Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Better than the Book: The Black Stallion

I've put a few of these posts up before, in which I extoll the virtues of cinema by pointing out that books aren't always better than the movies based on them. Let's see, there was Wonder Boys, Psycho, The Wizard of Oz, Fight Club, Get Shorty, Lord of the Rings, and History of Violence. I've got a good sized list of these for future posts, but today's story came up recently.

I read this book to my son not too long ago. It's a good book, well worth reading. I'm such a fan of the movie that I couldn't believe I'd never read it before.

This was Walter Farley's first novel, and it shows. The prose isn't all that smooth--but to be fair I should note that I haven't read the subsequent volumes, and maybe he improves with experience. After all, he started writing it when he was in high school. The prose really isn't an issue, though. It's a kids' book, and the prose does its job. Regardless, the story's great.

This is a pretty great book.
So what makes the movie better? Showing us the horse. It's as simple as that. One thing implicit in all of these "Better than the Book" entries is that prose style is the equivalent of cinematography. We get to see lots of shots of the horse running and jumping and just being a horse on a beach. It's great, especially if you're a kid who already loves horses. It would take a tremendous talent to capture in prose what the camera can capture in images. Here, the medium makes the film better.

The movie has a couple of other things going for it. One is Hoyt Axton, who plays the father. He does a great job with the small amount of material he has. In the movie he tells a version of the story of Alexander the Great's horse, Bucephalus. He wins a tiny bronze figurine of Bucephalus in a card game, gives it to Alec, his son. Alec keeps it with him while stranded on the island after the boat sinks. I guess I could get into variations of the Bucephalus story (the version I know has the horse being afraid of its shadow, so the young Alexander merely turns the horse so it's facing away from the shadow, and it calms down enough so he can ride--that's not mentioned in the movie), but it's not entirely relevant.

I think what the movie does, and the book doesn't, is equate riding a horse with flying. Riding can give you that feeling. It's a feeling of endless possibility. Of strength and freedom. The book didn't really attempt to do this at all. It was purely a product of cinematography--of director Carroll Ballard and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.

I want a bronze statue like that sooo very much.

Farley had a huge impact on my childhood. My grandfather was a horse trader, and lived just a mile from my parents' house. So I got to ride horses pretty much whenever I wanted. I named my horse Little Black, after Farley's picture book of the same name.

The Mystery Horse

So, the long and the short of it is that the film made me love this story, and the book is great, too. As I kid, I wanted to be Alec Ramsey. Reading it as an adult, I kinda still do. So maybe the movie's only better because I didn't read the book until I was an adult.

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