Dramatic movie projector
The Why

Why Are Film Adaptations Never Really Like the Books?

We’ve all been there: After spending days devouring that novel we now consider a masterpiece for the ages, we learn that a movie adaptation is in the works. Quickly, we start imagining how satisfying it is going to feel to watch the characters we’ve pictured in our head enact our favorite story on the big screen, almost convinced that it will be greater than the book.

But then comes the day when you finally go see the movie you pre-brooked your ticket for 6 months ago… With frustration, you discover that the perfect-looking A-listers who play the main parts are nothing like what you had in mind, that the scenes you deemed most important have been scratched out, and on top of it, that the screenwriter allowed himself to, occasionally, completely change the plot!

Eventually, you leave the cinema feeling like you’ve just watched an entirely different story. You’re truly disappointed…

“Better” Than the Movie

We’ve all once heard (or say) the phrase: “The book was better than the movie”. In truth, it has become a common fact that most people who’ve read an original title feel that there is something quite wrong about its film adaptation. And, surprisingly or not, this sentiment hasn’t always only affected the readers, but the writers of the novels, too.

After the release of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Stephen King called the production “a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it,” adding that Jack Nicholson “was all wrong for the part,” which concurrently pressed the point that King’s book and Kubrick’s movie were 2 very distinct creations. A few years later, Winston Groom, writer of the novel Forrest Gump, which inspired the 1994 motion picture of the same title starring Tom Hanks, also had a few complaints about the movie. Among the details that Groom was unhappy about was the omission of essential plot points and the sanitization of some of the language and sex, which, once again, raised questions around the conflict between a writer’s and a director’s vision.

So, what are the factors that make all the difference?

Jack Nicholson looks at the maze in The Shining by Stanley Kubrick

Imagination vs. Practical Choices

There’s no denying that, once brought to the big screen, the literary tales we envisioned will never be as we pictured them. And the many things that make us cringe when we watch a movie adaptation are often the results of meaningful choices made by the production, artistic, or technical team behind the film. For instance, oftentimes, actors aren’t only cast because of their strong resemblance with the leading roles, but mostly because they are highly bankable, which can inevitably generate discontent. And just like casting decisions, artistic, chemistry, logistics, and budget reasons can lead to the same situation.

Another source of constraint has to do with time. As you know, a movie’s duration is much more limited than that of a novel. After all, if the Harry Potter books had had to be adapted with exact precision, the productions would likely last around 5 hours each!

A great example that is often pointed out is the adaptation of the 1862 novel of Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, into a musical drama film inspired by the acclaimed Broadway show of the same name. Although the book is made of 5 volumes, a total of 365 chapters, and 1,400 pages, the movie adaptation, directed by Tom Hooper in 2012, managed to squeeze the entire storyline into 2h40 of screen time only.

So, how many of a book’s details can you really fit into an adaptation?

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean behind the scenes of Les Miserables

Screenplay vs. Novel

A novel is meant to be read, while a screenplay is destined to be performed. It is very important to grasp this distinction in order to understand why the structure of a movie diverges so much from that of a book. In fact, the exercise of writing a novel and a script entails many rules to apply that are very different.

A case in point for this contrast is the fact that a film’s storyline requires the characters to be introduced faster than in a novel for essential timing reasons. In addition, the narrative limitations can force some scenes to change or even the creation of new ones, instead. Because, ultimately, the only narrators of a movie are the camera and the characters through their dialogues, which leads to true challenges to introduce all the events from a book.

To sum up, a novelist, as opposed to a screenwriter, can take more liberties in the writing process as he/she can afford more time, more descriptions, and consequently provide further insight into the characters’ emotions.

The Danger of Being Too Similar

In all honesty, Hollywood producers and directors simply don’t want you to go through the exact same experience as the one you had when you read the book.

In general, when people from the cinema industry want you to buy a ticket to go see a movie adaptation, the sought-after outcome is for you to feel, experience, and enjoy things differently from everything else. This is why, oftentimes, those adaptations become their own, original creations, which are, in the end, merely inspired by the books they’re based on, and will never claim to be the same entity.