What Makes a Book to Film Adaptation Work?
I was watching the film version of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas the other night and, I have to admit, I rather liked it. It got me thinking, though: What makes a book to film adaptation work? Have the adaptations I've actually enjoyed stayed truthful to their respective novels or have they veered off in unexpected directions? What are the important elements to retain when making an adaptation: characters, plot, beginnings, endings? In short, I had many quesitons, and how to go about answering them? Well, I thought I'd start off with a good old-fashioned list; In this case, of books I'd really liked and which I'd later seen the film versions of. I divided my results into good films and bad films and I was thoroughly convinced I’d seen far more of the latter but my results took a different turn . . .
I’ve added the IMDB scores just to try and make it a little less subjective. I’m not too happy with the 8 for The Hobbit but, then again, there’s always gonna be a lot of positive votes for the big blockbuster movies. Anyway, these are just the films that came to me at the time but, either way, it really does seem I’m fairly happy with my book to film adaptations. A biased memory may be playing its part and maybe I simply haven’t watched certain adaptations because friends have pre-warned me against them. Still, I’m fairly surprised at the results.
Firstly then, let me consider a few things that stood out for me in each of these movies:
The Prestige - great performances and an engaging story with quite a number of the twists and turns of the book left intact (in fact, possibly even more in the film than in the book).
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – I go into why I’m not so keen on the first 6 movies later on but this instalment works all the better for being cut into two and the drama has been re-scripted for the better, in my opinion; I liked the fact that we get to see Harry and Voldemort battling it out before the somewhat anticlimactic “wand-off” at the end. Also, excellent portrayal of Snape’s “pensieve” memory and by far the best performances from the leads (Radcliffe’s “How dare you stand where he stood,” actually gave me goosebumps – yes, I’m not afraid to admit it).
Blade Runner – fantastic visuals, Harrison Ford’s charisma, great tone and a great villain who gave us the brilliant “tears in rain” monologue near the end. Sci-fi at its best.
Atonement – Ian McEwen apparently hated the film adaptation but I loved it. The use of the various musical motifs to accompany the switching narratives; decent performances (though, to be fair, not always perfect) and that incredible scene on Dunkirk. A few very wise changes to the ending too which I think really helped this story to work on the screen.
Lord of The Rings - What really needs to be said? Yes, they cut a lot out but I think this works particularly well here since Tolkien was always going off on wild tangents in the book (Tom Bombadil anybody?) I loved them but that doesn’t mean I want to see them on the big screen. Tolkien made his worlds believable with his agonizing attention to detail (how about making up an entire language?) Jackson did it with a cast that fully committed themselves to their roles, a great special effects department and that glorious backdrop they call New Zealand.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Doesn’t get us into the head of the protagonist in the way the book does but it has some solid performances, a keen sense of direction and great use of music to reinforce the tone.
No Country for Old Men – excellent villain and great use of the setting to create the tone of the movie. Unsettling throughout with perfect manipulation of suspense.
The Godfather – What do I really need to say?
Life of Pi – of course it doesn’t exploit the themes the book deals with quite the same depth but that’s because it substitutes some of the subtlety for fantastic visuals; the only way I think this story could’ve been transferred to the screen. The important thing here is that this is done as a compromise and not as a cop-out.
Cloud Atlas – I loved the book but I also loved the movie. Some people found the continual use of the same actors jarring but I think the Wachowski’s did a wonderful job of tying together the six different narratives of the book. The decision to move fluidly from one scene to another rather than the “2 chapters per narrative” approach the book took was a bold but invigorating move. The movie has momentum, it builds to a great climax and it is genuinely very moving. It’s also funny (I’m thinking of the Timothy Cavendish storyline here) possibly the only Wachowski movie that manages this).
The Princess Bride – The film really does manage to retain a great deal of the book’s charm, thanks in part to an old man reading his grandson a story, Wallace Shawn’s constant “Inconceivable”’s and all that dialogue-filled swashbuckling in-between. “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!” Perhaps one of the most memorable film scenes of all time.
Misery – Cathy Bates, say no more.
The Silence of the Lambs – Anthony Hopkins, say no more.
Jurassic Park – Visuals all the way. You can’t really get more dramatic than DINOSAURS and so it’s only fitting that this movie translation works so well. Amazing considering this was pretty much the first movie that brought us believable 3D computer generated characters (though it also convinced George Lucas it was time to make the prequel Star Wars trilogy and look how that turned out!)
Gone Girl – chilling performance by Rosamund Pike, though I found Ben Affleck a bit wooden, personally, but there’s no doubting that, as a whole, the movie took us on a thrilling, albeit condensed, version of the dark rollercoaster ride of the book.
Fight Club – The perfect partnership of performances between Norton and Pitt. Again, the subject matter fits very well on the big screen and the twist is all the more effective when we see Norton’s character how others saw him.
Stardust – Like The Princess Bride, this movie doesn’t take itself too seriously yet manages to gather up all the main plot points from the book to give us a strong, satisfying narrative.
One Day – You can either love or hate the characters of Emma and Dexter but I really don’t think much of the book was lost when this was transferred to film. Again, I think the two solid lead performances played a large part here with the film makers taking only what was necessary from the book to construct a complete narrative arc.
Woman in Black (1989) – the eeriness is still there and I think the fact that so much is done with you seeing so little (praise be for movies before CGI), that the creepy intensity of the book is retained. I honestly can’t bring myself to watch the re-make though.
Children of Men – excellent direction; the movie just looks and feels really good. The camera is not afraid to get in close and the storyline is just so easy to get on board with. Definitely another great adaptation.
Last of the Mohicans – an epic reduced into a movie, yes, of course a lot has been lost and it has been much dramatised in the process but come on, the music, the joy of seeing Chingachgook finally getting his revenge on Magua. Hell, just the music!
Now let’s take a look at the bad crowd . . .
Norwegian Wood – Visually very nice but the book is more about a series of poignant moments to me rather than an overarching narrative. Though the movie does capture the pathos of the book it doesn’t have that same aching longing that really drew me into the novel and, overall, I just couldn’t connect to this movie in any meaningful way.
Harry Potter 1-6 - I wasn’t really a fan of most of the Harry Potter movies. I didn’t really find the kids convincing in the first few movies and I was never a fan of Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. This is nothing against the actor but Dumbledore was my favourite character in the books; he was whimsical, eccentric, odd in every way and yet without a doubt the most badass character of the series. This great dichotomy of whimsy/badassness was something that was completely lost for me in the movie, with the creators instead going for the typical old, grey-robed, huffish wizard that seems to be a stock archetype in fantasy cinema. I guess even a really good book to film adaptation can be ruined if a beloved character is lost in the process.
The Hobbit – Just terrible. Visually dire (I still don’t like the increased frame rate decision but people can argue that one back and forth for an age, I know) and bags of extra side-“plot” and characters that really did nothing but steal away the drama. The Orc leader and his deputy were terrible; Legolas – laughable and don’t even get me started on the Elf/Dwarf relationship. Ultimately, Jackson should have accepted that The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are completely different in tone and stuck to telling what is essentially just an adventure yarn. I can see why he wanted to make it feel more like LOTR but he still should have stuck to the storyline of The Hobbit itself – ogres, giant spiders, a dragon and a great battle. That, alongside the journey of an armchair adventurer slowly transforming into a master thief, is all we need from a fully formed narrative; no need for extra antagonists and Gandolf going off on a rampage. These three movies pretty much sum-up everything that is wrong with Hollywood to me.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Ugh. I guess it’s not completely bad. The main thing here though was that the book really did rely on the narration. Each chapter takes us into a different character’s thoughts and feelings and that was what was compelling about the novel as a whole, not the love story. Of course, the inner-workings of a character is the first thing that is lost in a movie translation and if there’s nothing grand to draw from in the over-arching scheme of things then the movie is all the more likely to fail.
The Golden Compass – In many ways it’s difficult to fathom why this movie was so disappointing. It looks good, it includes all the main plot points, it had a great antagonist in Nicole Kidman’s Mrs Coulter and a good turn by Dakota Richards as Lara. But it just didn’t seem to work. It was quite surprising therefore to hear Philip Pullman defending it during a talk in Oxford last year. Overall though, I just don’t think they got the tone right in this film and it was badly paced. Whereas the book did a perfect job of drawing you into this alternate Oxford, the movie plonks you outside from the beginning and keeps you there throughout.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – I’ve never been a Johnny Depp fan (though Jack Sparrow in the first PoC film and Edward Scissor Hands are definite exceptions) – this movie managed to burn away all traces of the magic the book had. Not a moment of charm to be found in its entirety (obviously the exact reverse goes for the Gene Wilder version and the last scene “Did you ever hear what happened to the boy who got everything he ever wished for? / “No, what happened?” / “He lived happily ever after.” Yep, that’s still probably my most favourite movie moment ever and still brings tears to my eyes. But this movie – dreadful.
Alice in Wonderland – same as the previous comment (minus Gene Wilder and man tears)
Ender’s Game – This is maybe unfair as I’ve not actually seen the movie. Well, I watched about ten minutes of it and turned it off. I physically just can’t bring myself to watch the rest. Still, everyone else seems to hate it so enough said.
World War Z – We all knew what was in store for us when someone pointed out that stylish scarf Brad Pitt was – for some unknown reason – wearing whilst running around with uniformed soldiers with about a thousand zombies in pursuit. Overall, another classic hollywoodisation – boiling away anything with any substance from the script and serving up a bare bones narrative with a number of blatant plot holes.
A Long Way Down – The book had wit and a selection of eclectic characters that nonetheless managed to charm me as a reader. The movie fails to do this; I don’t warm to the characters and – especially considering the subject matter – this story really needs to sell its characters if it’s going work.
Love in the Time of Cholera - There were too many moments in this movie when I was just too aware of the fact that I was watching a movie. Partly then it’s a fault of the direction and the performers but again it’s one of those stories that deals with the inner workings of a character rather than the specific events that unfold around him. Yeah he has many conquests but this can only be visually appealing for so long.
So, going back to the original question – what makes a good book to film adaptation? Well, quickly going over my comments, certain things seem to stand out to me: performances, visuals, characterisation, tone and plot. I’m going to consider these in terms of narrative and character.
It seems to me that, first and foremost, a novel is generally a long piece of work and a film is relatively short. Stating the obvious here, I know, but that is the dilemma. Something has to be cut. The problem is, attempting to condense a narrative can result in a kind of Jenga approach to script writing where, just having a couple of pieces out of place can result in a very shaky structure overall and this undoubtedly effected movies such as World War Z and Ender’s Game. Another thing that is obviously going to have to go out the door is the description of the story. While it is true that a picture can say a thousand words, if a book has great descriptions then a movie has to have a great visual pallet and a great director to present it. I also feel that there are many things that can appear in subtext in the book which can be transferred to the movie in a visual or even auditory (particularly with music) manner. In this way films such as Atonement (the typewriter-themed soundtrack), Cloud Atlas (the subtle mimicry of earlier scenes) and Blade Runner (the use of dark shots, shadow and rainfall) succeed so well. Films that lack this (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or Love in the Time of Cholera) or films that try to be visually spectacular but fail (The Hobbit, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) are pretty much out the race from the word go.
There are however those movies that do seem to be visually appealing and which also seem to get the main plot points of the book into the right place (Norwegian Wood, The Golden Compass). Well here, what I’ve broadly termed “characterisation” comes into play. Stories are carried by their characters and whereas we might read The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Fight Club and be utterly transported into the workings of these characters, for us to get a sufficient level of interest in a movie, we’re going to need not only a damn good performer but also a script where motivations and key points of development are handled succinctly. Give a story just two hours to develop and suddenly that boy’s motivation to go out there and become the best military strategist the world has ever seen (Ender’s Game) can kinda fall a little short. But make sure you give us time to see our character at their normal, down on their luck stage with a clear desire to go on their quest, then take us through a series of trials only to seem them march back into their hometown at the end, completely transformed (Stardust) and yes, we’re satisfied, we buy this narrative and we’re invested in this character’s development. It was all there in the Tolkien’s Hobbit but Jackson just had to add more to it and then more and then more still.
To conclude then, a good adaptation needs some solid performances from its cast; it needs a script that is streamlined – picking out the key elements of the plot whilst keeping the motivations of the characters and the key trials that develop them intact; it needs to be scripted in such a way that the pacing feels right (and if this means dropping scenes or changing them completely then so be it – so long as the material is justifiable); it needs to try and retain the tone of the book through visuals and sound or it can go off and adopt another tone but it still needs to do this effectively. Of course, with all of this there opinions are going to be subjective – everyone has their take on what makes a scene effective and even a performance (I may dislike the Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies but many people love him). What I hope to have done here is presented a few common areas of consideration when taking a story from page to film.
So there you have it. I guess, in closing, there just might be one final question worth broaching (and I’d love to hear other peoples’ feedback on this one): Are there any books that are actually better than the movie?
For me, there are two:
The Prestige: the book takes the stance of a modern day family looking back into the affairs of their ancestors, two magicians, which I just didn’t find all that engaging. The movie, however, focuses on the heart of the feud between these two magicians and it takes us on a far more thrilling ride in the process.
Jurassic Park: As I’ve alluded to earlier, it’s simple really: dinosaurs look better on a movie screen than they do in a book: fact. This, coupled with the fact that this movie managed to tick all the boxes I’ve identified: Performances (great acting all round) - tick; Visuals (obviously) – double tick, characterisation (the kids warming to the archaeologist dude; him warming to them; the doctor reluctantly coming to terms with his grand mistake) – tick; tone (from the first helicopter flyover, the music, the opening of those gates, the rainfall and darkness, the electricity going out) – definite tick; and plot – it’s all there: our struggling archaeologists at the beginning, entering the park, character development, problems, betrayals, a steady build up of seemingly insurmountable obstacles; the fact that they managed to find something scarier than the T-Rex (the veloceraptors) so that the movie steps up another gear 2/3 in, after what was already a thrill ride and then, finally, exeunt island with the doctor finally agreeing [character reversal] that the park is not worth endorsing – another definite tick.
So there you have it. Jurassic Park serves as a very good model indeed. Thank you very much for reading. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the longest blog post I ever make so kudos if you’ve managed to read all the way down to this point. As I say, let me know you own suggestions.
Thanks for now.