Books and movies aren’t the same thing. That should be obvious on the face of it, but I’ve read hundreds of articles here and in all kinds of publications that miss that central, inescapable point. A film adaptation will never, can never and shouldn’t be evaluated on the basis of being “like the book”. The two art forms are created in such different ways and for such different purposes that it’s counter-productive to over-emphasize questions of similarity, let alone which version is “better”. Books inspire people to make movies. That doesn’t make the movie a version of the book in another form. It’s wiser to keep the phrase “based on” always in mind when comparing a book to its film adaptation.
Consider how books and movies are created. Books are collaborative efforts by a small number of people; authors, editors, agents, publishers and sellers. It can take years to write a good one. I feel safe in asserting you can’t write a really good novel quickly. Try reading some of those written rapidly for challenge contests. They read just like novels written in a month. It doesn’t work because complex concepts and deep understanding takes time, and creating memorable characters and thinking up believable lives for them is hard. The most time and brainpower-consuming part is the re-writing. Good writing becomes great in the re-write process. A superb central idea arrived upon in a moment of inspiration will still take a long time to express effectively. You must choose which of many ways to present and create order for your story, the elements of style.
Movie production requires the combined efforts of anywhere from dozens to thousands of people. Many more people have direct input and influence over how a film ends up than do over a book. If your crew is used to working together and you have support systems and sufficient money, a good movie can be made much more quickly than a good book. Because more people are involved, and more technology, movies cost more to make. When writing a book, the main cost is time.
A movie is like a meal. You sit down and eat it. Some people take leftovers away for later, but the meal itself is designed for consumption in one sitting. Most books aren’t written to be read all at once. A good book is more like a good diet plan. The book is an attempt to change you, not just temper your hunger for a few hours. You can vary the speed when you read a book, stopping to go over a part again if you like, and it can enrich your experience. If you keep stopping a film during viewing in order to repeat lines or scenes, it seriously diminishes the effectiveness of viewing.
Books work by harnessing the imagination of readers. My vampire Lestat doesn’t look like yours because he’s in my head. Films work by harnessing the interests of audiences more than their imagination. In the movies, Lestat the vampire looks like Tom Cruise or Stuart Townsend. It doesn’t matter that the book’s author had Rutger Hauer in mind, or that I saw a blond Daniel Day Lewis in mine. Casting is complete in a movie. You can read a good book such as Kafka’s ‘The Trial” or Camus’ “L’ Etranger”, and not ever know for sure what the characters looked like. By comparison, motion pictures must be explicit. We see the characters.
Some kinds of written works are more easily suited to movie adaptation. Genres like crime stories and speculative fiction are usually plot-driven. They tend to follow events chronologically, which is how most movie plots are constructed. Short stories and novellas allow film adapters to put more of what’s on the page into the film. Simpler books, like children’s literature and teen fiction present a reduced challenge. Plays hardly need any variation, except to be “opened up” to allow more locations to be seen. I hate to put it this way, but superficial books containing characters doing things more than thinking about them make perfect adaptations. Gone With the Wind would be a prime example.
The main challenge will be when there’s a demand to make a movie out of an epic work full of characters, one that has a great deal of introspection and invented detail. Let’s look at one of these where it will never be possible to get the adaptation “right” – Lord of the Rings.
LOTR (the books) were written over a period of years by a world-class expert in languages and mythology. They contain many characters, poetry and song, made-up cultures and creatures, and the overall story is full of Christian symbolism. It’s impossible to make movies out of it without severely dumbing it down. I like the films Peter Jackson made, but the way he put it was to admit, “They aren’t really the books, but they are pretty cool movies.”
I also love the books. In the books, all the Hobbits are consistently resourceful, pragmatic and clever, and Dwarves are noble and proud. In the films, Merry and Pippin have a Two Stooges act going, and Gimli the Dwarf is channeling Grumpy from Disney’s Snow White. Fun to watch. Not like the books. 90% of the poetry, song and different languages is absent from the films, leaving the tongues of Mordor and the Elves to be gimmicks, as if they were magic spells from Harry Potter. It doesn’t matter, because each form stands as a good work on it’s own terms, compared to other books or other movies of the same kind.
Should you read books before seeing the movies? If I see one more article based on that ignorant question, I’m going to drink ink and end it all. Do whatever you like! One doesn’t spoil the other. I’ll say it again. Books and movies aren’t the same thing.