On the Subject of Adaptations: Part 1 – Separating the Book and the Movie

“The book is better than the movie.”

According to many in the reading community, truer words have never been said. I admit that this phrase has found its way past my lips on more than one occasion, though with building apprehension as I have grown older. The situation of adapting a story from the written word to the silver screen is a precarious one at best and a horrid affair at worst. I have seen comments on Facebook and YouTube expressing the sentiment in the image above and feel obligated to make a case for adaptations.

Are there bad adaptations? Of course; but there are also film adaptations that are successful in their storytelling despite how they wander from the source material. In fact, I would argue that if a film adaptation were as described in the above image, it would not be enjoyable. A successful adaptation takes what is good about the original story and puts its own spin on the material; there should be a reason to watch the movie besides wanting to see rather than read.

1. HP.jpg

I understand the frustration of those who feel movies don’t include enough from their literary predecessors. Plot points, characters, and even entire story lines are often cut from the film script due to time constraints but film and literature are, at their cores, two very different types of media. While they overlap in the stories that they are able to tell and their prominence as forms of entertainment, it is in how they tell the stories that their differences come to the forefront.

As anyone who has taken a beginning creative writing course will tell you, the goal for writing fiction is to be able to show without telling. For a movie, this is achieved by simply pointing the camera at a subject and filming it. With the written word, however, this is attained through years of practice with deliberate word choice and careful description. Where showing is second nature in the former medium, it is a challenge in the latter.

2. Shining.jpg

A direct adaptation shouldn’t be the end goal because people watch films and read books for different reasons. With reading, we are actively engaged and our attention is required for the story to continue. Throw a movie in and walk away without pressing pause or focus more on your phone than the film and the story continues without you. This may seem like common sense, but the underlying difference here is that reading is a very intimate act that allows us to inject our own imagination into the space between the lines.

Now, that isn’t to say that we can’t put meaning into films as well. Both film and literature are able to be analyzed for their themes, imagery, and hidden meanings; where their analysis differs is in what we focus on. When studying literature, students are taught to look for imagery, writing style, theme, voice, point of view, symbolism, and narration. Film analysis focuses on imagery, mise en scène (how everything visible in the shot is arranged), sound, camera angle, symbolism, and visual motifs among other elements. While there is overlap here, some aspects are more present in one medium over the other.

3. clockwork-orange-book-vs-film.jpg

When we read, we are the directors as well as the observers of the story and this allows us massive control over everything except for what is written on the page in front of us. This often endears books to us because they take on a small part of us through their consumption. Films, however, are completely separate entities unless we were directly involved in their production. That doesn’t mean we can’t impart meaning in them, but it becomes a conscious effort rather than part of the process of ingesting the art.

I don’t believe that anyone would be truly content with the movie described above because the medium’s strengths simply don’t lend themselves to such a piece of art. A direct adaptation is not viable because, despite their similarities, books and movies are simply too different how they are consumed. In order to enjoy a movie adaptation we must accept the changes in form, attempt to avoid comparison (as difficult as that may be) and enter the theater without preconceived notions.

4. hobbit_bookmovie.jpg

Two of the most glaring examples of bad and good film adaptations can be found in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) and Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). I realize that one is a graphic novel and the other a novel, but these are two films that I saw before I read the source material and both have extended editions. I think these similarities lend a necessary singularity to my perspective and I plan on releasing blogs dedicated to these two examples in the coming weeks.

So what do you think? Would a “17-hour-long spectacle” fill the void in your heart that bad movie adaptations have left or do you prefer your movies to be familiar but different? What are the best and worse movie adaptations that you have seen? Feel free to comment!

The images featured in this post can be found through the hyperlinks below.
Featured Image
Harry Potter
The Shining
A Clockwork Orange
The Hobbit

11 thoughts on “On the Subject of Adaptations: Part 1 – Separating the Book and the Movie

  1. Good Points and post. Im part of the crowd that says the book is better than the film too. I needed this article, because Im the most critical fim afficionado ever. The best adapatation Ive seen was ” Sin City” and the worst adapation ive seen was ” 50 Shades of Grey”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s hard to separate the book & the movie – I expect when seeing an adaptation of a book for there to be some differences. After all, I don’t think anyone really truly wants to see a book onscreen exactly how it is written. Sometimes these differences are fine, wonderful additions or changes, and sometimes they are aggravating and make no sense! I’m always curious to see what is changed when I see an adaptation.
    Books have the benefit of making the reader able to see into someone’s thoughts, which is compelling to read. But to watch someone thinking? Not very interesting, and films tend to skip over those types of stories or change them drastically.
    Hands down, the worst adaptation I’ve ever seen was Z for Zachariah, which I don’t even think can be called an adaptation it was so off the mark. And some of my favorite adaptations (LOTR, Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice) do have some changes, but changes that are in the spirit of the books.

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. Your point that people actively engage the written word, while passively viewing or ignoring film/video is well made.
    And I think that’s one of the key components, how anyone who reads a story will inevitably develop their own version of the story, while cinema is much more definitive and uniform.

    There’s the classic comparison that narration is a natural component of a written story, while it’s often met with frustration when used in cinema.
    As you say, they’re two distinct forms of storytelling, with radically different strengths.

    I can’t help but think on how the Lord of the Rings books frequently dedicated large portions of the text to things that cinema covered in seconds, or how Fellowship simply referenced traversing stairs in Moria, while the film version turned that into an entire mini adventure/conflict.

    Even if a film loyally recreates the book, many would find fault with that, citing that they didn’t really “do” anything, since they simply followed the instructions laid out by the novel.

    At the end of the day novels almost always have the luxury of being as long as they want, while movies and shows are much more limited by the conventions of their medium; and there is the trend that most comparisons feature stories that were books first, as few seem to concern themselves with movies that are subsequently converted into novels.

    Another very interesting topic. Thank you for sharing.


    1. Thank you! I think there is credence to comparing the two, however to looking at them in their respective medium is the best way to keep from going crazy haha. Anytime I see or hear “the book was better” I cringe inside.


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  9. Pingback: On the Subject of Adaptations: Part 3 – Goldilocks – Perpetually Past Due

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