Like many people whose favorite entertainment/creative medium is the book, I was looking forward to the movie version of Memoirs of a Geisha because I imagined it as another opportunity to indulge my skepticism about turning great books into great movies. Like millions of others, I'd loved the 1997 novel about the rituals of mid-century Japan, and I was doubtful that even producer Steven Spielberg and director Rob Marshall, or maybe especially Steven Spielberg and Marshall, would be able or willing to capture the layers and nuances of the novel that masterfully never quite lapsed into melodrama.
I wish I could say my skepticism was reproved in this instance, and that Arthur Golden's triumphant novel made for a cinematic triumph. But it did not, at least not in my opinion—and, distressingly, it seems to have failed for all the usual great-book-to-just-okay-movie reasons. The film is oversimplified and the through line (about a young geisha on a lifelong search for a man who was generous to her when she was a little girl) is too obvious. The presentation was atmospheric and the acting wonderful, but the movie is both too long and too thin to captivate me the way the book did.
But then, like most people whose favorite entertainment/creative medium is the book, I almost always feel that way. With the exceptions of, say, To Kill a Mockingbirdand the recent Mystic River, I can't think of a movie that I loved as much as a book. On occasion, of course, a not very good book becomes a good movie—Bridges of Madison County, anyone? How about The Horse Whisperer?—and frankly, I think that's why: they weren't such great books in the first place, so the filmmakers had nowhere to go but up. That, and the fact that it's easier to add filmic nuance to a simplistic book than to subtract it from a complicated one.
This is a pretty typical "book person's" view, I realize, and it can verge on the smug. The book is not only a venerated object, but a truly personal creative vessel, while movies are just... movies. They're showy, expensive and, maybe worst of all, collaborative.
What a novelist does is create "art," the thinking goes; a moviemaker—especially a big-budget Hollywood moviemaker—merely expresses it. Besides, the people who read and the people who line up at quadriplexes all over America are hardly—sniff, sniff—of the same ilk.
Yet, publishing being publishing, we're also conflicted about all this—and not only because we're so often conflicted about so much. And, gripe as we might, the making of a big-budget Hollywood film from a li'l ol' book actually brings more attention and readers to that book. Not to mention dollars: even a bad film (e.g., Bonfire of the Vanities, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) boosted sales of the matching titles and sometimes put them back on bestseller lists. And last I checked, we are all supposed to be dedicated to the idea of finding readers and selling books, right?
So maybe we (I) should stop sniping and just be grateful that Geisha the movie will bring new readers to Golden's terrific book. Even though people whose favorite entertainment/creative medium is the movie might have different standards, maybe they'll know a good book when they see one.