The Art of Adaptation: From Book to Film

The definition of what is a ‘good’ adaptation or a ‘bad’ adaptation can be considered subjective. People read books for several reasons and one of them being to entertain and enjoy the creation of another imaginary world, but, at the same time disagree with each other over a single visual adaptation. This must be understood when defining adaptations.

The definition of beauty is defined as being subjective by Virginia Woolf.

The English writer, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) once wrote an essay titled The Cinema 1, in which she argued that the cinema has limitations of accurately displaying descriptive images that parallel the original words on the page of a book. The strength of words on paper is highly emphasised as making the most impact upon a reader, without the need or addition of a cinematic portrayal;

‘Even the simplest image such as “My luve’s like a red, red rose, that’s newly sprung in June” presents us with moisture and warmth and the glow of crimson and the softness of petals inextricably mixed and strung upon the lilt of a rhythm which suggests the emotional tenderness of love. All this which is accessible to words and to words alone, the cinema must avoid.’

This imagery of the ‘red rose’ is Woolf’s version of beauty. This rich imagery of a warm rose differs from person to person, yet, the only person in control of this portrayal in the cinematic world is the director of the film. Audiences are shown a portrayal of the director’s ideal depiction of this warm rose, leading to the directors version of ‘beauty’, hence, possibly slipping under what fans call a ‘bad adaptation’. Does this then suggest that there is a limitation to what cinema and film can do in relation to producing an ideal, parallel adaptation to what the fans imagine?

Aesthetics of film production include animation, speed, technology and other mechanical elements, which are used to enhance the words on a page. Therefore, credibility must be given to the director’s choice of generating scenes, whilst agreeing on cast members, style of music and other aesthetics used to produce an adaptation. Just as much as books are viewed in their own entirety, film adaptations are also a piece of art on their own. For instance, The Twilight saga had been a hit between 2008 and 2012. The teen drama focuses around a young, teenage romance, which of course, may be favoured by some and disliked by others. This can be seen in the general reviews the film received from the public. However, the key importance is noticing the parallelism between the books narrative and the way this has been illustrated in the film. The narrative in the book had been elevated by the editorial process; the physical portrayal of a vampires ability to move at lightning speed, the type, rhythm and melody in the music that is chosen to illuminate certain scenes, the use of animation and green screen to create wolves and magnificent landscapes, and the powerful use of creating interaction between wolves/vampires and humans.

Using filmic techniques to create wolves in the Twilight Saga.

Similarly, an even greater controversy rose from some of the major scenes in the Harry Potter series as the film adaptations have disappointed many fans. For example, the death of Voldemort had been beautifully crafted by J.K. Rowling, yet the directors choice to Voldemort’s death had been illustrated through visual effects of Voldemort disintegrating into ashes. Again, a spectrum of opinions rose about the directors choices made with this scene, with some fans disappointed with the apparent inaccurate display of the original storyline. On the other hand, many fans loved the Harry Potter films due to the artistic and cinematic qualities that were put into the making of these films.

Notably, various international adaptations of classical plays and novels have aroused an interesting dichotomy of opinions. For example, Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet has been adapted multiple times, with differing directors and cast members over the years. The successful Indian director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, introduced a twist to the performance by enhancing the storyline through the addition of cultural influences, in his adaptation titled Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela. However, his movie sparked controversy even before its release, indicating the subjective attitude of defining a ‘good’ adaptation. One review on IMDb 2, states:

“Brilliant performances by all, stunning and spectacular sets, fabulous music and a whole lot of colour.”

While on the other hand, the same review states:

“Poor story or should I say, no story whatsoever! The movie just keeps rolling and you end up thinking how is this scene different from the previous one? The story is so bad (and believe me I am not exaggerating even one bit) that nothing else works for the movie. All the viewers with me in the theatre were yawning and loudly calling out for the movie to finish. God knows why the critics are going gaga for this one. I had always believed in Rediff’s review and I just wish I had done the same this time as well. Rediff gave it just 1 star. Do yourself some favour, don’t watch it at all.”

Indian adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Deepika Padukone as ‘Leela/Juliet’ and Ranveer Singh as ‘Ram/Romeo’.

The diverging opinions sprouting from this movie by many viewers indicates how two or more people can be jointly entertained by the same book and enjoy the creation of the author’s imaginary world, but disagree with one another over a single visual adaptation. Perhaps, the decisions made by the screen writers and directors of this film needed to embrace a more culture orientated atmosphere to illuminate the differences of perspectives culturally. The classical Romeo and Juliet had been adapted to fit the modern, Indian world which is full of vibrant colour, singing and dancing, yet, is still haunted by the original family feud. The vibrancy of the Indian adaptation had also been brought about by the directors decision in allowing Mrs Capulet to be the lead role rather than Mr Capulet in the Capulet household. This had changed the dynamics of the household making females the superior beings by embracing female superiority in the modern era. This had ultimately made a huge impact upon modern audiences who are familiar with the original play, but are now having to readjust to the addition of changing social and cultural influences in modern adaptations. In The Cinema, Woolf agrees that the film makers creation is indeed an art of its own as she argues that;

“the film maker must come by his convention, as painters and writers and musicians have done before him. He must make us believe that what he shows us, fantastic though it seems, has some relation with the great veins and arteries of our existence. He must connect it with what we are pleased to call our reality. He must make us believe that our loves and hates lie that way too. How slow a process this is bound to be, and attended with what pain and ridicule and indifference can easily be foretold when we remember how painful novelty is, how the smallest twig even upon the oldest tree offends our sense of propriety. And here it is not a question of a new twig, but of a new trunk and new roots from the earth upwards.” 3

Despite the subjective attitudes of audiences and their opinions about a film adaptation, the art of film adaptations lie in the collaborative cooperation of great screen writers, directors and film makers who condense, adjust, add and alter the original play or novel in order to create a “new trunk’. Therefore,

“It seems sometimes as if movements and colours, shapes and sounds had come together and waited for someone to seize them and convert their energy into art.” 4

Consequently, the subjective nature of deciding what makes a ‘good’ adaptation vs. what makes a ‘bad’ adaptation lies upon individuals and what they see as good cinematography or a good storyline. Ultimately, the decision lies in the directors’ hands, yet the audience subjectively decide their preferences for either the original play/book, or the films. It is impossible to impress every single fan as some fans appreciate the written qualities of the books while others enjoy the cinematic qualities in films. Whether the directors choose to parallel the books narrative in the film or diverge from it, the audience have little control over this decision. Yet, this interestingly creates discussion and debate amongst fans, critics and academics who become actively collaborative in producing theories, reviews, articles and other responsive materials in relation to such decisions. Thus, the directors of films are given credibility for their ability to insight discussion due to their creative and highly artistic qualities shown in their work. Much respect can be given to the production of films due to the substantial nature of using multitudinous cinematic techniques for the production of these sizeable films. Maybe, the purpose of producing and causing such differing views and conversations indicates who a ‘good’ director is?

Works Cited

  1. Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Cinema’ Selected Essays, ed. by David Bradshaw. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009), pp.172-6, p.175.
  2. ‘User Reviews’ for ‘Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela’ in IMDb, [].
  3. Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Cinema’ Selected Essays, p.175-6.
  4. Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Cinema’ Selected Essays, p.176.

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  1. I think very few adaptations live up to expectations. It’s a difficult balance to get right, between satisfying existing fans and appealing to a new audience.

    Some of the films I think got it right, or in rare cases bettered the original source material, are as follows:

    1) The English Patient – I think the film was better than the novel. The novel is often described as a mosaic and, for me, the film puts the mosaic together more coherently and more interestingly than the book.

    2) The Bourne Trilogy – Not really a fair comparison as the films don’t really resemble the books at all. However, I think the films were great and were much, much better than the novels. In fact, I think the novels were awful.

    3) The Remains of the Day – An absolutely spot on adaptation.

    4) Adaptation – This film transcends the original source material into something that is bizarre, touching and funny. Wonderful film-making.

    There are probably more, but I can’t think of any others right now.

    • Amyus

      ‘Remains of The Day’ remains, to this day, one of my favourite Merchant-Ivory productions. Exquisite in its adaptation. It was only afterwards that I read Ishiguro’s novel and, to be honest, I loved both novel and film.

      Another film that could be added to your list is the 2014, Australian made sci-fi story ‘Predestination.’ I remember reading Heinlein’s short story ‘All You Zombies’ many years ago and wondering how it could be made into a film. When the Speirig Bros released their version I was curious – and then delighted with the result. Even the addition of Noah Taylor’s character worked within the context of the adaptation.

    • CulturallyOpinionated

      Can’t forget Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those movies are by far the best “book-to-movie” adaptation ever made. Not for being at 1:1 transfer of the story off the page to film format, but for making an already great story much more palatable for everyday moviegoers who won’t spend the time slogging through pages and pages of descriptions of plants as the hobbits travel down the road, followed by a one-sentence line “Oh, and then Boromir died.” They aren’t perfect movies (“Looks like meat’s back on our menu, boys!”) but they’re the closest we’re going to get to a perfect adaptation.

      • Stephanie M.

        There definitely are some situations where the movie is the better bet. I’ve read the LOTR books, but because they can be a bit of a “slog,” I’d be willing to say the movies are better.

    • Yes, The Remains Of The Day is that rare thing: both the novel and the film are well worth reading and watching. Getting the characters right is a job in itself for film directors, perhaps the most important job. Hopkins was magnificent as the butler. The lady who adapted Ishiguro’s novel only died last month. She was a novelist in her own right. But all the elements came together there. Hyperventilating now ends here.

    • I agree completely about The Remains of the Day, and disagree passionately about The English Patient. In the case of the former, the director knew the real love affair was with the house itself and the minutia of its day-to-day affairs. James Ivory got the calculus exactly right. We want for the butler, James, to desire Miss Kenton enough to risk something, but he literally cannot. The proper polish on a table means more than a flesh and blood woman.

      The exact opposite issue marred The English Patient. Minghella tried to superimpose a traditional love triangle on a story that was more labyrinth and spiral than three cornered affair. Ondaatje’s novel is incomparably richer and more complex than the movie ever hints at. For one thing, the nurse’s love story is truncated by politics and history itself. After the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Kip renounces Hana, in part, because he sees her as a symbol of the West’s depravity. At every turn, the movie tried to superimpose and order that Ondaatje studiously resisted.

    • Aleshia

      Agree about The English Patient. Couldn’t finish the novel, the film is one of my favorites.

  2. Cameron

    I think the adaptation needs to capture the essence (or essences) of what it is that makes the book good.

    • i85moreno

      Agreed, and that entails much more than just staying 100% accurate to details that are ultimately insignificant to the story. It may be an extreme/controversial example, but I think Stephen King’s The Shining and the Kubrick adaptation are a good example of this. The movie does leave out a lot of the lore of the Torrance family and the hotel, but it perfectly captures the sinister, paranormal nature of the hotel. Even though the fate of the hotel is completely off from the book’s telling, the ‘spirit’ of the hotel remains in both, and it shows that it was and will always be beyond just the infrastructure.

    • That is also subjective, though.

  3. Stand By Me is a brilliant adaptation of Stephen King’s original novella, and I think he’s said it’s his favourite adaptation. It’s very close to the original story, even down to Richard Dreyfuss’s narration. However, there’s a superficially very subtle change at the end, where instead of River Phoenix’s character pointing a gun at Kiefer Sutherland’s, as happens in the book, it is Wil Wheaton’s character. If you see the film first, and the way it develops that character, when you read the book it just seems wrong to be any other way.

  4. Amyus

    Looking good JAbida and nicely done.:)

  5. I’m kind of unusual, I think, in that I actually like adaptations that diverge from the source material, as long as they do so in ways that are themselves enjoyable and well-executed. Inevitably, the nature of different media means that a particular technique that would work just fine in a book (for example) might not work on screen. I like being able to hold the two versions up to each other and say, “Oh, they’re doing this because it wouldn’t make sense for them to do it like that, the way the original does!”

    What I mostly look for in an adaptation is, can it stand alone? To me, that’s the most important aspect of a good adaptation: it needs to be able to stand on its own and be accessible and enjoyable even to those who aren’t familiar with the source material. I think I see it that way because I watch a lot of anime, and if an anime based on a manga or novel (for example) is released in the US, there’s no guarantee that the manga or novel will be as well.

  6. For me, the best book-to-screen adaptation was Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Despite changing the location from London to Chicago, it kept the spirit of the book – especially the characters. John Cusack really understood the text.

  7. Addison

    Great article. For those interested, Robert Stam has written some great books on the subject of adaptation.

  8. I think that the film Trainspotting, as a film in it’s own right, is as good as the book. They are very different in a lot of respects but, I think, Danny Boyle took the ideas, themes and styles from the book and made an excellent film. I think that’s the ideal, make them as good as each other, without sticking painstakingly to the text. That said, I think the Harry Potter films were far more entertaining and coherent than the books, so maybe that’s the ultimate adaptation.

    • Merideth

      Quite agree about Trainspotting. In fact, there was so much material from the book they didn’t use, they could have easily got another film out of it.

      And quite agree about Harry Potter too. The fourth one particularly. They cut out entire subplots that took up 100 pages from the book, and it didn’t make the blindest bit of difference to the story, which just goes to show how bloated and self-indulgent the book was to begin with.

    • Stephany

      I think John Hodge did an amazing job of turning a seemingly unfilmable novel like Trainspotting into a brilliant script that captured the essence of the book and created a strong central narrative from what was essentially a collection of short stories.

    • I think that’s true of the last four books, where the books were long and plodding and the films shorter and more coherent, but not the first three. The first two films were, if anything, too faithful to the books and therefore felt far longer than they were.

      The third film and book (“Prisoner of Azkaban”) the film and the book are excellent in different ways, but my preference is for the book.

      • I don’t know, I think they’re all really clumsily written. I thought they were translated well to film in so much as by dragging out, if you like, the first couple of books and then heavily editing the later ones they managed to create films of similar length. As regards the later books I’m glad they ditched all the bits where she had a go at dealing with “teen issues” which were absolutely excruciating. All that “it seemed everyone was snogging except Ron and Harry” – they’re all about fifteen, in real life that’s probably not the half of it but you’re writing a children’s book it’s not Byker Grove.

        • Normally it’s very difficult to make a film of a blockbuster book, because there’s just too much happening in 600-odd pages to fit into a two and a half hour film. “The Golden Compass” was a complete failure because it got nowhere near the complexity and extent of Pullman’s book.

          But the Harry Potter books are really just comics, without any substance. You can discard great swathes of them and it makes no difference. As I recall the first 100 pages of the first book, nothing happened except a relentless and tedious swamp of Dudley Dursley being unpleasant to Harry, with no context and no purpose other than to indulge the author’s dislike of lower middle class suburban people. You could capture the whole lot in two minutes of film.

  9. Un Toth

    The main thing is capturing the feel of the book.

  10. Of ‘period’ adaptations I think Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility is up there with the best although the amazing cast helps.

  11. Great read. With books like Gatsby and Lolita, the weird thing is that there are people who haven’t read the books and who presumably go and see these movies instead; as though the one experience is a substitute for the other — and that by knowing what happens in the story, that’s all there is to it.

    In the case of non-literary fiction, it’s less important; and as often as not, the film can be a less time-consuming way of delivering you the essentials of the plot (does anybody read John Grisham for his interesting perceptions or poetic prose style?)

  12. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    A good essay with an interesting topic.

  13. Clueless is way better than Emma.

  14. Jacalyn

    I love “Wizard of Oz”, the original film starring Judy Garland. I read the book as a child and even at a very young age – I think I was seven – thought it was crap. But the film is stunningly good, with all the depth the book doesn’t have.

  15. I’d say Kubrick and Coppola stand pretty much apart as the only filmmakers to consistently adapt challenging and complex books brilliantly – Clockwork Orange, 2001, The Shining, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now are all among the greatest adaptations ever. The only modern director that comes close for me is David Fincher, who did a superb job in adding a cinematic depth to the likes of Fight Club and The Social Network.

  16. Olimpia

    The best adaptations often come from the most straightforward source material, as the filmmaker can use the core events in a book to build their own meaning around. That’s part of the reason why some of the biggest flops (Breakfast of Champions, Bonfire of the Vanities, All The King’s Men off the top of my head) have been from books that are lengthy and/or hold complex ideas.

  17. If you’re good enough, then a blatant disregard for the source material can work in your favour. I’m going from memory here, but I think there’s a good Hitchcock quote on adapting novels. Something along the lines of “I read the book once, then throw it away”.

  18. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    I do find that is interesting how many times we circle over this topic not only here but in media as a whole, but some good inclusions to the wider discussion.

  19. Has anyone read Oil! by Upton Sinclair, the book There Will Be Blood is based on? I’d be interested to hear how it compares with the original.

  20. Charlesetta

    The film adaptation needs to have that sort of sensitive attention to detail that adds a bit of unique panache to it.

  21. Best adaptation that comes to mind is the TV miniseries of John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Alec Guinness.

  22. Much of the issue involving adaptation (really of any medium to another, but especially text to visual) is the question of personal investment. Books tend to become personal journeys for each individual reader—that individual can craft their own mental ideation of the characters and preceding events, and those visions are fluid based personal discretion. An event in a text, depending on the skill and intentions of the author, can be read a variety of ways. Film tends to be static—an event that happens on screen often locks out alternative interpretation, unless a surrealistic director (a la David Lynch) is at helm. This innate “reality” of film as a medium frequently denies the freedom of vision innate in literature—the movie belongs not the individual, but to all who see it.

    But I digress. I appreciate your article.

  23. Interesting to read about the viewpoints when it comes to books versus film and the ‘benefits’ or ‘pros’ to each.

  24. Something fun to note about the relationship of Movies and Books is even when filmmakers were creating their own movies from scratch in say the 30s and earlier, they would actually write a full novel to coincide with the movie they created. It’s the idea that world building happens just as much on and off the screen.

    The writers would also figure out what was more important to the story, and what was going on inside of the head of their characters. The nature of film is so action based, this exercise helped writers get everything out.

  25. I personally cannot stand fidelity discourse. If people are going to gush over ‘books that are better than the movie’ then the same appreciation needs to be made for movies that are better than the book. What about the Exorcist? Amytiville Horror? Jaws? Die Hard?

  26. I ponder if Wolff was right. While cinema and books represent a medium to tell a story, they are distinctly divided by their respective, story-telling toolsets ie. what works for books mightn’t for movies.

    Further, fidelity of adaptation, as KateBowen puts it, is a moot point for the likes of Harry Potter or Twilight (or Game of Thrones). Their writing styles and multiple sequels suggest an avaricious parallel with Hollywood uninterested in concise, genuine story-telling between both mediums.

    My thoughts are incomplete here but I’ve enjoyed having them.

  27. Cinema and literature have had such an intense relationship throughout time, with the means necessary to create an adaptation only truly accessible in this present day. There’s also the idea that films have an unspoken maximum run time, so some things are cut. It doesn’t mean the editors and directors made the right decision, but this read has opened up an avenue of thought that is scarcely ever delved into deeply. Well done.

  28. Florence

    I liked James and the Giant Peach. The Witches was excellent – totally unsettling, with brilliant effects. I tend to like the adaptations of Dahl’s stories more than his books, really.

  29. Mary Reilly – that was a very imaginative adaptation of Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Very thought-provoking look at the complexities of good and evil – but seen from the perspective of a woman who loves both of those qualities in the same man. Very interesting, I thought.

    • Have you seen Spencer Tracy become Mr. Hyde, he’s absolutely terrifying.

  30. What about The Matrix which was an adaption by implication of Neuromancer by William Gibson? Interesting concept!

    Mind you I remember in a literature class being asked to define the three types of adaptation and replying: ‘Good, bad and indifferent’. As an answer got laughs but not many points from the lecturer!!

  31. The adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird was very good.

  32. Awesome essay – it’s always one of those polarising debates and you explored both sides well.

    I’ve always felt that the difference between a good adaptation and a bad one is whether the screenwriter and director properly respect the source material. Not just taking the “juicy” parts while ignoring other aspects which build the plot and contribute to characterisation.

    Take Stephen King for instance. I can only describe the recent output of adaptations (i.e. It and Pet Sematary) as a redemptive renaissance period for his works. They capture the horror and darkness without losing the substance and characterisation of his writing. With the obvious exception of Misery and Kubrick’s The Shining, a large amount of the old adaptations felt very underdone. With respect to those, they might not have been given the same budget/resources as these newer adaptations but there was still a lot lacking.

  33. The greatest injustice adaptations do is in regards to narration. Film adaptations don’t allow for the steady stream of thought that many novels posses that facilitate a deeper connection between audience and character. In the case of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, the lack of personal narration in the film created an entirely different narrative and pulled most of the intended conversation away from the audience.

  34. I feel like adaptations need to let go of the source material to a certain extent. Something that works in prose will not always work on screen. Also, I would rather the artists gave the film a new spin, rather than following the book to the letter and making a pale imitation with nothing to add.

  35. Derek

    Adaptation is interesting because there is even less of a baseline expectation than in other media. Of course, everyone has different opinions about any movie or book or song, but the framework for judgment seems a bit more standardized when its an “original” work. Some people hope for the “feel,” others the “characters,” and others still the plot is supreme. It’s quite the problem for practitioners!

  36. I am one of many around the world who prefer the book over the movie 90% of the time.

    One main example of this is the first Hunger Games. I loved the book – so much so I finished it in a 4 hour car ride. But the first movie left me so disappointed. I understand how difficult I can be fora movie to show Katniss hiding in a tree and waiting not to die, I just felt at the time there could have been more done.

  37. The age old problem is: A writer can write for as long as he/she wishes too and the story follows this rule. A book can be a thousand pages long but a profitable mainstream movie can only last three hours at most. So much content must be cut that inevitably the greatest screen writer on the planet will trip up and cut something that they did not realise was integral to the story or god forbid a fan favourite element. At the end of the day the article answers its own question it is subjective, there is no science to it.

  38. I’m not convinced that the idea of a “good adaptation” and a “bad adaptation” are relevant when it comes to art. Of course, to the paid critic the adaptation factor must contribute to his/her argument as to whether a film is good or bad. However, if we look at film as a standalone art as we would literature, painting, sculpting, etc., why does the fact that it is an adaptation matter? Suppose, for instance, a painter observed the statue of David and decided to paint an abstract version of the sculpture. Would a viewer look at the painting as a good or bad adaptation of the sculpted work? I think that’s unlikely. Shouldn’t this also apply to film?

    If we use Stephen King’s “The Shining” as an example, it is well known that King despised the Stanley Kubrick version of his book, primarily because in the book the overheating boiler is almost like a character that Jack is constantly battling until it explodes and takes Jack and the Overlook down with it. Kubrick decided to leave the hotel standing and instead of taking out Jack by fire, he takes him out by ice. That is a significant plot change. However, as the reader and viewer, we the audience can decide that literature and film are separate entities that are unique even if they are based upon the same story. They can each be enjoyed and analyzed individually. They both have the same plot with the same characters and the same location. However, due to the artist’s interpretation, we get to enjoy different themes, a different tone, and the visual element missing from the novel.

    In conclusion, I don’t think “good” and “bad” are the proper filters through which to view an adaptation. Each work of art deserves to viewed as a piece unto itself, even if the origin is based on another artist’s vision.

  39. I think one of the main issues with movies or tv shows that originate from book is fan expectations. As this article states, we all view things in our own specific ways, so when something on screen doesn’t match the image in our head, it ruins the movie for us. I am guilty of this myself. I think by purging our own expectations before seeing a movie it can greatly increase the experience. I’ve also noticed that when I watch a movie and then read the book, I thoroughly enjoy seeing that same story told in what is usually more detail. Obviously, there have been some very good adaptations as mentioned in this comment section already, but I don’t think any adaptation will ever be received without complaints, especially if the book audience leans towards the more eccentric side.

  40. So there’s an interesting tension at work here between how we interpret words and how we interpret visual imagery. Words tend to suggest a variety of possible meanings to the reader, for example, if I say “Jack drinks coffee” some of us will imagine it as black and piping-hot, others as iced and filled with cream and sugar. To my mind this is part of the beauty of the written word, and its always seemed to me that good authors take advantage of this inherent ambiguity. Conversely, images are very concrete – when we see Jack getting a piping-hot black coffee the other possible meanings of “coffee” are automatically eliminated. It would seem, then, that part of the adapter’s task is to consider the concrete image that will remain most faithful to the written word. This makes me wonder if books that are less precise in their imagery (“Jack ordered a coffee” versus “Jack ordered a large hot coffee with two sugars”) are inherently harder to adapt to the screen?

  41. As a fan of both books and movies I have been a lover of this argument for a long time. Being an ardent reader of Cormac McCarthy’ I am often left bewildered at the butchering of his books into their perspective adaptations. I hope I don’t have to (obviously) mention The Road, but I will, and I digress.

    It might not be so obvious that I generally prefer the book/novel to the adaptation? There are exceptions to the rule, and LOTR is, collectively, one of these exceptions. These movies have greatly beaten my imagination into a pulp. Peter Jackson and his entourage have decimated what I thought I could conceive that would be an epic adventure for everyone and their viewing pleasure. I was wrong. Their minds are beyond anything I would dare imagine.

    Lately, I am also in awe of 21st Century television adaptations, Big Little Lies, automatically jumps first in line when I try to give an example on the spot. I couldn’t wait for Sunday night to watch, and the addition of Meryl forced me to watch every cringe worthy second, despite what my eyes wanted. I explain the show as “confrontational”, “raw”, and “very funny”. The book is funny, and dark and still compelling to read. The level of cringy-ness was low. This cross over I felt is the reason for it’s success during award season in L.A.

    Typically when I see an adaptation I’m more excited to read the book first. I think I know what you’re thinking, and, no, it’s not so that I can point out all of the subtle, or vast, differences between the book and adaptation. (Disregard my comments on The Road) And how the movie ruined my love of the book. I’m not the type to point out “episode 213 scene 7, you said this…when actually it was this…” I’m not one of “those”. My excitement actually stems from LOTR. I enjoy the tug-o-war between my ego and my love of film and book and if my imagination could even possibly compete with the people responsible for the on screen version.

    As for my absolute favourite to date, Mordecai Richler’s novel “Barney’s Version”(!!!!) Reading it on the Toronto subway to and from work over a decade ago brings back so many memories of missed stops and ignored conversations with strangers. I spent months toiling, reading, and re-reading chapters.

    Too many people I spoke with thought it was dry, bitter, and angsty, but most importantly, not enough droll or drunken bitterness that Richler-ites have grown to crave. The movie starring a solid Canadian cast, but also including Paul Giamatti, helped to create a romantic sense of Canada during the 1970’s. Mordecai’s symbolic usage of booze, or really good scotch, to cigars, women and the Montreal Canadians in the book kept me glued, and seeing my imagination and revelling at something I could conceive has me locked every time I watch. And this from a staunch supporter of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    Of course not one of my examples has anything to do with CGI or any graphical effects. They are important, but I don’t feel they are the reason books are adapted or why they are the reason the adaptation fails or succeeds according to us, the viewer. They simply provide an outlet to create the imaginative realm necessary for expression. But let’s be honest, most of the time these effects are worth mentioning, outside of the storyline, because they have the ability to make or kill the scene. I couldn’t imagine Little Shop of Horrors created after 1995?

  42. I am one of the very few people who generally enjoy movie adaptations over most books, mainly for the fact of the visual representation of certain things. With constantly improving technology, the ease of creating the surreal imagery given in books will only get easier to match if not top. I enjoy the visual representation of the movies more than the text because at least for me I find it easier to immerse my self/find myself getting lost in the movie. In books, I find it harder to picture what I’m reading without having to reread what I just read. But that’s just my opinion on this from the alternative view of the majority.

  43. Great commentary!

  44. benjamindmuir

    While I fundamentally agree, from what I’ve seen, the best adaptions tend to come from cinematic works where the author of the source material is heavily involved. For instance, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was handled almost entirely by the author who is also a screenwriter by trade, and it was nothing short of perfect. Even where the plot diverged from the source, it ended up being more a “director’s cut,” kind of experience than the frustration of wondering why on earth they felt the need to change something perfectly good.

  45. An interesting essay! I do agree with you when you said that people can agree to love a book, but disagree on its adaption to film. I’ve always found it fascinating how people love similar aspects of a work but disagree on the same aspects of its adaption. Again, an interesting essay on a very interesting topic!

  46. There’s definitely an overwhelming amount of difficulty when adapting a novel to film. With the Twilight series, (although I never read the whole series) I think that the first film worked well and I always imagined it to have that indie ‘artsy’ look. But as soon as they changed directors to finish the rest of the series, average became horrid — I don’t think Weitz, Slade and Condon really captured much of anything, making it so much cheesier than what it was; Compared to Catherine Hardwicke, who at least was able to manifest the relationship between Bella and Edward.

  47. Great article! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to adapt podcasts to film or documentary and similar hurdles of how the medium is the message come up. This has been some nice food for thought.

  48. I honestly love how you used an example of a Bollywood film! A lot of people believe that books are better than movies. I think it is because when people read a book, their imagination goes wild. They are the ones that are visualizing the story. Whereas in movies, the imagery is given to us and it spoils one’s creative scenes. By this, I mean that someone who has imagined a scene that occurs in the book ends up watching the same scene in the movie. This will likely upset then because it is not how they imagined it. In cases where people have not read the book and watched the movie, they are not likely to complain about the movie turning out bad.

  49. Munjeera

    Great article!!

  50. As much as I hate the Percy Jackson adaptation, I do acknowledge that the movies actually brought a lot of new fans and readers to the books. There are always two sides of things, and even though I don’t wanna admit it, this favorite series of mine gained a bunch of new-comers after the movies came out, no matter how sucky they were…

  51. I think a good/decent adaptation should convey the exact feeling that can be felt in the book version, allowing book readers to relieve their original memories in the live-action version and stimulating movie-goers’ curiosity about the book version (i.e. leaving them wonder how the author originally described every scene that eventually became the movie)

  52. Dani CouCou

    I think a balance needs to be reached between the two media. Francois Truffaut famously wrote about bad films based on literary works in his article “Une certaine tendance…”

  53. Adaptations cost little to adapt into a film, so long as the writers and the filmmaker of said film stay true to the original material while changing things around a bit to make the story better or deviate from the original story to make a successful film. There are absolutely no development costs and time spent on creating original material. I believe that is why they are an attractive and lucrative proposition to producers and filmmakers alike. But that doesn’t excuse a bad film to spring from a good or great book or fairy tale. Cinderella for instance, has been adapted so many times that I believe that the audience are either getting fed up or annoyed, or both.

  54. Abie Dee

    As I read this, I thought of Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the horror movie “Suspiria” and how this adaptation applies not only to book that become movies, but also movies that get remade. When the movie had first come out, I recall reading an interview with Guadagnino and Tilda Swinton. I wish I could find the exact interview, but I remember they said that the movie was not meant to be a remake, but rather a reimagined version of the original 1977 film.

    I believe that’s a perfect and simple way to describe adaptations. As stated above, it truly is subjective. In every aspect.

    That being said, I definitely do not like most film adaptations of my favorite books, but I believe that’s due to the way I had initially imagined everything. There’s a sort of aesthetic beauty in writing that simply cannot be conveyed into a single, somewhat “universal” visual.

    There’s another wonderful movie that focuses on that difference- “Words and Pictures” which was released in 2013.

    To get back on track, I am one who will go out of the way to watch an adaptation of a book. For example, I just finished Lev Grossman’s, “The Magicians” trilogy, and I’m excited to see the show. Though I know it will be no match for Grossman’s writing, I’m intrigued.

    Maybe another large aspect of book to film adaptations is that, as an audience, we fall in love with a story so much that we want more. When we want more, we can read every book by that author, we can scour the genre, or related titles, but when a movie comes out, there’s a chance to see that story in a new light. It may be disappointing, but I personally believe that whether or not you enjoyed the adaptation, it is undeniable that you enjoyed the experience of being able to relive the story. If not visually, then in your head, while you wrestled with the director’s choices, shaking your head or wishing they’d done something differently. It’s entertaining at the very least.

    All in all, I loved reading this article, and seeing all of the possible discussions that can flow in endless directions…

  55. Thank you for this article! Adaptations of films are definitely subjective. A key part of this is most likely due to the high expectations for the adaptation of a book someone may have. I recently spoke to someone who read the book of a movie she had seen and her perception of the film once she rewatched it had changed. She enjoyed the film originally as she had obviously not known about the parts that were cut out of the film. Her opinions regarding the film had changed to disappointment once she realized what the film excluded. I found this to be interesting as it proves that the perception someone has prior to watching an adaptation does have a strong influence on their experience of the film. Due to budgeting reasons and time constraints, it is impossible, or pretty much impossible, to create a film that is completely true to the film. I remember there being controversy when production companies decided to split the final books of popular books such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games into two movies. Some thought that it was only done to create more revenue and others argued that it was the only way for the films to stay as true as they can to the books. It is difficult to compare film adaptations to books when they are two forms of media.

  56. Dr. Vishnu Unnithan

    It would be really interesting to compare ‘Drive’ by James Sallies with it’s Nicolas Winding Refn adaptation. I strongly feel the movie does a better job in creating the world of pathos which the Driver inhabits. Have mixed feelings about ‘Driven:The Sequel to Drive’

  57. People who judge and adaptation by how much it remained faithful to it’s source material are the worst audiences ever.

  58. BlueStocking

    I find this topic of great interest – it is so disappointing when a favourite book is not realised in the way you have imagined it. I suppose to put it very simply, books and films are different. The editing processes in each case are different. The physical perceptions and surroundings of readers and film audiences are different. I think a successful adaptation from print media to film captures the spirit of the original but does not- indeed cannot – replicate the intricacies of plot. An excellent example of this is the film, Tom Jones (1963), directed by Tony Richardson and written by Henry Fielding (1749). Just as Fielding used new techniques and approaches to narrative, e.g. ‘breaking the fourth wall’ by having characters speak directly to the reader, so Richardson used novel film techniques and also had characters acknowledging the audience in a variety of comic ways. The dinner scene where Tom and his potential mistress gorge themselves on food is one of the most erotic scenes in the annals of film – and nobody takes their clothes off! It also has Albert Finney at the peak of his career and beauty.
    Another way of adapting literary classics to film, is to set it in modern times. I am a great fan of the film ‘Clueless’ (1985) which is a witty adaptation by director Amy Heckerling, of a favourite book of mine, Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ (1816). Heckerling roughly follows the plot of the original but the magic of the film lies in capturing Emma’s innocence and lack of worldliness (but fundamental good nature) in the character of Cher played by Alicia Silverstone – also a career high.

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