (“Their stupefied voices would hang out in space and flap like laundered nightclothes”). Those qualities just don’t translate to the screen. There is little action or visual charm—the author herself says the film is “incredibly claustrophobic”—and there is absolutely no humor.
Filmability aside, between the casting calls and the cutting-room floor, Hollywood rewrote much of the novel. Although Streep, pained and pink-nosed, is effective as the mother, Liam Neeson falters as the father. In the book the character is variously “loving” and “comforting,” but Neeson plays him as such a hothead that it’s easy to believe that his son would pick up a tire iron and let fly. Similarly, the son’s personality, complicated and anguished, is gradually but fully realized in the novel. Edward Furlong’s sullen take, though, makes the audience long to send him up the river.
Likewise, while much of Brown’s dialogue has been preserved intact, many other critical details have been changed. The fatal bludgeoning in a snowy, deserted field was far more vicious in the book—an atypical Hollywood dilution—and the ending has been pointlessly altered. Most glaringly, the Jewish family of the novel has been made not only richer but Christian, a change that, among other things, undermines a pivotal cross-burning scene. Of the “de-Judaizing” Brown notes, “They did the same thing to Max Apple’s Roommates. Hollywood can handle only one dramatic issue at a time.”
How true. First-run movies are instant entertainments that plotworthiness must propel through a single short sitting; books, which can be enjoyed piecemeal, are better suited to complicated issues and unleavened enlightenment. As Brown’s tome shows, a best-seller does not automatically a blockbuster make. For those who prefer their medium well-done, skip the movie, read the book: The story was better before than after.