Translating Books to Film
There are many outstanding books and a precious few gets made into movies. When the conversion takes place, the plot must be trimmed, which can be as little as a few scenes or axe many chapters.
Why is the reduction necessary? When an author writes a book, they have unlimited freedom to develop characters, location, story, and reality. Movies must be actually filmed and this has major limitations. For example, in a book, a character can be in New York one day to fly to Antarctica. Moving a full movie crew from a big city to Antarctica is a huge undertaking. Meaning that it is not practical to fulfil every aspect of the plot and we must change it to accommodate the reality of filming. Another major restraint is the length of a movie and the number of words that an actor can say per minute. Authors have no such restraints.
Movie audiences have a vastly distinct set of expectations and needs. They require fast action, a more universal story, and not be offended. Movie studios also have to advertise, build actor’s egos, take filmmaking to the next level, please the lawyers, and include a music score.
Movies are visual, exciting and they have real people (or animated characters). A book might contain, “Bob had flowing red hair, with his trademark yellow hat, never smiles and is 17 years old.” In the movie, the dashing Tom Cruise dramatically portrays the character. He wears many outfits, has many expressions, provides his trademark smile, and obviously does not have red hair. However, Tom Cruise is a popular actor that brings a character to life and butts into theater seats.
The resulting film is ultimately a compromise regarding fulfilling what an author created. I thought examining a few books I have read and the resulting movie would be interesting.
Great movies and outstanding books that only shared the title: City of Ember, The Shawshank Redemption, The Princess Bride, Ready Player One and A Wrinkle in Time.
These books were outstanding, with strong plots, good dialog, and terrific characters. The movies had great plots, talented actors, superb cinematography, and memorable dialog. However, the underlying plots did not match.
Why? The parts that made the book great were the attention to detail. The parts that made the movies great were the exciting plot additions, added humor, and character insight. Plus, they corrected plot issues. Was there an improvement over the original work? Is it ethical to alter the plot to make an exciting movie? In my opinion, yes, because I like good movies.
Bad book, great movie: How to Train Your Dragon and Drive.
These are two of my favorite moves, and after watching, I immediately read the book. Both had a slow, wishy-washy story, underdeveloped characters, lousy descriptions, ineffective drama, and ZERO character chemistry. The screenwriter did a complete teardown of the entire plot. What they left was some of the basic premise, the title, and the character names.
The movies, of course, were astounding. Both are in my top 20, and I cannot say enough about them. I want to meet the screenwriters and directors. And the book? The authors were REALLY lucky to have their work translated into a film.
Great book, bad movie: Dune (1984) and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
I have read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy at least three times. Dune was a fantastic read; so completely epic; such an original plot; unequiled in many areas.
However, these books came with a catch. It isn’t easy to turn them into a successful movie. The only way to capture a story like Dune is in a ten-part mini-series. The complex plot will doom any attempt to make a single movie to failure. Ha, get the pun.
(And yes, they recently made another Dune movie. It is in multiple parts, and they made major compromises.)
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was the funniest book I read. It is also one of the most creative science fiction books ever, with a nearly infinite number of subtle elements. The problem was that the story was too big to fit into a film. The result was an imperfect compromise that disappointed audiences on many levels.
Great movie that matched the outstanding book: Firefox.
The screenwriter 100% mirrored every chapter. How did they do this? My only guess is that the author had a movie deal in mind when he wrote his book. (The script came first, and the book filled out the story.)
What will the future hold for movies based on books? More of the same. Authors will release good and bad books. Talented screenwriters will take books and turn them into gems or flops. Movie audiences will expect more and want to pay less. Directors will continue to push the envelope and continue to dazzle moviegoers.
I will continue to read books and watch many movies. Perhaps someday, one of my books will make it onto the big screen. Will it win an Oscar? I hope so.

You’re the best -Bill
December 05, 2018 Updated November 11, 2023

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