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Books into films—getting it right!

This past weekend, I was really looking forward to the release of the films based on two books I loved.  I avidly read the press just to get a sense of how true the movie makers were to the author’s intended story.  One review was glowing, while the piece on the second was so off putting, that after reading it, I have no intention of seeing the film.

The first is The Help based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett (“ ‘The Help': ’60s Racism in Black and White,” behind the WSJ paywall). I loved the book and felt the author captured an important time and place in our country. From what I read about the movie, it does the same.  I am really looking forward to seeing it.

The second movie is based on another wonderful novel I read recently—One Day by David Nicholls (“Fitting ‘One Day’ Into Two Hours, also in the WSJ).This is the story of two people who meet initially on the night of their college graduation and then again on the same day for the next twenty-five years.  But the movie covers only eight of those meetings and I cannot imagine how it could capture the real essence of the book by cutting out virtually two-thirds of it. Ironically, this screenplay was adapted by the author and the movie was made by a new film division of the publishing company that published the book in the U.S. Sadly, I have no desire to see the movie after reading the article.

So my question is why can’t movie makers be more faithful to the books they are basing their films on?

I, for one, am so looking forward to seeing the movie(s) based on The Hunger Games, and I really hope the film makers don’t “get all creative” and screw up those stories.  That would be an incredible shame considering the huge potential audience now that the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises are ending.

I wonder what books-turned-movies you are looking forward to.  Which recent movies based on books have you liked and which disappointed you?

7 Responses to Books into films—getting it right!

  1. Melissa Alexander says:

    I think changes are inevitable for three primary reasons:

    1. Length. Take One Day. Say this is a 2-hr movie — 120 min. If you set aside just 20 minutes for the setup AND the resolution, that leaves just 4 minutes per year if you show all 25 years. It just wouldn’t work. On the other hand, HP and the Order of the Phoenix was, in my opinion, better than the book, because the movie was forced to streamline and focus the plot.

    2. The challenge of presenting visually what are often internal stories. Plot-heavy stories adapt more easily than character- or theme-heavy ones. The movie adaptation of Jurassic Park is a fun dinosaur movie; the book is also a dino adventure, but it is also a much more serious examination of some pretty heavy themes.

    3. Structure challenges. Books that follow screenplay structure adapt more cleanly to screen adaptation. The more a novel varies in structure, in pace, or even in length of its “acts” (as compared to the requirements of traditional screenplay structure), the more it will have to be adapted to meet the expectations of a movie audience.

  2. Josin says:

    It’s the constraints of the medium. With a novel, you get at least 50K words and a few hundred pages to tell your story; with film, you get around 110 pages and 15-20K, most of which is dialogue.

    While on the written page, you can tell the audience that Mike is walking through the rain, contemplating the recent suicide of his pet turtle, there’s no way to do that in a film, unless Mike talks to himself. The beautiful language gets stripped down to basic action.

    “Mike, pensive, shuffles through rain puddles.” <– That's it.

    The descriptions go from something potentially memorable and poetic to:

    "MIKE, 30-ish, awkward basement-dweller." <— That's it.

    It's a bare-bones approach to the material that's filled in by the actor / director, and they don't always want to be "directed on the page". So much more depends on the interpretation and presentation of the actor with a screenplay; there are fewer blanks to be filled in with a novel.

  3. I am looking forward to Hunger Games as well. I hope the powers to be follow in the footsteps of HP in terms of trying to be faithful to the books and not go down the path of Percy Jackson. That could have been a series of wonderful movies.

  4. Dave Sosnowski says:

    Not necessarily recent, but three faithful (and brilliant) book-to-screen adaptations: “Fight Club,” “Get Shorty,” and “Out of Sight.” Not surprisingly, all three are strong on voice and dialog and relatively short, making them good candidates for adaptation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have John Irving, not exactly a minimalist, whose had two reasonable adaptations made out of his doorstops. The first is “Simon Birch,” which takes “A Prayer for Owen Meany” and basically cuts it in half (the first half). I believe Irving has gone on record as not being crazy about that one. The next is “The Cider House Rules,” adapted by the author. Read “My Movie Business” by John Irving about the process of adapting that book, and you’ll get a pretty good picture of the challenges involved.

  5. Barb Riley says:

    A prime example of my disappointment in screen adaption is True Blood. I’m a big fan of the Sookie Stackhouse series, and was tickled to meet Charlaine Harris at RT 2010 Columbus when she surprised us with a visit to the aspiring writer’s class. I totally understand that when a book/series is written in first person, there’s a lot of work required to build the secondary characters for screen. However, I think the producers should do their best to keep the characters in character. Characters are written with certain values, goals and motivations, and that should transpose to the screen. Change all the external situations you’d like, but please keep the characters in character. Yeaaaah, not happening so much on TB. It’s discouraging!

    On the flip side, Game of Thrones was so by-the-book that at times, I fast forwarded ahead. Blah blah blah. Do we really need to dredge through characters talking back and forth for 15+ minutes? Couldn’t they have found a more entertaining way to SHOW us what was happening with the politics?

    So, what’s a producer to do? I don’t like it by-the-book, but I don’t like to see the books murdered on screen either. Keep the characters true, and give me a happy medium!

  6. Ciara says:

    I was pretty disapointed with the harry potter movies. I know that they can’t live up to the books but i was always irritated when they changed things for no apparent reason, like why did the weasleys house burn down, what was the point?
    Though Dave up there reminded me that i thought the cider house rules adaptation was really good. it’s the only irving book i’ve really liked and i thought the movie was pretty good at staying true to the feel of the book.

  7. Anonymous says:

    The John Carter (of Mars) movie. I’ve waited fifty years to see the Edgar Rice Burroughs series (he also wrote the Tarzan books, among others) brought to the screen. Until now the technology couldn’t do it justice. We should be there now. It doesn’t debut until March next year. Also, an obvious additional choice: The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings films, in my opinion, were near perfect examples of how to bring those books to life on screen.

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