Don’t Judge a Book by its Movie

I admit it. I’m one of those annoying people who constantly complains about how much better the book is, after having watched the film adaptation of it. Come with me to see a movie that’s based on a book I’ve read and I’ll keep you informed throughout with insightful comments like, “That’s not how it happened in the book,” and “Oh no, they cut out my favorite part,” and “This scene is so much better in the book.”

For anyone who’s suffered through my running commentary (mostly my husband): I’m sorry.

But…I can’t help it!

Besides, 95% of the time I’m right: the book is way better.

The Golden Compass Movie 2007

Philip Pullman's Golden Compass was a fantastical novel full of magic and heart that explored dark and violent themes from the perspective of a young girl. The movie version swiped out all of the magic and heart, and the remaining skeleton was therefore both jarringly vanilla and terrifyingly grotesque.

I’ve learned over the years to accept film-versions of beloved novels as merely one person’s interpretation of a story that had to be cut down and simplified in order to fit into two hours. I’ve learned to appreciate that even if my overall opinion of the movie is just “meh,” that at least I’ll get to see the characters on the big screen, rather than just in my imagination. And I’ve lowered my expectations to the mere hope that the writers and directors and producers will get at least one scene right, and allow me to completely immerse myself in a beloved story, even if it’s just for a moment.

But more often than not, I still end up leaving the theater underwhelmed, if not seriously annoyed.

I know, Mr. Barty Crouch, Jr., I too am pissed off that the directors of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire removed all the mystery when they made it into a movie. In the very first scene they gave away the surprise ending to one of the only plot elements of the book that made sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those book purists.

I’m not going to complain if a screenwriter or actor changed the wording of one character’s line from chapter four, or if the hero had blonde hair in the book but was being portrayed by an actor with brown hair. I love it when a director intelligently cuts a scene that barely worked on the page and has no hope of translating to film (e.g., Ron Howard’s wise decision to NOT have Robert Langdon jump out of the helicopter and miraculously survive at the end of Angels and Demons), or when a screenwriter adds a bit of dialogue that is pure brilliance (e.g. screenwriter Deborah Moggach’s beautiful dialogue at the end of the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice: You may only call me “Mrs. Darcy”… when you are completely, and perfectly, and incandescently happy.” “Then how are you this evening… Mrs. Darcy? Mrs. Darcy… Mrs. Darcy…” SWOON).

I have my issues with the film adaptations of the Twilight novels, but let's face it, Jacob's "I am hotter than you" line in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse movie is an epic win.

No, in fact, it is directors (and screenwriters) that care too much about that kind of nonsense who usually make mediocre movies out of phenomenal books.

But those aren’t the worst types of directors and writers. Oh, no. The worst ones are those douchebags who have either never read the book, or hated the book, and set out to make their own version of the story and in the end produce a pile of crap that only bears a vague resemblance to the original masterpiece.  They are the ones who end up making horrible movies out of phenomenal books.

The problem is that turning a book into a movie isn’t easy. Hollywood producers seem to think it is, but it isn’t. They look at a best-selling novel and they assume that if they make a movie with the same name, they’ll make millions of dollars. Unfortunately, they are usually right.

But if only they would take the time to do it RIGHT, then they could earn millions more!

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the few film adaptations that I actually enjoyed more than the original book version. In addition to its beautiful cinematography and sets and costumes and acting, the screenwriters and director took the time to cull Tolkien's weaknesses and highlight his strengths. For example, they managed to get Frodo out of the Shire in less than 200 pages, created a Rivendell that was even more breathtaking than that described in the book, and gave the female characters something to do besides be gloriously beautiful or try to be men, all without tarnishing some of the best moments ever written.

Yes, you can make a movie out of a book (especially if said book is insanely popular amongst the teen population) and break box office records. But 20 years later, no one will care about it. The books might still retain their popularity for generations to come, but unless you do it well, the movie will be a passing fad. Case in point: Elvis. His music? Legendary. His movies? Don’t be surprised if people born after 1985 aren’t even aware of the fact that he made any.

Here’s the thing: the best books are written by fantastic authors. But book-to-movie adaptations are rarely written by equally fantastic screenwriters.

Because what works on the page is rarely going to work as is on screen. A good screenwriter has to really “get” the book, but they also need to have the know-how to translate what was so loved about a book into a screenplay that will elicit the same reaction. That means they have to tell the story in a different way, restructure a character’s development, add scenes, remove scenes, re-write dialogue, reorganize plot points, cut characters, change settings, etc. And throughout all of this, they have to retain enough of the original flavor and key moments to really do the source material justice.

Could you imagine if a screenwriter massacred Mr. Darcy’s "My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever," by changing it to “I’m still fond of you, but if you don’t feel the same, just let me know and I’ll keep my mouth shut.” Egads.

In short, it might be harder to translate a great book into a great film than it is to simply write a great film. You’ve got to do everything right when it comes to writing the screenplay, just as you would have to do for any great film, and yet there is the added pressure of having to remain true to the source material.

It is not an easy task.

And the sooner Hollywood realizes that, the better off we’ll all be.

But until they do: I urge you not to judge a book by its movie.

(Laura Sheehan’s debut novel, Dancing with Danger will be released by Red Sage Publishing on May 1, 2012).

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10 thoughts on “Don’t Judge a Book by its Movie

  1. True, its not easy to do adaptations cause its hard to pick from so many events and squeeze it into a 2 hour film. Then again, some adaptations are brilliant, especially the hunger games.

    • I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it’s good to hear they did well with it. Then again, the Hunger Games is the type of book that is easy to translate to the screen: There is so much action, plus half the book takes place “on the screen” in the book, too!

    • Hmm, I was not a fan of the handheld cameras and probably won’t see any more of the movies because of that. Otherwise, the movie was good.

      • Yeah, I’ve heard that, too. Still haven’t seen it. But I also hear that the first 15 mins are the worst, and then the crazy camera moves calm down a bit. Which is good, cause I get seriously motion sick!

  2. I couldn’t agree more on almost all of your points. But perhaps Solaris is a bad example. The Tartakovsky film is considered one of the great classics of Soviet cinema. In fact, Soderbergh’s version is almost more of a remake of the Tartakovsky film than it is an adaptation of the original novel.

    Anyway, aside from that point, I feel your pain. The most annoying offenders are those filmmakers who take a not-particularly-popular novel and completely change everything to the point where there’s no resemblance to the original. I can’t even understand why they bother. If the book isn’t famous enough to get you name recognition and you don’t actually want any of the original material, why bother paying for the rights?

    But I have come to terms with filmmakers making major changes to the original material. I used to hate that, but it doesn’t bug me as much as it once did, as long as the thematic core of the original is still around. Of course, if the film is just one of many adaptations and not acting as the adaptation, then you can do whatever the hell you want with it as far as I’m concerned. But sometimes I feel like the filmmakers don’t realize that when they make that first big adaptation of a story, they are sort of acting like ambassadors from the original work to the greater population. Many people will judge the book by its movie, and so there’s an obligation not to mislead people as to the central themes and core concepts of the original work.

    Having said that, I just tried to build a list of my favorite film adaptations of novels that I’ve read and I realized that there are exceptions. Two of my favorites are The Neverending Story and The Princess Bride, both of which are fantastic books and great movies. But the movies succeed on different fronts than the books.

    The film version of The Neverending Story is oddly faithful to the specifics of the novel (especially if you put the two movies together), but manages to miss out on one of the core conceits of the book. If you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it, but halfway through the book, right around the part where in the movie, Atreyu confronts the magic mirror, things get very interesting. But now that I think about it, I feel like the movie would be even stronger if they had worked that in.

    Now The Princess Bride I guess gets a waiver from the ambassador obligation as the writer of the screenplay was the author of the novel. So I guess it’s understandable how much it differs in theme. I love the novel for all the metafictional weirdness. The novel pretends to be an abridged version of a much longer original work that’s full of political subtext that the editor (supposedly William Goldman) just doesn’t really care about. It’s got bits where Goldman cuts in and says that the original version had ten pages of Buttercup getting ready to go out which is supposed to be biting satire but that Goldman just finds boring. This kind of peeks in a bit with the grandfather skipping over the kissy stuff, but you don’t get any of that conflict between Morgenstern (the “real” author) and Goldman. But I guess he just wanted to focus on the other themes.

    Anyway, I’ve written far too much for a Monday morning, so I shall stop now.

    • Ah, good point about Solaris. I guess I’m not up on my Soviet cinema. I’ll take that part out!

      I know what you mean about not-that-popular books getting turned into films (like “I, Robot,” which although it’s a classic, can’t be compared to Harry Potter in terms of current popularity). When they change it so much that it’s almost unrecognizable, I wonder why they even bother to keep the original title.

      I haven’t read Neverending Story yet, I’ll put it in my TBR file. I read Princess Bride, but after seeing the movie first. They are both good, but I think the film better because of exactly what you describe: the book was a little too snarky for me. Still good, but I liked the sillier humor in the movie better.

  3. The reason for using the title “i, Robot” was to increase the box office. The author’s widow was quoted as saying that she sold the rights to that name because she thought her late husband would have wanted her to do so. After having read hundreds of short story intros by Isaac Asimov (which always tell more about Mr. Asimov himself than the story being introduced), I find it easy to believe that he would not have passed up an opportunity to have his name in the credits even if he wasn’t able to get them to make a movie more true to his robot stories. I say this fondly because when I was 10 to 15 years old I read his work faithfully, non-fiction as well as fiction. In retrospect I see the flaws in his fiction, but his books will always have a special place in my heart anyway.

  4. I am not sure how I really feel about it all. Sometimes it works, but most times it doesn’t. On the other hand, I am not that much of a purist and as long as they have the feel of the story, then I am usually okay unlike what they did with Anne Rice’s Exit to Eden which was simply idiotic.

    Interesting post and it made me think about how I really feel about books to movie. Mostly I think I am just “meh” over all.

    • I’ve only read one Anne Rice book, which I enjoyed, but the only movie adaptation I saw was “Interview with a Vampire,” which I thought was pretty good. (then again, I haven’t read that one yet, so for all I know, the movie pales in comparison!)

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