Now a Major Motion Picture! Why We Can’t Make Books into Movies

I am not overly qualified to write about books made into movies. I have both read and seen movies based on the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Treasure Island, Ivanhoe, the Princess Bride, Robin Hood, many of Shakespeare’s works–some of them thrice over–and Baroness Orczy’s masterpiece. However, while I have seen movies based on them, I have not actually read the books by Jane Austin, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Alexandre Dumas, and the genius behind Master and Commander, to name a few. Nor have I seen the adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, although I have read the book. (This is a travesty since I work in a county that shares his name.) The book is very linguistic so I’m rather interested in seeing how they managed the movie. There are a few ridiculously popular franchises which I have not bought into at all. (See The Lightning Thief, Eragon, Harry Potter, and Twilight.) However, as a reader, a passable writer, and an avid movie-watcher, I am qualified to talk about movies made from books–and books made from movies.

1. The chief problem that plagues movies based on books is that there is simply not enough room. Whereas it is acceptable to write a book that takes ten or more hours to read, it is not generally acceptable to make a movie longer than three hours. Film-makers in theory could make movies longer, and some do, but they don’t tend to be amazingly popular. Books, however, can be digested in smaller chunks, and at their own pace. Thus, extremely intricate plots can be woven into the book because there’s more time to develop them, and the reader can simply look back if he gets confused. (In a book, it’s also easier to explain plot points and harder to miss pivotal comments in whispered conversation.) In addition, the barrier to entry in the book market is lower, and it’s much less expensive to write a book than it is to film a movie. To some extent, books also have the length barrier. Who reads Moby Dick, War and Peace, or Fathers and Sons? They have their audience, but it’s not a terribly profitable audience. Books can afford to do that. On the other hand, to recoup the costs of production, movies are typically aimed at the everyman. That’s why G, PG, and PG-13 movies are so much more profitable, if harder to write, than most R movies. That’s also why we have the works of Jackie Chan.

2. A second difficulty is the difference of the medium itself. The story must be told in a completely different way. Movies must consciously add the thoughts of a main character in an voice-over, while books can simply say “she thought” and that be the end of it. Even so, critics discourage excess narration. The audience doesn’t want to be told; they want to see. The visual element is one of the movie’s main strengths. Even writers are constantly told, “Show; don’t tell.” and are constantly trying to describe the scene in a meaningful way. My brother explained that it’s hard to write action sequences without sounding like, “you’re writing a step-by-step guide on how to beat someone up.” This is a problem even for writers like myself who visualize the story as they write it. Appearance takes on an increased importance. While a writer may get away with saying, “Jane encountered a tall, dark man in Turkish dress,” the costumers must pay very close attention to what the character looks like because his appearance screams his identity to the audience. Sound is another asset, if it isn’t abused. Thus, a director can recoup what he looses in the way of introspection if he knows how to use costumes, acting, sound effects, and music. Unfortunately, both the leeway and painful exactitude afforded by the writer and different reader’s imagination make transferring characters a formidable challenge.

3. The best strategy I have seen is to take the gold–the heart of the story, keeping the most dramatic events and overallCribite themes, throwing everything else out, and making up filler. Unfortunately, strictly speaking, this isn’t the book, which explains why Twilight fans can get so uptight. I skimmed Sahara by Cussler, and I can say with confidence, that even though they didn’t stick to the book, and annoyed Cussler no end, they made a better movie than they would have had they stuck to the book. Anyone who has seen Raise the Titanic, also based on a Cussler novel, can attest that movies that try to quote books verbatim are boring! The Princess Bride was a brilliant adaptation of the earlier novel and successfully preserved the mood of the book. The script for this movie was also written in consultation with the author, who was satisfied with the movie. It is worth noting, however, that the author in question was mocking the very structure of the pretentious book when he wrote The Princess Bride, demonstrating an important understanding that it’s easy to lose the adventure to the story in a novel. That said, the author’s involvement is neither a guarantee of, nor a doom on a movie’s quality. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader also followed the heart of gold strategy, introducing seven swords as the motivation for the journey rather than using the original goal of finding the lost lords. That worked out fine until they came to the glowing green island of evil in the finale. Any time I see a glowing green island of evil, there’s a fifty percent chance you’ve lost my suspension of disbelief. (See the Return of the King and its glowing green cities of evil.)

4. Another trouble with book-reading movie-watchers is that they have fallen for the story already and want to see every last tidbit. They’re patient! The rest of the world just wants to see Jackie Chan beat people up. (See Around the World in Eighty Days along with any other book adaptations he’s attempted.) I think readers who’ve seen the movie are an easier crowd to write for. If they hadn’t seen the movie, they wouldn’t be reading the book. I originally thought that The Princess Bride was a novelization of the movie; I’m not sure whether that didn’t increase my liking for it. I finished The Scarlet Pimpernel only because I was sure it would eventually turn into an adventure rather than a book about a melodramatic lady complaining that her husband ignores her. (That wasn’t in the movie at all!) In the times this has backfired for myself and others, it’s usually because the book has a very slow pace or advanced vocabulary. (See Jane Austin and LOTR.)

5. There are still other mediums being explored. Prince of Persia was successfully converted from a platform game to a movie with the help of a writer who understood that mediums have different requirements. Then there are the Star Wars novelizations movies and background story and the StarTrek novelizations of the movies and episodes. I’ve never heard anyone arguing about whether the novelization is better than the movie. This strengthens my conviction that once one has fallen in love with the characters, they don’t mind or care about the extra body added in novels. Either that, or everyone assumes that the novelizations are not works or art in their own right. Personally, I think a good writer can make any story art, especially if he’s having fun with it. That said, novelizations tend to be the lightest of reading.

My favorite example of novelization is the Zorro franchise. A ridiculously fun little story called The Curse of Capistrano introduced ZorroDisney made several movies, and the movies were subsequentally given novelizations. I was introduced to the novelizations before I found the movies, after which I hunted up the original. I was nine when I read several novelizations and believed they were original novels. I adore those books, and they were one of my early  models for the kind of story I want to write. (See creative writings for an example.) Only later did I learn that I was emulating the cheap paperback. Disney polluted my literary outlook, as it has done to so many others. Nothing I write will ever be free of movie influence (See Aladdin, permanently associated with Disney by everyone >30.) I’m just the sort of person who shouldn’t be writing about books, movies, and novelizations, but it’s too late.

PS: I’ve just seen Alice in Wonderland (2010) and I can say with confidence that Burton captured the ridiculousness at the heart of the story, if not all the literary jokes. It’s a beautiful, satisfying story, that somehow needed all the weirdness. There’s just one problem. It isn’t Alice in Wonderland; It’s Alice Thirteen Years Later.

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2 thoughts on “Now a Major Motion Picture! Why We Can’t Make Books into Movies

  1. You’re right that a film adaptation of any book will fall short in some areas Some films are great adaptations but poor films (“Perfume” managed to convey the essence of the book but the film was a bit of a stinker.) and some are great films but poor adaptations (“Blade Runner” is a classic but threw out most of the source novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”)

    • Very true. I think in a lot of ways it also depends on the type of book the movie is adapting. I suspect movies with an intricate plot and/or lots of characters don’t lend themselves to adaptation–ergo the director must either make a bad movie or throw stuff out. That said, this obviously isn’t a hard and fast rule.

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