How ‘By the Book’ Should Literary Adaptations Be?

Cage playing twins in Adaptation
Nicolas Cage complaining about the pains of adaptation to Nicolas Cage, in ‘Adaptation’

Cinematic adaptation of the written word is always tricky for the creative team behind it, particularly that of a beloved novel. Running time, censorship, marketability and even purely artistic decisions are among the many problems of transferring the written word onscreen which can easily clash with the fanbases over the whole finished product. What to have, or have not, from the books is not simply a petty case of inclusion and exclusion, nor even necessarily a mark of the film’s quality (or lack thereof). A lot of time the whole issue comes down to adaptation fidelity. We like having an idea how an adaptation of our favourite book is going to look like on the silver screen; we want to identify with the characters like we did in the books, be engrossed in every literary details represented onscreen, every nook and cranny of the fictional world created brought to life. One can only begin to imagine the neuroses a filmmaker must endure when adapting any piece of work onscreen; Spike Jonze’s terrific 2002 film Adaptation is probably a pretty good reflection of the painstaking process a writer must go through when finding some way, any way to infuse the cinematic into the literary.

Adaptation Distillation

It’s a big issue, this whole relationship between novels and their film adaptations, so I think a good starting point would perhaps be with the most recurrent problem most people seem to have with adaptations, adaptation distillation. In layman terms, this is the cutting down of the source material–so to speak, ‘distilling’ certain aspects of plot and character through the filter of the film lens, screenwriters’ hand and directorial choices, usually to make for a reasonable running time. Rarely is there an adaptation of any sort that does not ‘distill’ its source material, one way or the other. The main exceptions usually being short stories like A Christmas Carol, Brokeback Mountain, and some of Stephen King’s adapted work. These require, instead, adaptation expansions, which are additions to the original text to lengthen the running time or add more plot elements (for example the inclusion of new characters into The Hobbit series to stretch one book into three films, any Dr. Seuss film, the excellent thriller Don’t Look Now which changes a short but haunting Daphne Du Maurier story into a very in-depth character study of a grieving couple).

Full-length novels, however, would require an incredibly expansive miniseries – which is rarely an option – to fill in every single detail. Even a nearly four-hour long epic like Gone With the Wind required the cutting out of certain subplots and characters to manage it within even that hefty running time. It’s not so much an issue of artistic licence as it is of pragmatism. Budgetary constraints aside, most people just wouldn’t go out of their way to watch a film that pores over every single detail of its adapted source; this sort of limited scope would probably only appeal to the fandom of the novels. David Lean’s two adaptations of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Oliver Twist are good examples of striking the balance between faithfulness and marketability of length and style. Elements of the original novel are changed—the latter even goes so far as to entirely remove the Rose Maylie subplot—but this doesn’t matter, it still successfully retain the atmospheric, barely controlled chaos of London presented by his prose and the characters perfectly embodied onscreen, particularly Alec Guiness who is unrecognizable as both Fagin and Herbert Pocket. Lean was a director who always had a firm, visionary outlook for all his films, and in his own class in imbuing his own style into films. I’ll get more onto artistic licence in a bit, but Lean’s Dickens adaptations, as well as some of his later, larger-scale work, most famously Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr Zhivago and of course, Lawrence of Arabia, show that there is a way to strike the balance between cutting down and adding on your own style and flair.

Hamlet remembers the dead in Lawrence Olivier's 1948 version of Hamlet
Not only a masterful actor, Sir Laurence Olivier was also a talent at ‘cutting’ Shakespeare down into an audience-friendly medium of film, while retaining the original spirit.

Another good example of this are Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, which always make clear ‘that it is an can only be, a pale version of the Shakespearean text’ (Deborah Cartmell, The Shakespeare on Screen Industry, from ‘Adapations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text’, 1999, Routledge: London and New York). They take various creative licenses–for example race-bending casting, increased British propaganda in Olivier’s Henry V, stunt casting in Branagh’s Hamlet–and cuts here and there to make it more appealing to the silver screen (although it should be noted that Branagh’s version of the play is essentially the whole text in all its entirety onscreen), but still retain the Bard’s original spirit through their faithful, respectful treatment of the source material.

Retrospective v.s. On-the-go Distillation

The Fellowship from Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Though their characterizations were modified slightly, the general dynamic of the Fellowship remained unchanged post-adaptation.

So we’ve established that distillation itself is inevitable. The area requiring a bit more in the way of decision-making is what to distill, what to cut. Sometimes there are obvious things that can be cut, other times, however, it becomes a little less clear, and not just as a matter of fan appeasement, but as a matter of making the whole plot click. A crucial aspect of the cutting resides in determining how important the plot points are as cogs in the machine; whether removing it will remove more than just flavour and style to the novel but in fact, dig the unsuspecting filmmakers into a hole. In these situations, hindsight is crucial. The Lord of the Rings cinematic trilogy was filmed long after the books had been completed, and the parameters of Tolkein’s whole fictional universe had been firmly established. With all this effectively set in stone, Peter Jackson and his entourage were thereby given a complete overview of the finished, all-encompassing whole of the trilogy to work with, and from this vast scope to then tinker with minor and major details here or there to make the story manageable for motion picture. Trimming downs and even complete excisions of certain scenes, as well as some significant realignment of plot points (moving the Shelob attack to Return of the King), was all done with the benefit of hindsight.

It’s completely subjective whether it all ‘works’, so to speak, and I would never go so far as to say the trilogy is a completely faithful interpretation of the novels. The relative side-lining of Éomer’s role, Tom Bombadil’s excision, the removal of some of Gimli’s more dramatic heft as a character to make him more of a comic relief character etc. differ from the novel significantly; but one thing Jackson and the scriptwriters did ensure was that even in places where the film and source material varied, they would all be means to a similar ends and conclusion. They took the recipe for a cake and modified it in bits and places, but always ensuring that nothing was missing, and that the final product would be realised in a similar fashion.

From Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 1
Could’ve been a much more powerful moment had they stuck to the books.

These ‘retrospective adaptations’ as I call them, have the benefit of hindsight, which the equally (if not even more so) global phenomenon that is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, did not have. The escapades of the Boy Who Lived were filmed while Rowling was still working on the second half of her seven-book series. With guidance from Rowling herself and some luck they did manage to dodge some bullets (Matthew Lewis was definitely a stroke of luck for the casting crew, the exclusion of Peeves the Poltergeist didn’t hurt them too much, and while they perhaps could’ve done without Grawp they didn’t overuse him either) and didn’t miss out too many plot points. However one can’t help but think had they waited till the books were completed, how much more time could’ve perhaps been spent on the backstory of house elves Dobby and Kreacher (especially the latter), setting up Peter Pettigrew as not just a proverbial scoff for levity, but instead a full-fledged character in his own right, and what could’ve been done to smooth out other scruples fans like myself had with how some plot elements were brushed over, in favour of too much time spent on inconsequential love triangles and Quidditch matches.

It would’ve been very difficult for the filmmakers to, on the go, discern which and where to cut stuff; most of the time they stayed with playing it safe and focusing all characterization on the central trio, which worked to an extent, but also resulted in many of the more fan esoteric elements of the book being as developed as they could’ve been. Remus Lupin and Tonk’s storyline might not have been as crucial to the plotline as say, the Deathly Hallows, but it would’ve been nice to have a bit more build-up to the emotional payoff their final scene with Harry requires of us.

The ‘Skeleton’ Adaptation

Another problem that faces adaptations, is when plot elements are so far removed from the source material that the originals seem to become mere skeletons of the original plot. Some critics argue that the act of transferring a character onscreen intrinsically simplifies him or her; and while that point must be held to a degree of contention, it is true that sometimes the act of going from page to screen must conform with certain ‘changes necessary for dramatic effect in another medium, those required to conform to the producer’s personal fantasies and his notions of what the public wants, and to meet the taboos of the Production code, and tailors it all to the screen personalities of the actors who will play the star roles’ (H. Powdermaker, Hollywood the Dream Factory: An anthropologist looks at the movie makers,1951, London: Secker and Warburg, p. 153). A particular example of this would be the adaptations of the work of Raymond Chandler—or more specifically, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who has been portrayed onscreen multiple times in various adaptations, most notably in The Big Sleep (1946).

What John Paul Athansourelis calls the ‘inherently cinematic quality of Chandler’s fiction’ is ultimately upended by the conformities of the silver screen. The opening silhouettes of the two stars of the film, Bogart and Bacall, smoking during the opening credits of The Big Sleep clearly show that these two are to be the main attractions. The character of ‘Silver Wig’, a heartbreaking subversion of the typical blonde moll in noir fiction in the novel, is reduced to exactly that in the film adaptation; the final bleak twist of the novel is changed into a ‘happy ending’ with more resolution. One can argue in fact that Howard Hawks and the production team of The Big Sleep took the plot line from the novel and completely changed the tone from a gritty, downbeatin favour a lot of the deeper complexities of the novel and its darker, more sleazy elements are dropped not just due to the censorship of the times, but also due to the box-office necessity of any Bogart-Bacall coupling to be overflowing with innuendo and sexual tension, far removed from the terser and less savoury relationship between the two in the novel.

Fight Club (1999) - Norton & Meat Loaf.
Edward Norton’s narration in ‘Fight Club’ strikes the perfect balance with the film’s tone

Adapting Narrative Voice

Also, Philip Marlowe being the first-person narrator of Chandler’s fiction poses a significant problem for any adaptation as the detective genre is one in which the first-person narrator, if (s) he is present, must act as a channel between reader and writer. Often the best way to go about adaptating this is the more straightforward route of eschewing the narrative voice and leaving it to the visual to convey the scene; for example, ‘I recall it being a dusky dawn evening and mama sitting on the porch knitting’, instead of having narration over it, just simply filmed and told without a disembodied voice providing commentary. This sort of ‘external’ narration is much easier to adapt than the ‘internal’ narration some novels hinge almost entirely upon; ‘The Big Sleep’ without Marlowe’s voice runs into a hurdle from the outset as it removes so much of the strong sense of vantage the novel provides with his sardonic yet meticulous narrative voice.

Graham Greene’s ‘The End of the Affair’ is another notable example of the difficulty of adapting the narrative voice. It has twice been adapted to film, and the medium does kind of hurt the source material a bit. Every moment that strays from Maurice Bendrix’s narrative voice, which writes ‘against the bias because it is my professional pride to prefer the near-truth, even to the expression of my near-hate’, kind of reduces the impact of the book’s conflict between feigned objectivity and Bendrix’s passions, as well as eschewing a whole lot of the whole metanarrative flair to Greene’s story. The plot of The End of the Affair itself is strong enough to make a good enough skeleton for your typical melodramatic romance, but the near-impossibility of conveying Bendrix’s narrative voice alongside it means that a lot of the novel’s original power is lost.

There are ways in which narrative voiceover can work onscreen, whether it be in small portions at crucial moments (i.e. To Kill a Mockingbird) or as an extensive framing device (The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club), but it is definitely a challenge; these successful adaptations have to not only employ is as an expositionary device, but also make it contingent with the fictional universe they are writing in. The narration in TKAM works so well because it feels so of its time; Morgan Freeman’s voice simply just feels right reading Stephen King’s words even if he’s cast very differently to the Red envisaged in the books; Edward Norton’s narration as the unnamed narrator in Fight Club is knowingly snarky, and fits right in with the tone David Fincher sets with the film.

Brody, the vulnerable hero, fights the shark in Jaws.
Brody and his companions’ plights are all the more soundly felt via adaptation.


So is straying from the source material always a bad thing? Not necessarily. Sometimes taking the skeleton story and employing artistic license with the text, can bring about a masterpiece. Stanley Kubrick took a very serious, understated political thriller novel called Red Alert and turned it into the classic dark satire Dr Strangelove; Stephen Spielberg basically took just the idea of a giant killer shark from Jaws and turned it from a pulpy piece of horror fiction into a magnificent masterclass in suspense and characterization. David Lean, knowing that he could not possibly encompass all the elements of the epic Dr Zhivago into his adaptation, chose to make it mostly just one magnificent epic love story, and an incredibly compelling one at that; Milos Forman provoked the ire of Ken Kesey when he adapted the latter’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, because he had not kept in Chief Bromden’s narrative POV, but Forman did his best to maintain the novel’s representation of Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy as a sort of Christ figure to the asylum inmates, ‘big as a damn mountain’ through Nicholson’s wonderfully grand performance, while still grounding it with the more objective film lens the flaws of the character. Books and films, as two different forms of media, do (and rightly so) have different rules and expectations. The adaptation fidelity of a film to its original text should not be what it is measured against; rather the quality of the film should be judged in itself, before factoring its source material.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
Contributing writer for The Artifice.

Want to write about Film or other art forms?

Create writer account


  1. The fans… BEWARE THE FANS! That was the first thing I thought of when I began reading this article.
    I get goose bumps when i see ‘what to cut’ and ‘fan appeasement’. I like to think of myself as a fair fan-critic when watching movie adaptations. As a literary scholar and having a persona interest in film, I understand that not everything can be put on the big screen. I never read Harry Potter (shame series), but I heard that they cut a lot out of the films. For someone who has only ‘watched’ Harry Potter, I think they did a great job. Sure, they didn’t add all of the extra details and maybe some things came in the third movie when they should’ve appeared in the second, but in the end, the movies accomplished their goals of telling the plot and doing its best to support the main themes.
    I am also a fan of Young Adult fiction, so I’m going to mention “Fault in Our Stars.” A lot of people didn’t like the movies, but they never read the book. I don’t know how I would’ve felt about the movie had I not read the book. Would I have liked it? Would I have conformed to popular opinion? But because I read the book I was able to appreciate the smooth adaptation from book to film. I think they did a great job! Sometimes we have to remember that we’re not getting the full experience of a story if we don’t both read and watch it. In a book you might get some inner detail that helps you reach a deeper level of understanding or a deeper connection to a character or situation. If you just read the book and completely ignore the film, you might miss out on a great adaptation. A book can make you feel something for the main character, but the movie might shed light on a secondary character that you never really ever paid attention to. In order to fully experience a story, you need more than just story or movie. So… I guess I’ll be reading Harry Potter before I die. I had planned on it anyways.

    • No matter what, fans will be upset. While adaptations are often hated for being too different from the source, sometimes people hate them when there isn’t enough change. As an example, Zach Snyder’s Watchmen was at times a frame-perfect adaptation of the graphic novel (except for the ending), yet that ultimately seems to be its downfall in the eyes of many comic fans. Some people claim it is a lifeless adaptation, and that the audience had might as well just read the graphic novel as watch the film.

      I can see that logic to a point; an adaptation should go beyond an exact retelling. It should use the features of the new medium to tell the story in a new, exciting way, or examine the story and characters in a new lens.

      That being said, in an adaptation I am adamant about the main story and characters remaining recognizable across adaptations, even in a new setting or with changes to the story. So far, I think Game of Thrones has done one of the best jobs with keeping characters recognizable, even as they are experiencing some different events than in the books. Over time, minor changes to the plot, or changes to relatively extraneous characters build up to become larger changes in a long running adaptation. But I am able to see that, based on the experiences of THIS Jon Snow or THIS Sansa Stark, why the characters may make a different decision than in the books (the examples chosen are arbitrary and are not referring to any specific decisions in either the show or books).

    • I guess you are right. There has to be a line between inclusion for the sake of inclusion and fidelity; so long as you keep books and film distinct shouldn’t bee too hard 🙂

  2. Mayster

    I hated that Peter Jackson left out the relationship of Eowyn and Faramir in ROTK (it was of course in the extended versions which was good.) But then I realised it was necessary to keep the story going.

    • I think it was a shame too as I think in particular Faramir needed a lot more material for David Wenham to find his way into the character. That sudden inclusion of his ‘evil’ side in The Two Towers hurt the overall cohesion of his characterization a great deal, and I do think a little bit of that relationship could’ve helped given a lot more weight to his plight.

  3. I think that what works in a novel doesn’t always translate well to screen and the filmmakers obviously need to do what makes for a coherent and compelling movie, so straying from the book doesn’t usually bother me for this reason. I can appreciate both as the book and movie/TV show as separate entities.

  4. while i dont think file to book adaptations need to be scene by scene faithful , they do need to keep the main points and plot the same.

  5. It come down to the director(s), the writer(s) and the producers understanding the source material, if they understand it any changes will fit the tone of the story, but then you get those who don’t understand the source material, and any changes they make will feel jarring, even to those who haven’t read/watched the source material. (*cough* The Last Airbender *cough* *hacks up a lougy*). These changes will also often lead to glaring plot holes, and action for the sake of action, which has become a massive problem in the current movie industry trends.

    • Have never seen an episode of The Last Airbender but I refuse to pre-judge it by the film, which was one of the poorest excuses for a fantasy film I’ve ever seen.

  6. Too bad most of the young people these days don’t read the book before the movie comes out. If you see the movie first there’s little chance you’ll read the book.

    • Citation needed.

    • Was there ever a time when we could say with confidence that most people read the book prior to seeing the film?

      Apart, perhaps, from a school-enforced perusal of “Great Expectations” or “The Great Gatsby,” most people watch movies from “Catch-22” to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to any one of a thousand witless rom-coms without prior engagement with the literary product.

      If, however, the film is well done I’d be prepared to wager that even members of the post-literate generation could be enticed to go to the source.

      Both my claims and those of “Amaar305” are, however, merely speculation. Empirical evidence is needed to see whether my cautious optimism or the alternative outright pessimism is correct.

    • Unfair generalization.

  7. mattdoylemedia

    Derek Landy (author of Skulduggery Pleasant) once said that ‘Books don’t make good films, films make good films’. I think he’s right in that because you can do some things in books a lot easier than you can in films. A good example would be with Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. The book, as I recall, had a lot more internal monologue, and that just wasn’t going to work in a kid’s film. So they added a new character to allow the monologue to be transferred to a conversation. Straying from the book will always have a mixed reaction, but it really doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Sometimes in fact, it improves upon the material: in my personal opinion, had I read ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ before seeing Bladerunner, I may not have bothered with the film.

    • I think the very fact they changed the title to Blade Runner just shows how clearly they were showing that ‘we’re just taking Dick’s concept here, and creating an entirely different beast in the process’.

  8. In my opinion, David Fincher is the best filmmaker yet at adapting books for films– not because he includes every subplot and characters or matches every detail, but because he knows how to capture the tone of a novel. Fight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl are not only great stand-alone films but also largely sidestep the “I liked the book better” critique. The problem is that people who love books, and therefore can be assumed to love exercising their imaginations, will always like the books better than what someone else has visualized for them. Thus, it is futile to try and match the book exactly.

  9. YsabelGo

    Since movies are only 90-120 minutes long, a lot of cutting has to be done to push the story forward. However, I think the cons of watching a film adaptation is that the character’s appearance in the film doesn’t always match what you imagined in your head.

    • Completely agree. For example, despite giving a very good performance consistently across all the films, Alan Rickman’s Snape never really seemed to me the ‘perfect’ choice in my eyes till his heartbreaking near-one scene wonder in Part II of The Deathly Hallows.

  10. It’s tough adapting a novel into a film, almost to the point where their success sends to be nothing but luck. I think the most successful adaptations tend to keep the essence of the characters, if not anything else.

  11. I think, generally speaking, the important thing is that an adaptation gets across the POINT of what it’s adapting. What the source material was actually trying to say.
    Most other things are negotiable.

    I mean, there have been plenty of adaptations that have significantly altered the material but are still considered brilliant interpetations of said material, because they kept -and even strengthened- what it’s actually about.

    It’s when an adaptation changes what its source is actually supposed to be trying to say… i think thats when youre in trouble.

    That terrible I Am Legend movie from a few years ago was particularly guilty of this. It took one of the all time great sci-fi endings (one that explained not only the book’s theme but also even its bloody title!) and changed it for something that’s, er, not really about anything… Rendering the entire point of adapting it sort of moot really…

    • Haven’t read the book of I Am Legend, but I assume the ‘bad’ ending you’re referring to is the one where Will Smith goes gung ho and blows himself and the zombies up to save the day. The other version, though not perfectly aligned with the film itself, works so much better.

  12. I can think of only one adaptation that was ‘as good’ as the novel.

  13. Lakesha Thigpen

    Blade Runner a far better film than a page by page adaptation of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep would have been.

  14. Personally hated maZe runner books and loved the movie so I don’t mind any of the changes made since it was much better.

    • jaycole

      I always feel like the books and movies are their own separate stories, but I do like to see some respect to the source material. Taking The Maze Runner as an example, I actually enjoyed the changes from book to screen and thought they were beneficial – the movie was intense and thrilling versus the book, which was kind of slow for me. However, sometimes changes aren’t beneficial. Going with Game of Thrones, I found the Dorne plot this past season to be really lacking and riddled with cliches that I didn’t care for. Knowing there was a better version of that story out there was very frustrating.

    • While that’s an example of positive adaptation (for you, in particular) I think it’s important to point out that changes made to the storyline or other aspects of a writer’s work can compromise their original visions of their work. I wish the screenwriters and book writers would collaborate more often – that way we could be sure that screenplays of books enhanced the experience of the story underlying both.

  15. WalterGriffis

    There has to be a good medium between entertainment and ‘by the bookness’. You have movies like the first two Harry Potter movies that were extremely faithful (with only a few things cut here and there) but at times they can get a little boring at times.

    I think that Hunger Games did it really well by having all the most important plot points with a few changes here and there that added to your experience.

    • My favourite change to the books for the Hunger Games series was just more of Snow/Donald Sutherland, who I think is perhaps the most underrated actor of all-time.

  16. I just wanna say about Harry Potter…..I can get over allllll the things they change and leave out because its a long series. I understand there needs to be changes. What I do NOT understand is why they would change THE fight. The one with Harry and Voldemort. The fight we have been waiting for the entire eight movies and seven books. THEY CHANGED IT! Nothing can justify that for me.

    • Yes! The movie fight was just silly, and made no sense at all! It wasn’t even good from a strictly cinematic perspective. And it was supposed to be the climax of the entire series. Inexcusable.

    • They really overdid it there, agreed. Though I have to say on a similar note, I did like the change they did to the third act of The Half-Blood Prince. We didn’t need another Battle of Hogwarts and I thought the more quietly downplayed nature of Snape and Harry’s confrontation was all the more powerful.

  17. Good article. I’ve long thought about this, as a writer and an English professor. I think it comes down to the goals of the movie. If it’s a big budget film, then you have to appease the audience or you’ll never break even. If it’s a lower budget film, then perhaps you stick to the literature more.

    All of this is transient, of course. There are so many variables. You may very well appease an audience in a big budget film by sticking close to the source, for instance. Or, maybe they want more action, romance, or something else not expounded upon in the literature.

    Either way, I enjoyed this.

  18. Emily Inman

    I absolutely loved your article. My favorite part was this one: “A crucial aspect of the cutting resides in determining how important the plot points are as cogs in the machine; whether removing it will remove more than just flavour and style to the novel but in fact, dig the unsuspecting filmmakers into a hole.” I totally agree with all of your points! Well done. Your article was extensive, wide ranging…yet you did justice to all the films. I think as long as the adaptation stays true to the soul, the essence of the original, then it should be open to artistic interpretation.

    • The essence, yes, which is perhaps the hardest thing of all to nail down.

      Thank you so much, you’re too kind!

  19. I don’t really have a fully formed opinion on stand alone novel adaptations. However for comic books, where characters etc. have run for many decades and have many different versions, I think taking bits and pieces from different materials is the best way with something like that.

    That’s one of the things I like about the Dark Knight Trilogy, there are no comic story lines just followed from beginning to end, it takes some inspiration from several things and does it’s own thing with them.

    • Agreed. It also gave the actors (Ledger, Bale, Hardy in particular) a lot more freedom with their depictions of the character.

  20. Ji Altman

    I always say that as long as the film stays true to the characters and doesn’t deviate too much from the central plot then it’s fine. Some films go beyond and are near carbon copies and they can be terrible and then there are those that change what is necessary but come out at the same place and are fantastic films. It is about a balance between staying faithful while not hindering the cinematic experience.

  21. I think most fans expect a translation of the book to the screen rather than an adaptation which is why they are often disappointed. They expect a copy and paste of the source material.

    Film and books are different mediums and film adaptations of books are just that, ‘adaptations’. And to adapt means to change things so they fit the intended medium better. As long as the main beats of the story are there and the characters stay true to who they are in the books then I call the adaptation a success. But then you have films who just take the premise of the book and change major beats (Insurgent comes to mind) and to me these aren’t adaptations any more and I understand fans being angry about that.

  22. Aaron Hatch

    One of my favorite movie reviews by Roger Ebert was on the adaptation of Lord of the Flies. He said he did not like the movie because it was too similar to the book, and there were no new surprises for audiences members who already read the book. That is a motto I have always used to judge adaptations. Who cares if as film is or isn’t 100% accurate to the book, because the film should be able to stand on its own. We as audience members really to forget how having the knowledge of a book effects our enjoyment of the film.

  23. Tatijana

    This brought up a lot of interesting points. I had only thought about this subject in the context of alienating the fanbase. When I watched all Harry Potter films, I had already read all the books, so I think my mind filled in the emotional blanks. I’d definitely like to go back over the movies with a different mindset after reading this.

  24. My view is that the adaptations should err on the side of faithfulness – if it doesn’t resemble the book, why call it an adaptation? Percy Jackson, Ella Enchanted, and Princess Diaries are all good movies that I enjoy, but they are completely separate from the book. If you are adapting the book faithfully, then go Hunger Games/TFIOS/Divergent over Harry Potter/Inkheart/Insurgent.

    • Boucher Ale

      I think Insurgent’s a good example of something where departing from the book was a HUGE mistake. They made something far lesser than a direct adaptation would have been (which saying something, considering how weak the Divergent trilogy is), and the first movie was so solid as a direct, very faithful adaptation.

  25. Ultimately, you’re dealing with two different mediums that require entirely different tool sets to achieve their objectives (telling a story). It’s easy to gripe about how a long section of a novel was reduced to montage or how certain plot elements were cut, but oftentimes it’s that pragmatic editing that reveals to us what is a flawed novel, overblown with plot. That’s not to say this is the case with every adaptation, but in the interest of transferring the main narrative of a work of fiction onto film, concessions are inevitable. With every adaptation, it requires a viewer who understands narrative structure in both film and literature and who understands the “why” aspect regarding changes from one to another (and whether those changes are legitimate in the interest of a film on the terms of a film).

  26. I found this article to be a thought-provoking. I especially liked the section that discussed how some movies can take liberties with their source materials without taking away from the heart of the story. However, the challenge is determining what elements are essential to preserve in an adaptation and which are not. I agree that this can be a process that is difficult and complex.

  27. Morgan R. Muller

    Very interesting topic and well written article, great job!

  28. JLaurenceCohen

    I generally think film adaptation should stay as close to the spirit of the book as possible. Of course, different directors have different ideas about what that “spirit” is exactly. Yet, some books, such as Cloud Atlas, just cannot be made into movies without ruining something fundamental about them.

    Peter Jackson did a masterful job with the three LOTR movies (less masterful with the three Hobbit movies), but his worst departure from the book is making Faramir try to take the Ring from Frodo.

  29. Here’s my angle on it: You don’t put your parents in a nursing home if you can afford to do otherwise. Similarly, if you are indeed doing an adaption of a story and not an artistic interpretations of it, you don’t change stuff if you can afford to keep it the same. The original story is the only reason the adaption exists and it should pay heavy dividends accordingly.

  30. Although I do appreciate that this article is very informing, what with the different techniques used in novel-to-film adaptations, ie skeleton. I have to say that I find the title to indicate that the article would divulge into a set of criteria for which film adaptations “should be”, and not the actual techniques they use.

    I also want to note that a book is in its essence a work of art, a work of literature, and Film Making, as you noted in your succession of adaptation techniques and in your introductory paragraph, is a collaboration effort of art and skill.

    Nevertheless, I think that this is a great topic (I wish I were still in my Film class so I could use it!) and could be applicable to specific literature to film adaptations, and research what went wrong-or right in its process. A possible question one could ask, is why a certain meadow in “Lord of the Rings” is described differently in the text and is shown “as best as it could” on film. This would involve a research and interesting conversation about location managers that are responsible in the production of the film, and could explain why the adaptation succeeded; the budget was sufficient enough, or didn’t; the budget and or filmmaker had a different view and/or wanted to focus most of its budget on the storytelling and nuanced performances of the actors, rather than the setting.

    Also, I had no idea that “The Shawshank Redemption” is a literary adaptation. I don’t think I could ever read the book without Freeman’s voice in mind!

  31. I agree with the general conclusion, as artistic license must be exercised when adapting. FIlm and literature are two entirely different, although not incompatible, modes of expression, and there is a world of difference between visual depiction on a screen and the abstract, non-linear and unrestricted world of the imagination. There is no way of making the two forms translate completely into one another because that isn’t how the human brain works. Filmmakers have to do their best with the raw plot material that a novel provides.

    I also think that occasionally, taking license and not only distilling but also altering the exact detail and plot of a novel can often improve on the content. This is approaching the hazardous territory of “which is better: the film or the book”, which I am trying to avoid. However, I would like to say on behalf of film adaptations that, despite the common answer being “the book is always better”, I have seen adaptations where basic plot ideas and 2D characters have been taken and expanded upon, thus creating a film that gives more than its source material. Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust” is a short and thought-provoking (but not particularly serious) example of magic realism. The 2007 film adaptation directed by Matthew Vaughn stayed true to the characters and general plot, but expanded and worked the material into a fantasy epic that, although not a recognised masterpiece of cinematic prowess, is a huge-scale, imaginative, enchanting fairytale that I firmly believe should become a family classic. There are other examples of a filmmaker realising a novel’s sometimes unfulfilled potential and expanding and elaborating on it to create something wonderful.

  32. I think that not straying too far from the original source material is still important. However, I think if the movie production involve’s the authors in the creative process and the author is pitched an idea and they like it, then by all means go with it. Reimagining something is a different artist’s perspective and should be encouraged.
    One thing I always think of is Marry Poppins. After seeing Saving Mr. Banks, I was saddened by the story. Disney still went against the original author’s wishes. She was a bit reluctant, but I could see why she didn’t like some of his choices. Making the wife a suffragette wasn’t necessary. But that is just my take on it I would love to hear other’s thoughts.
    But I think this applies to anything adapted, not just books. One of the most infamous movies possibly ever is M. Night Shamalamaladingdong’s The Last Airbender. Not a book, but a TV show adaptation. However his interpretation was renaming every character, and skipping too many points and story arcs that the original show had. Granted, it is hard to take an entire season of a show and put it into 2 hours, but there was a better way. What’s worse is that in an interview he stood by all of his choices, despite how upset he made fans, and how bad the reviews were. There HAS to be respect for the original source material.

  33. I think it’s hard to do an adaptation that everyone will like. The Harry Potter movies are probably the least debated book-to-movie adaptations and I think that’s because J.K. Rowling had a lot of say during the film productions. I would say that author input is key to adaptations, but then you have films like 50 Shades of Grey where the author had so MUCH input that the movie was just awful because she forced in a lot of cheesy, unnatural lines from the book.

  34. I think one of the points that stuck with me most from this article comes at the very end when you stated that books and film are two different forms of media so there are different rules/expectations. I think that fan-bases get too wrapped up on the movies being a direct replica of the books that they loved. That’s an unrealistic expectation that will only let people down. A movie cannot possibly capture all of the little details found in a book; it’s simply not possible, which is why I’m always an advocate for books over movies. I also agree with your point about the Harry Potter film serious; they should have waited until she finished writing the series. I think it could have added some richness to the movies if it was started after the series was entirely finished.

    I was conversing with a friend about this topic. He is a huge movie junkie while I am a writer. He said, “Thank goodness for you guys. If we didn’t have books to make movies into, movies would be seriously lacking.” He pointed out to me (I’m not a huge movie junkie) that most blockbuster films are either book/comic book adaptions or remakes of previous movies. He seems to believe that the filmmakers are letting authors do the creative leg-work in a sense. I don’t know enough about the film industry to agree or disagree, but the trends do seem to be there, at least from what I’ve observed.

  35. In my opinion, it’s always going to cause a degree of discontentment when a book is popular enough to be adapted to a film in the first place. It’s inevitable.

  36. Honestly I never really cared for the faithfulness of a given adaptation, because as a separate art form it must stand on its own. In other words, the source material shouldn’t really affect your opinion on the quality of the film. They’re separate works of art and should be judged as such.

    • C8lin

      I agree with you to an extent. Books and films are different and those differences need to be taken into account in any discussion about them. However, those differences are important because they call into question the trends of belief in our society. How characters are changed reveals values of both film makers and audiences. Film makers chose to adapt a book. Audiences should be expected to take that into account, and to think critically about the changes that were made.

  37. C8lin

    Great article! Very fair.

    Personally, I think someone who has spent significant time with a book both critically and as a fan (the writer, ideally) ought to be included in the writing team for film adaptations. Maybe then catastrophes like The Last Airbender and The Lightning Thief movies could be avoided!

    On the other hand, the movie Ella Enchanted turned out really well, even if it is almost nothing like the book.

  38. And then there’s the CW, which has a long history of taking novels and twisting and turning its contents to the point that whatever adaptation they end up making has no resemblance to its source material. Check:

    Take whatever you want to take away from stuff like that

  39. It’s always hard, as a book reader, to watch the movie adaptation. When I read, I imagine the movie in my head as I believe it will go. I develop how the characters look, I develop how the locations look, how everything sounds and smells, and it’s almost like creating a world that you associate with the novel. This world (for me) is hard to separate from the book.

    It gets worse for me when I see a BAD movie adaptation, and what I experience in the movie theater weaves itself into my world. After watching Eragon, it diluted my world and hurt what I felt about the book series. On the other hand, after watching Lord of the Rings, it greatly enhances my reading of the series because I absolutely love the world that Peter Jackson made for the viewer.

    There’s also the issue of taking the book’s general concept and running in a completely different direction with the movie. Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, made World War Z, an adaptation of the book of the same name. It was not similar at all in regards of plot, background, and zombie physiology. It’s easy to see that the rights were only acquired to use the title as a cash grab, to monopolize on all the zombie-horror fans who hadn’t seen a good zombie movie in years.

    I know that movie adaptations will never be 100% faithful. They will never be what I had in mind, and they will never be something I’ll 100% agree with in regards to its translation of the book’s contents. One thing I try hard to practice is separation of the book and movie – purposefully develop two universes.

  40. I think the hardest part of an adaptation is what you are adapting. I kinda think of film adaptations as a sort of literary analysis. If you’re doing a film adaptation I think for it to appeal to the fan base, you have to know what people are taking away from it. If it is say, like the Harry Potter series it would be a bad idea to make it all about romance when most people are reading it as the fight against good v. evil, or adventures ect.
    Of course we do sometimes see “successful” adaptations that are loosely based off books and they do fairly well, but I think they work more because they are not alienating a fanbase perse, but leaning on what already is too make their own work a bit easier.

    I liked your overall article, but I thought maybe it could do with having been broken up into chunks that were slightly more expanded.Just a thought, maybe it just says that I wanted to read a little more of what you had to say.

  41. captaindownpour

    i honestly think each artist should focus on their own pursuits and have the same core.
    and to a commentator above, ‘kids’ these days are no different from kids back then; some people prefer not reading actual books for either personal or time reasons.

  42. I heard a professor once say that he did not understand why people compared books and their movie adaptations so much when they are really two different medias. In a way, I agree. I don’t believe books need to be literally, word for word, plot and all, copy and pasted onto the screen. However, I do admit that I get bothered when films leave out key characters, scenes, and/or lines that are essential to the overall meaning of the book. In addition, it bothers me when directors make changes without any reason.

    For example, I remember the movie adaptation of “Dear John.” The director changed the relationship between Tim and Alan, who were brothers in the book and became father and son in the movie. Why? There was literally no reason to do that. Sure, it was not essential to the overall meaning, but it seemed pointless. Then there are movies like the Harry Potter series, which combine scenes for the sake of time and do so successfully without altering the main meaning of the story.

    Anyways, it’s a thin line to walk, but I still enjoy movie adaptations of books. Unfortunately, I’ll still always be that person in the audience mumbling to herself, “That’s not how it went in the book.”

  43. This is always a ‘touchy’ subject. I think you are right though in your conclusion. Varying from the novel can be actually freeing in some cases, and if expertly done, the movie can be just as rewarding as the book. But, making sure the main plot line and characters are consistent with the book is crucial, because usually the book’s audience is who is going to see the movie. Especially if the novel was written recently. For example, the Hunger Games movie follows closely the book narrative, and people love it. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, differs in some areas, but people still love it. Why? Because some, I would go as far to say over half, of the fans did not read the books. They were written awhile ago and the movie’s appeal, for them, is the fantasy action and long haired, beautiful elves. Game of thrones. A TV example. At first follows closely the novels, and the fans love it. Now, it has drifted from the novels a bit, but it already has a devout following. All this to say, in short, if you have a recent bestseller, in terms of box office sustainability, it is best to stick to the novel. But if you have a forgotten, ancient manuscript that may not be intently followed anymore, creative liberty is yours.

  44. Though it is a television show and not a film, I was contending with this idea while watching the show “Gotham,” which adapts the characters of Batman’s comic book universe for a television series. I was initially displeased with the show, because it was pulling a move that I typically have no desire to see. The characters are not only taken out of their specific contexts (as established by the comic books), but also presented as younger versions of the characters as we already know them. To me, this move feels contrived and quickly loses its novelty. I actually have a lot of criticisms of the show, but I no longer fault it for its infidelity to the show – mostly because, as you indicated at the end of your article, we don’t have to judge the success of an adaptation by its fidelity to the source text. In that sense, I’ve begun to appreciate the show for what it is.

  45. I appreciate the format of this piece, with the bold headings! Tip: Try an make paragraphs shorter, it’s more digestible. Excellent job.

  46. I’m sick of film adaptations of literature. Seems like all the world is doing is recycling the same material- and often missing the main points of the novel.

  47. I wonder what you’d make of Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”: “Bladerunner.” It isn’t a direct adaptation, but it take elements of the novel and take quite a bit of liberty with the narrative.

    One thing I’d add to this discussion is that it’s important to acknowledge the different narrative logics between alphabetic text and image/sound media. When writing with alphabetic text, we have certain advantages; with film, we have other advantages that aren’t available to text; and vice versa (I’m thinking in terms of Aristotle’s rhetoric here: what are the –means– of communication). As readers of text, we’re expected to visualize the narrative in “our mind’s eye,”; perhaps one of the disadvantages of the film adaptations is that is attempts to standardize the novel/short story/etc. narrative visually, taking away some of the individualized interpretations that viewers bring to the text.

    It’s easy to forget that before alphabetic writing emerged as a cultural form of communication, narratives were constantly adapted by the speaker. That is, in cultures of orality (before writing), stories were in a constant state of flux, with parts of a given story left out, others extended, structured with alternative perspectives, etc. For instance, Beowulf didn’t have a standard plot, but many (sometimes diverging) plots and details; it was only when alphabetic text became the dominant cultural medium of communication that editors had to standardize the narrative.

    What bugs me about the general critique of adaptations is that such critics often overlook the longer histories of narrative adaptations…

  48. One big thing to keep in mind is that a film and a book (or whatever the source material is), simply cannot be the same. They are different mediums. It is impossible to have an identical piece from the get go which makes it pointless to expect a movie to look exactly like the book sounds. If you want an identical experience, just read the book again.

    Filmmakers therefore have to take at least a few creative liberties because, although there may be stories and characters behind the work, it as a whole has not been done entirely for them. They can go even further with creative liberties too because the plot and setting and everything else does not have to happen identically. Average screen time limits that by itself, but not all filmmakers want their piece to be entirely predictable. By changing the setting of an important event, for example, they can catch even very knowledgeable fans off guard and potentially add a different take in tone or emotion to the story. In short, they aren’t trying to make an identical piece. They still want some room for it, and for themselves, to grow.

  49. There’s a very large difference between adapting a book to the screen, such as you discuss in the first part, and being inspired to create a new work based on an inspiration from a novel, such as in the second part. The two are not the same, and the later is not an adaptation. Baz Luhrmann adapted the Great Gatsby and added his own very strong flavor, but Disney’s Tangled, for example, is an entirely new story – almost a fanfiction – of the original fairytale. I think it’s important that we differentiate here.

  50. “Cartmell,” not “Cartnell.” Probably an insidious typo. Good piece, but a bit outdated, current research has consigned the question of “fidelity” to the dustbin. It was a red herring, to begin with. Plus, it helps little in judging a film on its own aesthetic merits, which it was matters, at the end of the day.

  51. I’d have to say the biggest thing, the most important aspect of making a successful film deriving from already exiting source material is understanding. And an intimate understanding at that. Feel can’t be overstated. Authorial tone, style, subtext, etc. are all understandably lost in their original form with transference to the screen; a filmmaker is tasked with reapplying the original nuance of the text to the film, and refashioning it in a cinematic manner.

    But this understanding isn’t everything. Take the recent Hunger Games adaptations; for the first film the author herself helped to write the screenplay, but still the film adaptation managed to mistreat key moments and upset fans. The following film, Catching Fire, managed to stay truer to the book without the guiding light of the author.

    What I’m saying is the creator of a work isn’t the end all, be all of knowing how to make a good film. Authors and filmmakers have different skillsets and even with good source material and a well-versed filmmaker, some stories are not well-disposed to the screen.

  52. Kevin Mohammed

    In my mind, there are three types of film adaptations of anything: The ones that encourage you to read the book, the ones in which you need to read the book to understand the movie, or the ones in which the movie does not follow the source at all and is more focused on the creativity and storytelling of the writer above anything else.

  53. Sometimes reading the book TOO much clouds your judgement of the film. I hate The Lovely Bones movie- despite loving the director Peter Jackson- because every time I watch it I just think about the scenes and plot that was cut and wishing I could see it on screen.

  54. I absolutely agree with your final point about looking at the quality of the film on its own before even beginning to look at the literature it was adapted from. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of the film, which should stand on its own as a good film or not without being compared to the “literary vision” the audience dreams up for it before hand. I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of stress a filmmaker must endure in trying to fulfill audience’s expectations. Obviously, whenever I’m reading a book I’m going to conjure up images, thoughts, feelings, etc. that pertain to me. In fact, our subjective imaginations are often doing more of the work than the text itself. The original text isn’t just a stagnant specimen but a skeletal playground for us readers to stick on whatever we relate to or find interesting. Vastly different perspectives often come out of what seems to be a simple, matter-of-fact detail. Since film is a different type of medium from literature in the first place, it can fulfill certain roles that literature can’t. Film can be great at illustrating mood/tone, visual aesthetics, subtle and nonverbal interactions, etc. As much as I love literature, I’m not of the opinion that it’s somehow innately superior to film. How can it be? That’s comparing “apples to oranges.”

  55. I feel like people doing book to movie adaptations, it can be seen as fan art in a way.

  56. Stephanie M.

    Thanks for this article. You raise some great points for me to keep in mind the next time I watch an adaptation. I’m a lifelong bookworm, but go back and forth between saying, “How dare they butcher that book” and, “You guys need to quit whining. Movies and books are always going to be different because they’re different mediums.” Personally, I tend to think if an adaptation stays true to characters, hits the plot’s highlights, and stays chronological, it’s usually pretty good.

Leave a Reply