As a writer I can tell you that one of the most common dreams – and one of the most common things other people ask us – is about getting our books made into movies.
These days, of course, television has pretty much eclipsed film when it comes to nabbing excellent and exciting source material (Game of Thrones, anyone?), but is that a good thing? Is one better than the other? Does it depend on the work being adapted?
There’s a lot to consider, but these 16 people are ready to parse their thoughts below!
16. We can’t worry too much about making book readers happy.
TL;DR: The purpose of the movie adaptation is not to satisfy the book readers.
Most people agreeing about movie adaptations being subpar is a very subjective argument. A lot of people may think so but in order to be able to make the comparison, you have to have read the book and watch the movie. If you read the book first, you’re likely to be biased because the movie is different than your view of the book is. I’ve enjoyed several book adaptations that I haven’t read the book of but does that mean I’d enjoy a mini-series more? Difficult to say, but probably not. You mentioned The Outsider, for example. I enjoyed a lot of it but felt it fell apart towards the end. A well-made movie would have most certainly held together better. Would the movie be less accurate towards the books, though? Maybe. I haven’t read the book and this brings me to my second problem with your argument.
A lot of what you’re saying relies on the books being the ultimate goal. You say when you adapt a book, you need to leave out interesting B plots, for example. What about leaving out boring and needless B plots? Why should they be included just because they’re in the book? This goes with pacing and even character development as well. Few books are perfect by any measure so why should the weak points be included just because they’re in the book? It’s an adaptation, and I for one think the best possible adaptation is an adaptation that makes you feel it was the familiar story but “boy wasn’t it just an amazing take on it”
This brings me to my third point, and it may sound like obvious. You really do have to keep in mind that these are different mediums. You say Queen’s Gambit wouldn’t be as good in 2h? Of course it wouldn’t, it’s paced like a mini series. Am I arguing you’re wrong? Not necessarily. But I’m saying it’s impossible to say whether it could work as a 2h movie without seeing a 2h movie that successfully makes it work.
The reason I’m stressing this seemingly obvious point is that it sounds like you have a presumption that movie is a weaker (or weakest) medium, while it really is just different with its own strengths and weaknesses. Both movies and series have the ability to literally show the story, but they must do it differently because a mini-series requires a completely different pacing than a movie. The movies also tend to be more focused, which you see as a weakness but I’d argue that lack of focus can be equally bad. Again, just a different medium so both can work or not. Finally (and this is probably my favourite difference) less can be more.
An integral part of any story is what’s left out, and movie is arguably the medium of these three that can do that the best. Sure, books and mini-series do do it but movies do it more, and are “permitted” to do it more because of the medium. Because of how movies are paced and what the viewers expect from movies, movies simply tend to have more “gaps” in them. Books and mini-series could certainly do it, but because of the viewer/reader expectations they do it less because there are certain structural elements that you need to follow in order to keep reader/viewer focus. Obviously, if you argue that movies should follow the books as closely as possible, this won’t apply.
But I go back to my earlier point: I never want just a page-by-page copy of something I already know. I want something better than that, and the well-made movie can offer it just as well as a well-made mini series. But both mediums can produce something equally poor as well.
15. There are certain arguments to be made to the contrary.
Most people agree that movie adaptations of books are usually sub par.
I think there are a few misleading reasons why people think that. One is Berkson’s Paradox. Even if we assume that there is no connection between good books making good movies, we end up seeing one in the data because you only really know about ones that were either good books or good movies, and if restrict the plot to just those you get a negative correlation even when there was no correlation before. If you have 3 minutes, this video does a much better job of explaining the paradox (in total the video is 13 minutes, and is pretty interesting, but they look at other examples of the paradox, and the 3 minutes from the point in time I linked is the portion about movies).
Also, people that tend to both read the book and see the movie tend to be people that generally prefer books but also saw the movie because they were such a big fan of the book. That is an often nearly impossible expectation to hit. People that prefer movies often just see the movie. Also, if the quality of the movie ends up being more or less random and without much connection to the quality of the book, then of course great books will often make worse movies even if there is just no connection at all.
Let’s look at Stephen King. Many of his books have sucked as movies. Why?
The reason why is that Stephen King will licenses his movies out to whoever and will have no involvement in the project. Many authors are very careful and discerning about who they allow to make movies and insist on being involved in the project and making sure they give the book justice. Stephen King does not.
I think you’re cherry picking your Stephen King examples a bit. There is also It, Misery, and The Green Mile which were all longer books and made great movies.
14. This just makes sense.
It also varies widely based on the book. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas doesn’t have enough material to make a series while a ton would have needed to be cut for a Game of Thrones movie.
My view has always been shorter stories make better movies and epic books do better as series. This is why Phillip K Dick has so many good movies (mostly shorter stories).
13. What about our time?
Movies make for a better medium for books for two reasons: Cost and Time Commitment.
Cost: The cost of making a movie compared to a TV show is much less. Dramatic books being turned into a movie use the sets, costumes, actors, crew, and so forth for a much shorter time because they are only shooting to create 1/10 of the content at the same quality level. For that reason, the adaptations of many books are often given a trial run as a movie which can be turned into a series if popular enough.
Production cost aside, the revenue stream to recoup that cost is greater on screen because of the greater audience. Advertising, product placement, ticket sales, etc can all be a greater source of income when they reach more audiences. Admittedly, this one will change as streaming becomes more of a mainstream method to release new content.
Time commitment: As a consumer, I have things to do. I have a job, wife, kids, hobbies, chores, sleep, etc that I need to accomplish. Because of that, I have a limited amount of time I can dedicate to the screen. Watching a series is a large commitment of that time when I could watch a movie instead, get the whole story, and be on my way. While watching a series at home does mean I can watch it without having to go out to a theater and all of its attendant time waste, movies can be watched from the comfort of home as well and take up 1/10 of the time. I sacrifice story development and character fidelity in exchange for time, which is a limited supply.
12. Television budgets are definitely changing, though.
I think it all depends on who is directing the movie and who are the script writers. As long as you have a good director and a good script you can always find the right actor(s) to fill the roles. Actually the last part is probably the easiest. Finding good directors and screen writers who are passionate about the project they are working on is essential.
Take for example the Deadpool series. I mean its not based traditionally on “books.” I would say its even harder to adapt to a big screen movie. There is SO much background to the character over many many issues of comics. Its hard to distill that much story into a cohesive 2.5ish hour long movie. Not to mention the studio taking a risk on a relatively unknown character outside of comic book and x-men fans.
The expectations were so high. Not only from the fans but from the studio too. Enter Ryan Reynolds. He is the quintessential guy to do this character justice because he has a burning passion to see it done correctly. Considering his misstep of playing Green Lantern the studio took an even bigger risk on him.
My other argument against adapting books to the tv screen is that honestly the budget isn’t there to do justice to most sci fi or fantasy genres. Unless you are doing it on the scale that the premium services have done like HBO with Game Of Thrones then the big budget effects you would expect to see just aren’t going to be there. You want to see a fire-breathing dragon? Well thats like half your budget.(Im making these numbers up but you see what I mean) You know with big budget blockbusters you’re going to get the kind of cgi that is expected of these kinds of genres.
Most networks cant afford to do GOT-esque shows where they’re spending millions per episode. It would bankrupt them. Im not even sure GOT is good example to use because most people would agree that the last few seasons were pretty much f*cked up. The directors had virtually a blank check to do as they pleased and they went and completely blundered it.
11. You have to trim the fat.
A movie script is about 120-150 pages of a book. If the story is complete (or can be compressed to that length), it can be a movie.
Anything longer than that would require some episodes.
10. So many LOtR fans at this table.
On top of the fact you included so many known exceptions you have forgotten what is likely the best adaptations from book to screen media ever made. LOTR as a 3 part film series is absolute perfection regarding filmmaking.
What TV show does a better job than LOTR when discussing adaptation to the screen?
9. Maybe not most, but some.
So I would actually argue that ‘most’ books are probably short enough to be adapted into movies more successfully than TV series. If you read a lot of fantasy novels, and have dove into series like The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan), Malazan Book of the Fallen (Steven Erikson), or more recently something like The Stormlight Archives (Brandon Sanderson), I can see why you’d think that TV series would be better for these stories. But there are far more books written that could be condensed to 120-150 pages then there are books that need thousands of pages to fully recount the story.
If I would change your mind at all, it’s simply that your statement of TV series are a better medium for ‘most’ books is inaccurate. TV series are better for some books, specifically longer, more involved ones, that are part of a series themselves. Shorter series, or stand alone books, can definitely work just as well as movies if not better.
8. Definitely not a rule.
There’s an implied assumption in your OP that “more faithful to the book” = “better film”. This isn’t always the case.
I know it isn’t a film but “The Boys” is a great example of how, when adapting a story you can take the opportunity of adapting a story to a new medium to refine it – drop the weaker elements and refine other aspects to bring out the themes more effectively.
Silence of the Lambs similarly elevated its source material.
Films often leave things out relative to the books. In many cases that’s to the betterment of the story. It depends almost entirely on what book you’re adapting.
7. They are different mediums to begin with, so it depends.
The problem with this thought process is that writing for books and writing screenplays (movies or TV) are two vastly different things. A chain of events that works in a book won’t work the same way in a movie, because it’s not entertaining enough, or exciting enough. Even if you had the extra time to tell the story with TV episodes, the entertainment factor needs to be considered as well.
-The first 100 or so pages of Lord of the Rings. It had little bearing on the rest of the story, except for key moments on their way to Rivendell. There was no need to adapt any of those pages to the screen.
– A good section of The Martian was left out, where Mark Watney was traveling to the Ares IV site (encompassing about 90 days of travel). Not a lot happens during the journey except for Mark trying to avoid a dust storm, but the entire sequence isn’t exciting enough to adapt to the screen.
– A particularly bad example: Fantastic Beasts – The Crimes of Grindelwald. The movie/screenplay is written as if it’s a book, but feels disjointed as a movie, because of the aforementioned differences between writing for books and writing for movies. There’s a video analysis of this on Youtube, which I will post later. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zccnq-VvEx4
You have the luxury of going into more details in a book, but if the same sequence of events doesn’t work for the screen, it will be removed.
6. Either way, you gotta get good writers.
The advantage of a movie is it’s limited run time. That forces the writing to be crisp and the movie has to progress along at a fast enough pace to keep the audience interested but not so fast that the audience loses the plot or their suspension of disbelief.
Serials, don’t have that constraint and so they end up bloating out as the series wears on. Worse still, is the continuous attempt to attract eyeballs via more and more extravagant set pieces (Stranger Things third season), unnecessary nudity (All of GoT), and plot twists (Black List or X-Files). Worst of all is when the series ends and proceeds to rush headlong towards a finale at the expense of everything (GoT again).
As an example: compare LOTR versus “The Hobbit” (which is as close to an episodic series as we’ll get for Tolkien for now but it serves the point). Both are enjoyable but for The Hobbit to fill out nine hours of run time, asides from the book were turned into subplots and entirely new storylines were created. And it suffers for it.
It takes incredible discipline to stare down the near limitless blank page that is a season episode count and not get bogged down in minutiae and filler. Even greats like “The Witcher,” “Clone Wars,” or “Firefly” have a little fat in them.
5. Sometimes it’s about style, not substance.
I think OP is misunderstanding the cinematic adaptation process. A good adaptation captures the tone, feeling, and overall elements of a novel’s story. A good adaptation does not specifically have to follow the novel’s plot beat for beat. This is something a lot of people criticize adapted films for, that they’re different from the source text. I think that’s a pretty sophomoric way of looking at adapted works. I’ll cite some examples.
Alfonso Cuaron (who also directed arguably the best Harry Potter film, a film series OP mentions-I won’t get into the idea of a “series of movies”)’s Children of Men is a really good, interesting, well made adventure-thriller-whatever you wanna call it based on the novel by P.D. James. In James’ novel, much like in the film, women are unable to conceive children, and the human race is slowly dying out and becoming geriatric. The novel follows an English professor trying to protect his pregnant ex-wife and ultimately becoming head of government after a climactic confrontation between him and his aristocratic brother.
In Cuaron’s film, however, the protagonist is vaguely similar to James’ protagonist and women cannot conceive children, but his ex-wife, portrayed by Julianne Moore, is shot dead midway through and the child is actually carried by a young African girl. The rest of the film though is more about the violent dystopian apocalypse that comes when man cannot procreate, showing refugee camps that evoke holocaust imagery, factions of rebel groups, and lots of guns and intense action scenes shot in an incredibly cinematic way. Cuaron’s film inarguably is more relevant and topical and does more with the core concept than James’ novel because it reimagined the source material rather than directly adapting it.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker too reimagines the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic from science-fiction genre-gore into one of the most beautiful films about a couple guys in the woods. Only a small portion of the novel is used to adapt the film. One of the beautiful parts of the adaptation process is taking a small part of one text and turning that into an entire other text of its own in conversation with the source.
This process could alternatively called be appropriation, but in truth these two concepts are one and the same, perhaps opposing ends of the adaptive spectrum.
My point is that I believe OP’s criteria for what makes an adaptation good are inherently flawed. What works in a novel simply does not work on film. You can have a novel like À Rebours, about a rich guy who just wants to be left alone and sit in his special little room that he’s painted a specific shade of yellow, that’s very introspective and filled with omniscient character insights and hangs on its description of every detail. But you can’t really do that in a film. Your audience can’t read character’s minds.
By saying “oh well books are too long to make into a film, they should be television series instead,” you’re dismissing the actual content of the book. Sure, maybe Dune’s story is impossible to tell in one feature length film because it’s so incredibly long and filled with so much plot. But I think most books are long because of the author’s style. Just like a movie, the author paces his novel in a specific way for dramatic purposes. Each paragraph and page creates tension and drama, hopefully making you want to turn to the next page and keep reading to find out what happens, much like you’re hooked watching Twin Peaks: The Return, hoping every episode for Coop to snap out of his Dougie state.
I guess what I’m saying is that the actual essential story of any given novel could probably be reduced down to a few sentences highlighting key elements of the plot or whatever, or it could be stretched to fill three 1,000 page volumes. The Hobbit could’ve been one really really good film. Instead, Peter Jackson wanted to make a lot of money and made it a series of three films. Did it being a series with room to breathe and flesh out Tolkien’s story make it better? Personally, the first Hobbit movie was my first huge letdown in the movie theater, having grown up on the Lord of the Rings films, which I think work excellently as individual films in a way that would not have worked as a television series.
TL;DR—adaptation is a lot more than being faithful to source material and to say that you need a lengthy television series to properly adapt a lengthy novel is naïve.
4. What about a mini-series, though?
I’d say mini series are a better medium than a tv show for books because it gets to the ending and then it’s over.
Tv shows often don’t resolve things so they can keep the seasons going as long as possible even though the characters and plot get so stretched
3. Not all filmmakers are created equal.
Some of the best films of all time are book adaptations. Some examples are The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, No Country For Old Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Schindler’s List, the many of Stanley Kubrick’s films (including Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut), and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (not to mention foreign-language films, like Satantango, Ran, and Stalker). These films have different levels of faithfulness to their source material (for example, No Country For Old Men is extremely faithful to the novel, whereas Dr. Strangelove takes significant liberties), but I think most people would agree that these are some of the greatest films ever made. (Maybe you don’t like some of these films, but the consensus holds them in high regard.)
I think it really depends on the competence of the filmmakers. Some filmmakers are very economical in their styles, and are able to convey a lot of nuance and depth without the length of a miniseries. Sometimes this is extremely powerful — I know I love watching a well-crafted economical film, many of them have moved me because their filmmaking is so good. Even with something like Satantango, which is over seven hours long, it works best as a film because if it were broken up into seven or so chunks, it would hurt the flow and mood. But then again, sometimes a book really does work better as a miniseries. The Queen’s Gambit seems to have worked in this format. So at the end of the day, I don’t think it’s a matter of whether television or film is better for books adaptations (since both mediums have their fair share of great examples). It’s more a question of whether the filmmakers’ competence.
It seems like you are only really focusing on blockbusters when it comes to book adaptations. I encourage you to expand your horizons, and I think you’ll find a wealth of amazing book adaptations that may challenge you to reconsider your view.
2. Times have changed.
Surprised at the number of people disagreeing with you here. I think that if you go back 10-15 years ago or earlier, film adaptations were definitely the way to go. TV productions had neither the budget, nor the talent (by which I mainly mean onscreen talent) to do most book properties justice. Films were the safer bet, but even then with caveats; they worked best if it was a single book (as opposed to a series), and just because the film adaptation would likely be better than a hypothetical tv adaptation didn’t mean it would actually be good.
But with the way the landscape looks today, with players like HBO, Hulu, Netflix, TNT and the like willing to put in the time and money developing properties TV is almost always the better medium. An easy comparison: I wasn’t crazy about the HBO adaptation of The Golden Compass, but it was still a thousand times better than the film adaptation
1. The size (of the story) matters.
I think it really depends upon the book in question. You’re mostly looking at massive books and saying movies aren’t the correct format. Many of the worst book to movie adaptations are fantasy books, especially Epic Fantasy. You also bring up things like Steven King books which can be incredibly long (the stand is over 1000 pages) . His books are very similar to Epic Fantasy where in both cases a lot of what makes the stories great is building the world and the characters in that world. This takes time and don’t often translate well to movies. I would agree that in these cases the better format is through a tv Series. You really can’t capture all the detail of a 1000+ page book in a singular 2-3 hour segment.
But when you move away from these massive stories or books in a series, there are many that can translate to movies very well. I think most novels (that aren’t 600+ pages) can translate better to a movie than a series. That leaves A LOT of room for movie adaptations that can easily work. They don’t need to be broken up into 6 or ten parts. A singular 2 hour movie can capture it and hold the audience far better.
I think it really comes down to the size of the story, and if you can’t fit it into 3 hours, you need to move from a movie to a series.
As an author, I think whoever wants to turn my book into a visual production can have at it. Ha!
What are your thoughts on this? Tell us in the comments!