Page to Screen

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.


Filed under Cinema, Literature

41 responses to “Page to Screen

  1. Not to “drive you to ink”, but personally, I would rather read a book first, and I do it often when a movie is coming out that I think I’ll want to see, like “The Woman in Black”, simply because I am easily bullied by visual images and, to the extent that the movie and the book might be similar or have the same characters or settings, I want my reading experience to be free of lingering imagery. I have seldom had a book ruin my movie experience, except where I have unwisely — as you say here — forgotten that movies are not books. All that said, I will aver that my reading of Robert Parker’s “Appaloosa” was only enhanced by the visions of Ed Harris and Viggo in the lead roles in my imagination, and the fact that I will never be able to read any Sherlock Holmes without seeing and hearing Jeremy Brett in the title role has not diminished my enjoyment of Doyle’s work a jot.

    • I was over-simplifying for the sake of humor, but I did say “Do what you like.” I tend to read books first also, but I sometimes enjoy the different choices made in films more and then think “That’s what they should have done in the book.”

      How do you suppose fans of Robert Downey’s Sherlock will react to Conan Doyle’s version? Never mind, we both know:
      “Not as good.” “Not like the book.” “I like the movies better.” ARRRGHH!

      • I really enjoyed Downey Jr.’s Sherlock (he’s one of my long-time favorite actors and I stood by him through his worst years, touch wood), but I went into the theater knowing I was going to see an action film made for today’s antsy viewers. I didn’t take the book in with me. And I don’t compare the Downey movies to the old Jeremy Brett versions. As you say: different, not better or worse. I’m reading Frankenstein for the first time. I don’t remember ever seeing the whole 1931 movie, but I’ve seen images and a million spoofs. I’m surprised at how different the book is from my expectations, but I’m judging it for itself, not for all of its spawn.

        • To confuse the issue even more, the 1935 sequel Bride of Frankenstein, the events of which are also based on the original book, is 5.72 times better than the 1931 film. That rarely happens.

          They’re BOTH alive!

  2. Bookish Hobbit

    I remember hearing from readers how bad Troy was when the film came out. I didn’t really know any more about the Trojan War at that time except that it was ten years, Helen was spirited away by Paris, and wooden horses. Still I thought it wasn’t a very good movie at all. Sometimes I like to read the books before seeing the movies (i.e. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter), but not all the time. Movies might intrigue me enough to invest time into checking out the books they’re based on too, like Howl’s Moving Castle. I love books, but I also love movies. I might speak blasphemy, but there are movies out there that surpass their original source material.

    • Not blasphemy, but I think it’s more a matter of preferring one version over another, rather than an estimation of quality. Some books are bloated, and if a film tightens one up I might prefer it also, but that doesn’t answer which is better. For one thing, the filmmaker got a shot at the material after the book author let it go. Not exactly a fair fight. The originating author has a harder job, including stories written originally for films. Thanks so much for stopping by and offering your view!

  3. Very true. Good books create the entire universe of the story in the reader’s head, whereas films just show you the parts the characters happen to interact with. Harry Potter is definitely a good example of this. I read the first three before seeing the first three movies, and saw four and five before reading them. I can’t say I enjoyed reading them any less than the first three just because I saw the movies beforehand lol.

    • Some of the plot points from the early Harry Potter books don’t even get a payoff until the very last film! That’s another good example where I like each version for different reasons. They tend to write better music for the films than I do in my head when reading, and I appreciate it. I also think the HP books are about characters who do things, and it makes it more automatically film-friendly to adapt. Thank you, James.

  4. Well said. The example I always give is that a faithful adaptation of Frankenstein would be people sitting around reading letters.

  5. What an in-depth exploration of the topic! I’m left to fully agree. These days though books are getting shorter because people actually read less. Leo Babauta is the exception with his current month-long focus on reading War and Peace. Books are changing as we speak!

    • Quite right, Sandra. Faster lives and shorter attention spans might be having an effect on book length. I was so close to using War and Peace as an example, but thought few would have both read it and seen some of the many adaptations as I have. Besides two very long, expensive movie adaptations, it’s been adapted into plays three times, four times for radio, three times as a mini-series for TV, and as an opera! I like the book, but also the four-part Russian film from 1965-68.

  6. Usually I never expect a film to be true to a book, with one exception: years ago as a teenager one of the first non kid books I ever read was “The Moneychangers” and in it the kidnapped cashiers amazing ability to memorize things is central to the high drama at the end of the book.
    … in the film they never even attempted to recreate that part of the plot at all, instead they gave the film and totally different ending and since I had read the book only a month or so earlier I waited excitedly until the end of the film to see the “best bit”… that never came.
    It’s one of only two films that not just disappointed me but actually peeved me to have watched,
    I felt that the writers of the screenplay cheated and insulted the viewers with the changes and omissions they made and the other film I felt that way about was “les fugitifs” which I saw too many times to count in French (I bought a copy) but when I saw the Hollywood version in English (Three Fugitives) and felt that it had been dumbed down to the point of disbelief and all the subtle nuances that the French are really good (the look that make you laugh or cry, the innuendo, the bits where they leave you to fill in the obvious) were lost completely.
    With both of these films I came away feeling robbed of a better experience.
    LOTR would never be prefect for today’s short attention span audience, (unless you made it into a 10 year saga where there were 6 parts per year) the story is too complex but at least Peter Jackson tried and acknowledged it’s limitations.
    LOTR at least managed not to be a parody of the book… and that in itself is actually no mean feat.

    • I think I read the Arthur Hailey book of The Moneychangers, but I never saw the mini-series. I wonder why they made that change?

      Your point about changes when re-making films in different languages is a good one, but not quite the same as the problem of going from page to screen. I can’t think why anyone would re-make a film for distribution in another language/market unless they fully intended to make changes, believing it will increase the appeal for a different audience. Otherwise, you either dub the original into the new language, or provide subtitles. It’s interesting to note that both the French and English versions of Les Fugitifs were directed by the same person, Francis Veber.

      Lovely to see you, Kiwi!

  7. Great post, love the analogy to meals and diet… so true! The other great thing about books is the imagery is up to the reader, based on what they envision after reading the words… and could be completely different from person to person!

    • Books probably must be imagined differently for each reader, unless the book is as obsessive in descriptive detail as Proust. You are right that it’s a big part of why reading is such an involved activity.

      I have to admit I make “head-movies” out of practically everything fictional I read, and documentaries about some of the non-fiction 🙂

  8. Thought provoking post. I never really considered it before, but you are right on target. The two genres of expression use completely different tools appealing to different senses and, therefore, have very different goals and patterns of consumption. I like the analogy to a meal that you make.

    So, Mikey, which did you like better of Eat, Pray, Love the book or the movie? 🙂

    • Oh, that one’s easy. I generally dislike the performances of Julia Roberts, so the movie never had a fair chance. That’s my bias and handicap though. The book does provide ample opportunities for filming in beautiful locations, which is movie-friendly. On the other hand, they aren’t called motion pictures for nothing. Films are not a natural medium for portraying the internal process of meaningful spiritual change. Books are perfect for that. I’m not sure they could solve that problem well even with a cast I would have liked better.

      I’m reminded of an old satirical routine done by John Candy and Joe Flaherty of SCTV. They play two movie reviewers who only evaluate quality based on whether or not “stuff blowed up”. Thanks, Debbie.

  9. I really enjoyed reading this, Mikey. I don’t think I’ve previously read such a clear analysis of this subject. Slightly off topic, but related, is something that irritates me: when a film is made to portray real-life events, but descends into fiction. Cameron’s Titanic was a prime example; I’ve never been able to watch it all the way through for that reason. Why not portray the real people who were on board, instead of an unbelievable romance? Many of the actual passengers were more than fascinating enough to carry a film.

    • My wife and I have been fighting that intellectual battle for nearly two decades. We call it the “Amadeus argument”. You see, in the play and film of Amadeus, Salieri is Mozart’s arch-enemy, consumed by jealousy. Historically, Salieri was his friend and consistent supporter, assisting Mozart financially and recommending him to others for work. She thinks it is wrong to use a real person and alter the story that way.

      To me, the play/film isn’t about history. It is an exploration of the random, fickle, sometimes frustrating nature of artistic genius. In order to dramatize the theme, the genius-hero must have an adversary, and another composer who would have been close to Mozart is the best fit. It’s much more interesting than if Mozart’s life had been portrayed accurately.

      That, I believe, is also the intent with Titanic. The problem in that case is not that they mess around with history, but that (unlike Peter Shaffer who wrote Amadeus) James Cameron isn’t a good writer. If you are going to invent people or alter events in a historical situation, it must be believable and dramatically defensible.

      Until the big boat goes down, Titanic is a big-budgeted, but typical teenage romance movie. No one understands the young lovers. They are from different social classes. They share jokes no one else gets. For pity’s sake, they even manage to “do it” in the back of a car! I find the first and second half of Titanic to be two different movies in tone. The first is almost “so bad it’s good”. But the sinking half is breathtaking, and exciting.

      Don’t worry about off-topicality. I’m always up for a walk down side paths.

  10. Your wonderful post reminds me how much I enjoy reading books and how much i enjoy certain films, often with very little overlap. I have absolutely no expectations of film adaptations following the faith of the novel. One film I saw before reading the book was Michael Cunningham’s The Hours which was so good I was able to erase Nicole Kidman and restore VWoolfe to her rightful place in my imagination. I can’t criticise the film because it did lead me to reading the novel!

    • That’s an apt example, Patti. I’m awaiting all the insubstantial “which one’s better” arguments about to hatch over “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, now that the English remake of the Swedish film adaptation of the Swedish novel (first of a trilogy) is coming out.

  11. Cat

    I think years of literarily-obsessed English teachers have made me biased to the “BOOKS FIRST!” team. Over time, I’ve decided it’s just a preference. For me, movies are often harder to follow plot-wise, so I like to read the books first so I’m not lost. However, even though I like books first, I don’t think they’re always better. For instance, I thought the movie Atonement was absolutely beautiful, but the book got under my skin. I’m not a fan of Ian McEwan’s writing style, but the story itself was gorgeous and I loved the cinematic version. So yep, agreed: it’s personal preference; do what you want. And have a lovely winter while you’re at it! I bet it’s cold as shit there! 😀

    • I’m a starter on the “I LOVE BOTH” team, for the reasons stated above. It’s okay if people lean more to one or the other form. The most important thing is to let ideas in and get excited about them so you can grow and change. I’ll have to have a look at Atonement, the movie. I didn’t, maybe like you, because the book didn’t inspire me to.

      The weather isn’t so bad. It was 50F in Seattle yesterday. There’s been some rain, but rain in the Northwest is so gentle and pretty compared to the Midwest and desert varieties I was used to. I’m so happy to have you drop by. Your awesome thought-voltage makes the LCD screen glow brighter!

      (This is Cat from the Blogroll, my “Internet daughter”. She’s in college already!)

  12. This was a fantastic read; thoroughly detailed. You’ve picked up on what most people don’t take the time to acknowledge, which I fully appreciate. There are some books I love whose movies I despise, and some movies I love whose books I can’t bear. But then there are some when I love each of them equally; A Clockwork Orange for instance. They are the same and wholly different at the same time, and it’s just as you say: One doesn’t spoil the other 🙂

    • I like both the book and film of A Clockwork Orange also, and agree that they aren’t the same but both well worth the time. I wish I had more time for reading in general.

      Your latest story made me laugh. I love dark humor. Then the commenter who tried to comfort you because they thought you were describing your own hospitalization made me laugh again. Then I felt guilty for laughing. Reading is so fun and risky. Unseen potholes everywhere.

  13. You are so right. They are completely different. When a movie tries to adhere too closely to the book, it often doesn’t do justice to the book and loses something as a movie. I have gone both ways in terms of the book first, movie first debate. They both work.

  14. “Books work by harnessing the imagination of readers.” This is precisely the main difference between books and movies.

    However for myself, I’ve enjoyed movies based on a book, only for certain elements that the movies interpreted the author’s book. It could be merely as superficial of how the actors/actresses looked, moved and style of talking.
    Another spin on this is taking a hand drawn animation movie and turning it into more 3-D stuffed costume like characters. I’m think of the The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. I’ve never seen the 3-D move with green furry Grinch. For inexplicable reasons it just turned me off. I loved the original drawn movie animation instead.

    • Since I do know several of the “Grinch” adaptations, allow me to make the reasons for the superiority of the 1966 animated version explicable, Jean.

      How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the 1957 book) is, first of all, an adaptation itself, of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol from 1843. That book featured a miserable individual living emotionally removed from the society of humankind, who undergoes a spiritual conversion. Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel) took the character of Scrooge, turned Bob Cratchit into his dog Max, and used the spiritual conversion theme. However, he also made the lesson more allegorical by removing humanity and substituting the Whos (from Horton Hears a Who of 1954), and by adding gentle criticism of the over-commercialization of Christmas.

      The 1966 adaptation has what I call “pedigree”. There’s a ton of talent employed for a mere half-hour cartoon special. The approach is “Reader’s Theater”. The story is read to us aloud, by Boris Karloff, and so he’s the voice of the Grinch. By that year, Karloff was beloved as both a scary AND sweet old man, having transitioned from straight horror films into parodies like Roger Corman’s “The Raven” (1963). The Grinch in this version is automatically believable because the audience knows the two sides of the Karloff onscreen persona.

      Besides Karloff, you get Chuck Jones, the veteran cartoon director from Warner Brothers and MGM. Though he based the animation on Seuss’ book illustrations, they are not exact. The characters have exaggerated facial expressions, especially in the eyes, more like the style of Jones’ Wile E. Coyote. There are good songs to make the themes more explicit, including one about the Grinch’s awfulness sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, familiar as the voice of Tony the Tiger in Kellogg’s cereal commercials. The child, the only Who to exchange words with the Grinch, gets voiced by June Foray, another veteran of classic cartoons. The intent of the production is to visually transfer the sweetness and simplicity of the book’s style of fable, with only a bit of “opening” (the music) for TV.

      By contrast, the Ron Howard directed full-length film from 2000 had a $123 million dollar budget. It sinks under its own bombast. Jim Carrey (the Grinch) is a talented actor, but he’s got the tense, cartooney voice of a comedian, which he first became famous as. Carrey took a later shot at the same story source when he played Scrooge in the 3D motion capture version of Christmas Carol. It didn’t work there either. His voice is just too high and extreme in tone to have authority in adult, dramatic roles. There’s also something inescapably bizarre about choosing to make a multi-million-dollar film centered on the theme of over-commercialization.

  15. Holy smoked salmon, Mikey: are you sure you couldn’t have written a separate blog post about The Grinch movies? 🙂 I enjoyed all your historical background of the original animated cartoon movie. I had no clue of the actors’ voice-overs but their voice timbre were each suited per character.

    I used to watch it annually for about a decade every Christmas time. 🙂 It certainly was great for both children and adults (big children).

  16. I also have great respect for hand drawn film animators/cartoonists: I personally knew several who went to art college to specialize in animation. I had visited the student classes and was amazed by the dedication, artistry and virtuosity of their drawings to depict merely a series of motion.

  17. I’m not a TOLR (or The Hobbit) fan in any way shape or form, but I certainly agree that books and movies are not the same. One is a representation, a visualisation of the other if you like.

    Great movies can be made from lousy books and vice versa. If we are lucky we end up with a great book and a great movie!

    • I don’t quite agree with movies being a visualization of books, but a representation, sure. I mean, they are viewed and heard, but to me that shift from a form that unfolds in the mind to one outside the head/on a screen and in speakers severs the direct relationship of one to the other. At best, film makers get excited to create a worthwhile movie using characters and events they read about in a book. It’s like a song written in meows by cats about the inner lives of humans. The cats will believe they got it right.

  18. I prefer reading the book first, because you can keep it in mind during the film and see how the film deals with what the author wrote. it’s more fun to see a film after the book, because it’s exciting to see a beloved read interpreted on the screen, and I’d rather the ending be spoiled by reading the book than the film, longer suspense.

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