I have already reviewed "Cold Mountain", the movie. This essay is on which is better – the book or the movie.
Cold Mountain is an acclaimed novel by Charles Frazier which was a smash bestseller and multiple award winner. It is set in North Carolina during the Civil War. It tells the dual and parallel stories of an upper class woman named Ada and her farmer beau Inman. After a brief courtship that ends in a kiss that implies their future bliss, Inman is off to war. The book alternates chapters of Ada coping with adjusting to surviving without her preacher father and Inman’s Odyssey-like trek back to her. Her story is the story of a woman totally unprepared for rural life and running a farm who is transformed with the help of a women who is her opposite – Ruby. Meanwhile, Inman is encountering a series of eccentric characters and perilous incidents. They reunite at the end of the book.
The book is wonderful. Frazier is a great writer. His prose is the kind that makes you savor every sentence. The alternating chapter approach really works because Ada and Inman’s stories are equally interesting and the end of each chapter brings anticipation of rejoining the other story line. The two leads are endearing in a non-schmaltzy way and the supporting characters are fascinating. It is not a flawless book, however. Given the bizarre nature of some of Inman’s adventures, there are some elements that strain credulity. In particular, two characters survive shootings that are nothing short of miraculous. Frazier also tends to throw in every variety of flora and fauna that existed in rural North Carolina. This is the perfect book for romantic botanists. These are minor criticisms, however.
How does the movie compare? My provocative premise will be that any movie that does not improve on its literary source is either poorly made or trying to bring to screen a book that cannot be recreated. It would have taken incompetence to not have made a movie that was better than the book in this case. Considering the director (Anthony Minghella) and the star-studded cast and the amount of money that went into production, it should not be surprising the movie is better than the book. It is also no shame for the book that this is true.
Think about it. Minghella starts with a great book which is ripe for film adaptation. The book has nothing in it that cannot be recreated on film (with the possible exception of the passage at Junior’s cabin). That cannot be said for all books. The director starts with a great “script” (the book) and can pick which scenes to incorporate into the movie and can change the scenes to improve them. He can use dialogue from the book and improve on the lines where he sees fit. Even a great book can be improved. The problem is when screenwriters and directors make poor decisions on changes they make, when they throw in elements that are not in the book, or they leave out key things from the book. These problems do not apply to the movie version of “Cold Mountain”.
I know this will be an unpopular opinion, but the movie is better than the book. It is faithful to the book and even keeps the same structure. It does leave out some scenes, but none are crucial and it has all the key scenes and characters from the book. In significant ways, some of the scenes are improved and some of the characters are fleshed out. Here is a list of the improvements:
1. The book makes you wonder if Ada and Inman are really in love, the kiss in the film makes it obvious they are.
2. Teague and Boosie are much more integral to the plot and their malevolence makes Ada’s homefront experience more realistically fraught with peril than the book which limits her problems to running the farm.
3. The raid on the Swangers (in the book it is a raid on a different farm) personalizes the atrocities that occurred.
4. In the movie, Veasey’s death is not only more realistic, but implies that Inman’s obsession with getting home to Ada resulted in the deaths of the men.
5. In the movie, the scene with Sara (the widow with the baby) is much better. Having Sara shoot the soldier who was actually caring for the baby was a powerful comment on the war.
6. The Battle of the Crater gives a clearer picture of what Inman went through and why he is a different man who is worried about how Ada will feel towards him. Plus these scenes at Petersburg include Swimmer, Inman’s Cherokee Indian friend.
7. The final battle with Teague has Ada and Ruby heavily involved in defending themselves.
8. Ada and Inman’s “honeymoon” is much more romantic than in the book. Plus there’s some nudity.
Some will argue that the movie is an aggravating hodgepodge of accents and nationalities of the actors (I’m talking about you, Caroline), but the acting in the movie is quite good (the worst actor got an Academy Award) and I do not care how the words sound as long as the sentences are good. I also don’t think most people care that Ada is a brunette in the book and a blonde in the movie.
Most importantly, the movie has sound which means we can hear the music. Music plays a role in the book, but it is bumped to a higher level in the film. Minghella even adds a musician by fleshing out the role of Georgia (and then he puts Jack White into the role – genius). The score and two of the songs were nominated for Academy Awards.
In conclusion, always read the book first because it will give you a fuller story and then the movie will probably improve on the basics.