(The cover for a later paperback, as I lack a cool dust jacket for mine)
The book's plot, what little there is, concerns a strange circus of legendary beasts and figures that comes to the small town of Abalone, Arizona led by the mysterious Dr. Lao. The locals, after quibbling over the contents of the circus parade, attend the spectacle of strange delights in small vignettes that eventually culminate in the final show in which they experience a sacrificial ritual to the god Yottle. The film, however, adds a well-worn Western plotline, by which a wealthy landowner seeks to buy out the locals who are unaware how valuable their land will be when the railroad arrives. After experiencing the circus and through the magical interferences by Lao, the townsfolk and the wealthy landowner experience a change of heart.
In all, it presents one of those difficult conundrums: you can't literally translate the book into a film (certainly not a Hollywood film), but while the liberties they take translate into a fairly effective film, it changes the tone of the book. At the same time, despite the alluring possibilities with the visuals based on the wonderful characters, one still has to wonder how they thought this would ever make a movie at all. In any event, both exist, and I would very much recommend tracking down the book as it is a fun read and provides plenty of food for thought, but if you'd like to see the movie, I can't say it's not worth if if only for Randall's performances in a myriad of roles beyond just Lao and the general gaiety of the spectacle.