can’t judge a cover by its book by Lucas Hanft

When designers are faced with the challenge of capturing the essence of a book in its cover, they are working in a single dimension. When the book becomes a movie, however, they are forced to design in parallel universes—the book itself, and its cinematic incarnation. How much do you trade off the movie’s currency—the logical marketing instinct—while remaining faithful to the author’s original impetus? Since this past movie season was aberrantly literary, with several well respected, decorated novels being turned into major motion pictures, the question has particular relevancy. Looking at the covers of the reprints tells you something about how the book industry and the movie industry choose to interact.

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham: This book makes no bones about where its popcorn is buttered. The post-movie paperback edition sports a cover image that is a duplication of the movie poster for the Oscar front-runner. The book announces that it is the winner of the Pulitzer, and tells us, in small type, that the book is now a “Major Motion-Picture.” And, as if the movie poster cover wasn’t enough of a nod at the big screen version, there’s also a list of the female stars featured on the cover. The New York Times runs ads for both book and movie that share this image, making the marketing blend that much more confusing.

But what’s most extraordinary about the success of the film version of The Hours is the revived interest in the book on which it is partially based, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Dalloway has sold more copies since the release of the movie The Hours than the book The Hours itself. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the most recent edition of Mrs. Dalloway has a silver sticker slapped on its face promoting it as the basis for The Hours. While some Bloomsbury groupies might cavil at this commercialism, remember that Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s hubby, was a publisher, and Virginia herself was a partner in the Hogarth Press.

About Schmidt, Louis Begley: The Ballantine paperback, most recently republished in September of 2002, makes no reference to the movie—even though Ballantine must have known about the movie by then.

The cover image is a black and white photo of a black umbrella in a puddle, an image evoking the loneliness and desperation of the main character; it’s a far cry from the classic eyebrow slant of Jack Nicholson, the movie’s star. The cover loudly proclaims the fact that the book was a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award in huge white letters over black background at the top of the cover. The question that ultimately persists is why Ballantine has conspicuously avoided hitching its paperback to the popularity of its movie-house counterpart. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the film version uses Begley’s novel as a mere framework for the plot, transforming the setting and the background of the main character. The two works are about two different Schmidts. Maybe Begley didn’t want readers looking for Old Jack in his book, which stands on its own apart from the movie. On the other hand, it’s doubtful that Begley would have been given approval rights over the cover. Few authors have such power.

Gangs of New York, Herbert Ashbury: The sticker on the cover reads “Now a Major Motion Picture,” and I can’t help but feeling a slight urge to cry wolf. Whereas Schmidt used its fictional counterpart as a framework and character reference, Gangs of New York the movie bears little resemblance to the book, which is basically a collection of urban legends from the mid-nineteenth century. There is as much relation between the two Gangs as there is between The Orchid Thief and Adaptation­—both of the books are unadaptable, rambling, and sprawling. Ashbury’s Gangs of New York is an oral history, a collection of fables and anecdotes. It is not Scorcese’s movie. Is it fair to market Gangs of New York in this way? That’s a tough call. The ethics of it are questionable, but the bottom line is that a worthy book will get into more people’s hands.