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From Novels to Movies: A Rant

June 3, 2014 3:36 pm | 7 Comments

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Obviously, I am a huge book reader. I am also a huge movie fan. In fact, you can read some of my movie reviews here, here, and here. So, why are there so few good movies that come from books? There are some that have done a pretty decent job or at least did not manipulate the story to become unrecognizable: Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and The Princess Bride. The absolute best movie adaptation I have seen is To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe Gregory Peck had something to do with that… In any case, if you have not read the book or seen the movie, I highly recommend both. But, for the most part, when most people hear of their favorite book becoming a movie their response is:  “Oh no! I hope they don’t ruin it!”

For a time, we could use the excuse that screenwriters and directors had to be able to fit everything into a 1 to 1.5 hour timeslot. But now, that’s not true. Movies are becoming longer and longer…most 2.5 to 3 hours. And, in fact, some producers make more than one movie out of one book (i.e. The Hobbit movies)! So, why do directors and/or screenwriters feel the need to add or remove characters and even add or remove plot elements?

This is a topic of endless frustration for me. It just seems that with all of our great technology and plethora of great actors, someone should be able to make a movie which won’t make book fans pick up their torches and pitchforks. For example, many people were upset (myself included) over the changes in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. Who is that strange Orc anyway? And umm… why did Legolas show up with Kate from Lost? That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the movie. But must there always be a superfluous shallow romance to keep us entertained? Or do we always need multiple villains to keep the action coming?

I’m asking, because I really do not have a good answer. Maybe it’s a Hollywood conspiracy aimed at dulling our minds so we’ll be desensitized to violence and pornography, and we won’t flee to the comfort of a good book. It really does not make sense to me. If you are given a popular book, you know that fans will come to watch its movie adaptation, so why change it? We can film basically any stunt, battle, person, place or thing these days. So, I’m tired of the ‘It would have been too difficult to film’ excuse.

I’m interested to hear your opinion on book to film adaptation. What are your complaints? Likes or dislikes? Should it even be done? Also, does anyone have good book to film recommendations? And maybe we might have some young film makers read this who will take note.

Meryl Amland

Meryl Amland

Meryl Amland is Production Assistant and E-book Editor at Ignatius Press. She is also a guest writer for Catholic Word Report. She graduated from Ave Maria University in 2009 with a Bachelors in Theology and Literature, and she hopes to finish writing her own novel someday. Her short story "I Couldn't Help but Notice" is available as an eBook.

Tags: movies novels reviews

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7 Comments

  1. June 3, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    I loved the book The Rite, and looked forward to the movie. I couldn’t have been more disappointed. The movie based (loosely) on the book bore little resemblance. If movie makers can’t do a better job of making a book into a movie they should just say,”No.”

  2. John Herreid

    June 3, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    I often think the best format for translating a book to the screen is the miniseries. There have been a number of very good miniseries based on books, such as the BBC’s versions of “The Way We Live Now” by Trollope, “Bleak House” and “Great Expectations” by Dickens, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” by John le Carré, and “I, Claudius” by Robert Graves.

    But, then again, there are also a number of good movies based on books. But the truncation that is necessary to dramatize the book as a two-hour movie means that what you get on screen is a very different creature than what you read on the page. The best movies based on books (you mention “To Kill a Mockingbird” above, to which I would add “The Horse’s Mouth”, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, “The Maltese Falcon”, and “Ride with the Devil”) are ones that stand apart as a separate work of art. If it’s too slavishly close to the text it ends up being rather rote and lifeless, but if it’s in the hands of someone who doesn’t understand the book, it can come off as an inversion or distortion of the book (the 2008 version of Brideshead Revisited comes to mind).

  3. June 3, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    If I may, it’s for the same reason that Dante’s Divine Comedy would make an atrocious and boring movie: different mediums demand different ways of telling the story and it doesn’t always work to directly translate a story form one medium into another. So, an adaptation means it will not be the same as when you first beheld the source. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we all went backwards (read the book after watching the movie) we wouldn’t say, “The movie was better!” Heck, even Shakespeare has a hard time being adapted to the screen.

    In some cases, such Cuaron’s adaptation of Children of Men, it actually works well to adapt the original story. For my money, that is the only case where the film was better than the book (please don’t kill me).

    Some other cases where books were successfully adapted into movies include Graham Greene’s The Third Man and Brighton Rock (1947). In both cases, though, Greene wrote the screenplay based on his novel. Perhaps that helps.

    Well, I think I just confused the issue more. My advice: don’t watch book adaptations if all you feel is disappointment. There’s so much more to life than having to constantly say, “The book was better”

  4. June 3, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    I took part in Act One’s month-long screenwriting intensive some years ago. Admittedly, I have not turned that experience into a screenplay, but I did learn something about the craft. Writing for film is a very different endeavor than writing a novel. Film is visual storytelling. A novel is not. To compare a film and the book on which the film is based is akin to comparing a landscape painting or photograph with the real environment. Each art form should be judged on the merits of that individual art form. I do not think it would be fair to judge Albert Bierstadt’s incredible “Yosemite Valley” painting (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0b/Bierstadt_Albert_Yosemite_Valley_Yellowstone_Park.jpg) as inadequate because it doesn’t have strong reality of Ansel Adam’s photographs of the same location (http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/four_seasons_in_yosemite/images/yosemite_valley.jpg). And neither should judged as weak replacements for actually experience Yosemite National Park.

    A film should be judged on the qualities related to visual storytelling, which includes input from numerous individuals: Producers, Directors, Screenwriters, Actors, SFX team, and on and on. A novel should be judged on the skill of the individual novelist. This may not be possible for many since films based on popular novels – The Hobbit, Chronicles of Narnia, etc. – are trying to cash in on the novel’s popularity. I will admit that I judge Jackson’s Hobbit films rather harshly due to my familiarity with Tolkien’s original work. Jackson gets many demerits from me for making the novel almost unrecognizable. Still I have to acknowledge the film isn’t the novel, and the novel isn’t the film.

    Regarding the film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, I wonder if that translated so well into film because it is, as Flannery O’Connor described it, essentially a children’s book. In other words, since Lee created characters that some argue are rather simply and starkly drawn she actually made it very easy to create the film adaptation. One writer summarized O’Connor’s view on Lee’s novel as, “a story of good and evil, without greys or nuance or character development.” And, of course, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch certainly doesn’t hurt.

  5. June 3, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    I agree; so much if a written work manifests itself in our imaginations. Making that manifestation (a) equal for every viewer/reader, (b) exactly what we saw in our minds when reading, is almost impossible. I think it’s why I will always prefer a good novel over a movie – because it’s my personal interpretation of the written word and I just don’t think you can put that on a movie/television screen. Some have been good/close to the novel, but none will ever adequately express it.

  6. June 3, 2014 at 8:02 pm

    I almost absolutely agree. I don’t think Jackson even read the Hobbit. He did a decent job with LOR, but I think that was mostly due to those supporting him. The reason I doubt that he read Hobbit is that he took a book about how bad greed is and instead of making two great movies, he pads it with a bunch of stuff from LOR and organizes it so that it can translate well to a video game. All so he can make more money.

  7. June 4, 2014 at 7:52 am

    Short answer: Movies are shallow. A novelist spends a good deal of time on character development, setting, and so on. A movie depends on the skills of actors and director to convey the nature of the characters; some succeed, others, not so much. A movie simply shows the setting, and rarely draws our attention (as a novelist may) to specific features and their significance.

    It is very difficult to translate a rich novel experience to the limited resources of the screen. LOTR succeeds remarkably well. It is more common that a short story may be the basis for a movie. A typical movie is about 90-110 minutes; a short story or novella of 50-100 pages often will be a good fit.

    Many years ago, when I read Shogun, I believed it would take 12 hours to dramatize that story properly. The mini-series had twelve episodes, but unfortunately, it also had 15 minutes of commercials per hour, a new high water mark at that time.

    Imagine Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah. It is an excellent novel, and although parts of it fairly beg to be filmed, it would be very difficult to do justice to the richness of that book.