While book lovers almost universally malign their favourite books being turned into movies, reading books simply because one has seen the movie is also often frowned upon. After the books are tarted up with movie covers and showered in media coverage, their new mass appeal gives them a sort of nouveau-riche celebrity. But really, this knee-jerk snobbery is founded on an overly biased and likely faulty assumption that film is somehow inherently inferior to literature, and that the two mediums can’t enrich one another. Or perhaps I’m just saying that because I can think of two books I’ve read recently that jumped up in the interminable “to be read” queue by virtue of their film adaptations.
Of course having seen the movie already inevitably affects our experience of the book. Most importantly, we already know the plot, so the book itself is forced to rely on its other strengths. And as I picked up Charles Frazier’s celebrated novel Cold Mountain, I hoped that my reading experience would be undiminished by my familiarity with (and appreciation of) the movie (2003, Directed by Anthony Minghella, who also wrote the adapted screenplay).
But before we get into it, a brief synopsis for those who haven’t seen the film. Set in the American South during the civil war, Cold Mountain follows two lovers separated just as their relationship was beginning to blossom: Inman, who was injured at Petersburg and ends up deserting the army to start the long walk home to his lover whom he is unsure will still want him, and Ada, a spoiled only child, who is left to attend to a failing farm on her own, but who lacks basic survival skills. Enter Ruby, a no-nonsense woman who essentially raised herself, and promises to whip Ada, and her farm into shape .
One of the ways in which movies can perhaps never touch books is the reader’s engagement with a character. Regardless of stellar acting, we can never really match the time we spend reading a character in both duration (hours more than during a film), and in our level of engagement. We are often privy to a character’s every thought, and furthermore, all characters are dependant on our own engagement to bring them into being. And despite the fact that I already had a sense of the characters (and the actors playing them unavoidably playing a return engagement in my mind), Frazier’s characters are fully realized and engaging people that I was happy to spend more time with. Ruby especially shines — practical, no-nonsense, and tough as nails,
but with brief moments of softness. She is admirable survivor, and a feminist ahead of her time. Her friendship with Ada, her polar opposite, is particularly touching, and strikes me as completely genuine.
I also was interested in the relationship between Ada and Inman, the epic romance of the film, which I’ll confess, leads to the best sex scene I think I’ve ever seen in a movie (and this, sadly, was the only way the novel just couldn’t compete . . . even with Jude Law resuming his role in my head, I was dismayed to discover my favourite line of the movie (perfectly delivered by Jude Law) was not part of the book). But that aside, Inman and Ada’s relationship is more subtle in the novel, both are more cautious, each hardened – Ada willingly, and Inman unwillingly. Our lovers circle each other like wary boxers, and Frazier manages to paint an epic love story without being saccharine or melodramatic.
Another way in which the book exceeds the film is in the rich sensory and historical detail that is bursting out of each page. I’ll confess I love reading about pioneer life – I think it started with an obsession with the Little House on the Prarie books as a young girl. And here my interest was richly rewarded — what you can eat, the properties of different kinds of guns, how to butcher a pig or roast a squirrel (I couldn’t help smiling as Ada looks at her roasted squirrel, with head still attached and Ruby’s father says “That head’ll twist right off if it’s bothering you.” — Now that’s authentic).
My only complaint with the book was Frazier’s attempt to enhance the scope of his novel by giving random characters a chance to tell their story. Not only were these digressions largely unnecessary, but they more importantly, they were handled clumsily, relying heavily on chance encounters and convenient section breaks. But then again, it’s worth remembering this is Frazier’s first novel and such stylistic quibbles are of little import compared to this evocative portrait of a brutal period of American history. It manages to be grand in scope, but subtle in its message, avoiding diatribes on slavery, achieving its argument through the essential humanity and compassion of its characters, while providing a moving testament to the perseverance of the human spirit.
Read the book. Watch the movie. Whatever order you do it in is up to you…