The Novel or the Film?

book better than movie

The three most recent films I’ve seen at the cinemas are How I Live Now, The Hunger Games and The Book Thief. Besides war, oppression and heroics, these films have something else in common. They were all novels first. While the films were enjoyable, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have enjoyed them more without all the preconceptions and expectations that come with having read the book. Which did I prefer? I would say the novels in a heartbeat. It seems as though this is almost always the case. So why is that?

Novels don’t have time limitation

While a novel can fit in as much or as little as the author desires, a film must deliver the contents of a novel in only a few hours. This makes it impossible for the film to portray all the events in the novel. It is up to the director to pick and choose what should be included and omitted, and what is most important to the story. Not only may the decision be one that you don’t agree with, but by cutting out content, the film runs the risk of lacking substance, being less coherent, and affecting the development of characters and future events. Even the smallest moments in a novel, such as a look or a word, can add value to the narrative but are simply overlooked in the film. For example in the film The Help, we are told that Aibileen has raised seventeen white children when she starts sharing her stories with Skeeter. She then begins to recall the first child she ever raised, and the affectionate relationship they shared. What the film fails to mention is that Aibileen left those children because she knew eventually they would learn to be racist, and no amount of her love could stop that from happening. She left to avoid heartbreak. The novel doesn’t exempt children from racism in the way you could argue the film does, and hence, Skeeter’s unconditional love for Constatine is more exceptional and significant. This small piece of information that didn’t make it into the film is enough to slightly alter the novel’s original message.

Furthermore, time limitation can make it difficult to establish a sense of time elapse in film. Does it ever seem like characters that have just met are suddenly getting married, and too many dramatic events have occurred in a short amount of time? What we may interpret as a few weeks may actually be many months. Time elapse is much easier to achieve in a novel because the narrative doesn’t need to be compressed. We can witness a more natural progression in character development and build up to key events that take place rather than jumping from one significant event to the next. My biggest disappointment when watching the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre was the tension and chemistry between Jane and Mr Rochester. It seemed as though one moment they were cold and hostile towards one another and the next moment they were falling in love. This sudden change in feeling eliminated all tension, suspense and chemistry portrayed in the novel. As a result, the transition in the novel felt much more complex, deep and subtle, and much less rushed – which was all the more satisfying.

Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester
Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester

Exception:

Sometimes less is more and cutting a narrative to fit the film can be exactly what the narrative needs to come alive and engage the audience as they fill in the blanks. For example, in the film Jaws there was a bigger focus on man versus beast rather than the romantic subplots Benchley explored in his novel. Rather than subtracting from the film, it benefitted the film by making it more concise and compact. Other times the novel may not offer all that much, and this gives the film a chance to go in a whole new creative direction. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald is a brilliant author but his short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was too bland and simple for what was quite an extraordinary idea. The film, on the other hand, managed to capture the essence of Fitzgerald’s tale in an unforgettable cinematic experience that, by heading in a different direction with the story and expanding on it, brought it to life.

Words are powerful

I know, I know there is that saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. But when watching a film you can’t smell the visuals, you can’t taste them or feel them. Evocative language has the power to awaken your imagination to these sensations. Oscar Wilde sums up this power of words pretty nicely in The Picture of Dorian Gray:

“Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?”

Wilde himself had a knack of capturing his readers’ imaginations through words. Take, for example, the opening lines of The Picture of Dorian Gray:

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer winds stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink–flowering thorn.

As soon as we read the first passage in his novel we can feel the light summer winds stirring, we can smell the scent of lilac and the delicate perfume of the pink–flowering thorn among the odour of roses, so much so we can almost taste it. No opening scene of the film can produce these sensations without the words that elicit them. The novel allows us to be a part of the environment and to be experiencing what the characters are experiencing. Powerful language is not only about vivid descriptions that transport us to the world of the novel, it is also about narration. Narration allows us to make better sense of the story by providing explanation, background information, allowing us into the character’s mind, and being a separate entity that can help us understand things that may not be known in the world of the narrative. While film may overlook or clumsily attempt to display intricate details in character or plot development, narration can illustrate them flawlessly.

The novel Atonement delivers many intricate and complex messages that cannot be illustrated by visuals, especially when entering the mind of Briony. Take this passage for example:

There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding, above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.

Through this passage the reader gets a direct sense of the thoughts passing through Briony’s mind. While in a film a voiceover could communicate this, it cannot communicate every single complex and insightful thought Briony shares with us throughout the novel. These thoughts contain the crux of the complexities within the novel and the moral dilemma that Briony is grappling with. They are crucial to our understanding of Briony, her motives and her feelings. Since the novel is about interpretations, misjudgments and misunderstandings of events and characters, without these vital thoughts we become just as handicapped as the characters when we come to terms with Briony’s actions. Our perception of her and her role in the narrative changes.

Exception:

Films may not necessarily have narration, but they do have many other tools that they can use to impact their audience. Dialogue in a film may be much more powerful than in a novel because you have the tone and expression of the voice. Music is another advantage as it is extremely effective in creating mood and conveying emotion. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, suspense and horror was established through Hitchcock’s use of sound, visuals, pace and tempo, body language, and musical score. These combined cinematic elements seemed to have had a bigger effect in manipulating the audience than the words did in the novel.

Casting decisions can detract from the film

In a novel the characters are mostly left up to our imagination. While some description is offered to us, we ultimately decide what the characters look like and who they are in our minds. In a film that decision is made for us. We are presented with someone else’s interpretation of the character. The actor will be judged on not only their performance but also on their physical appearance when inhibiting a character that has already been developed in our minds. It is impossible for an actor to fit everyone’s interpretation of the character and therefore an enormous task to satisfy all expectations. An example of this is Keira Knightley in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. She was criticised as being too “pretty” for the role of Elizabeth Bennett, who is described in the novel as “tolerable” and “not handsome enough”. Another poor casting decision was Mickey Rooney as Japanese landlord Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He wore makeup, a prosthetic mouthpiece and squinty eyes to portray the racist caricature. The director, Richard Shepherd, repeatedly apologised for the insensitive portrayal that caused offence among many fans of the otherwise classic film. Rooney himself has said he would have never taken the role if he knew how much it would offend people. There was always going to be mixed reactions to Johnny Depp’s performance as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Depp took the role in a completely different direction. His white skin and black slick hair, quirkiness and creepy demeanor seemed to channel Michael Jackson rather than the Willy Wonka portrayed in the books.

Willy Wonka

Exception:

When the casting is right, it can take a good film and turn it into something brilliant. Take for example To Kill a Mockingbird. While the novel is one of the greatest pieces of literature there is, the film managed to do it justice and is a masterpiece in its own right. A large part of this has to do with the powerhouse performance by Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. The director managed to recreate this powerful tale on the silver screen by ensuring that the moral essence and warmth of the story was preserved, and this was seen largely through Atticus. A completely different example would be Mrs Doubtfire. The novel is a simple and at times charming story but nothing special. The film, however, was a much bigger success. Robin Williams was absolutely brilliant in his heartwarming and hilarious performance as Mrs Doubtfire – making her a household name. Mrs Doubtfire went on to become the second highest grossing film in 1993.

The audience is more involved in a novel

Many of us go to the cinemas for a chance to unwind and relax. While some films do stimulate and get us thinking, many films allow us to switch off. Everything is presented to us on the screen, ready to take in. Our experience when reading is completely different. We are a part of the creative process and the last link in making the story come alive. We imagine what the characters look like, how they speak, how they interact with each other, what the surroundings are like. Everything we read has to be imagined and interpreted. This provides us with a more unique, individual and intimate experience. We live the characters, they become our own creation as much as the author’s and we experience their journey rather than simply observe it.

Furthermore, we invest more into a good book than we do a film. While a film takes up only two hours of your day, a book can take weeks or even months to read. Not only is your enjoyment prolonged, but you have many opportunities to reflect over what is happening in the novel, and contemplate and dwell on characters and their situations between reads. This allows you to absorb the story, which will help you understand it on a deeper level and pick up things you might not have first seen. In contrast, it is easy to miss things in a film as you have little time to process an event before the next one takes place.

Exception:

The audience being more involved in a novel than in a film may not be viewed as an advantage to everyone. People may enjoy watching a film rather than reading a novel because they want to relax in their leisure time and switch off. On the other hand, there are certain films that demand a high level of concentration and engage their audience with complex and philosophical ideas, mystery or conundrums. For example, every time you watch The Matrix you will pick up symbols or hidden meanings you may not have noticed the first time around and develop new ideas and theories. Donnie Darko is another film that requires you to use your imagination as many events are left unexplained and there is an indefinite ending. These sorts of films leave you thinking about them long after you have watched them.

In a novel anything is possible

There is only so much that visual effects and stunt doubles can do in a film – and even then it may not come off as very realistic. But when we read, we can imagine anything and bring that image to life. There are no limitations when creating through words. For example, in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series she delves into the world of fantasy. We can imagine Jacob Black transforming into a werewolf quite naturally whereas in the film the transformation seemed so unrealistic it made a few people giggle. Not only that, but the werewolves seemed out of place in the environment and too robotic to even remotely resemble a ‘real’ werwolf – unlike what we could create in our minds. While the vampires are supposed to be the most beautiful and captivating creatures on earth, it is impossible for the film to demonstrate that. No such beauty could be cast because everyone’s interpretation of what is beautiful differs, and other factors have to be considered such as acting ability. However we can imagine such beauty.

Twilight

Exception:

Films are getting better and better at making the impossible happen through breathtaking visual effects. Who can forget the vivid and stunning colours, and almost dreamlike qualities of Pandora in the film Avatar? The land with its shadows, lighting and movement seemed to be alive rather than animated. James Cameron brought this world to life through innovative techniques such as photorealistic computer–generated characters, a motion–capture stage six times larger than any previously used, and using a new texturing and paint software system.

While the novel may be preferred to the film in many cases, it is important to keep in mind that film and literature are two different art forms that offer different experiences. They both have their pros and cons. It is possible to enjoy both experiences if we keep an open mind and let each method of story telling speak for itself.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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68 Comments

  1. Thomas Currington

    A good article – I particularly liked you point about The Help.
    It made me think that list articles on the best/worst casting choices for characters from novels.

  2. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    I think it’s important to consider that as important as words are, they are only a means of attempting to describe something that cannot be conveyed. I guess, words are kind of weak. There are films that barely have any words and they end up being so subtle and bold, like a Hans Hoffman painting or something. There are films that almost reach the density of something like Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow, but not quite, so the novel will always have that.

    • H. M. Bradford

      Words themselves are also part of a formal system, much of whose artistic potential lives in breaking the rules as gracefully as possible. That, in my opinion, doesn’t always correlate with density. I like your comparison of some film to the subtlety of a painting, especially considering the difference in temporality: poetry and music — and as Siobhan argues, film — are often contrasted with painting as the major “temporal” and “atemporal” art forms. It’s wonderful when atemporal visual art can break the rules, too, like in Escher and Dali, but perhaps that’s more difficult to do in film, especially as a translation of a novel. Maybe there will never be a satisfying film version of Ulysses (nor an artist with the impulse to make one) for that reason.

  3. Ok this is likely going to be terrible coming from an individual who wants to write novels, but I would not say reading a book is any better than watching a movie, it is just simply different.

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      I do agree they are different and need to be appreciated in their individual form, but when a novel has been adapted to the screen I can’t help but compare! Even when I enjoy both I usually have a preference.

    • F Patrick
      0

      Definitely. There are books that are very hard to read through but by the end, you are speechless and can not explain how outstanding it was. On the other hand, films brings the books to life… they can even chop up the novel and still be brilliant.

  4. Leo Blair
    0

    Books are not written for the big screen. Capturing the feeling of the written words is the most essential task when adapting it to the screen. There are surely movies based off books following the story close enough and have good actors but are bad. “The Hunger Games,” for example! I can not understand how people can like it. It is like they could completely mess up the book and still make a better film than that.

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      I guess one of the main advantages novels have is that they are the original and I always find its very difficult to beat the original – although of course there are exceptions as I found with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Jaws”. I guess it works the other way around too when films are turned into books, such as “E.T” and “Total Recall”, in these cases the film version is better.

  5. Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

    All the arguments you present here are true and intersting, but they are mostly about the challenges that film-makers have to face in adapting a novel, and I don’t know if you can compare and categorise novels/film adaptations in a definite way. They are both very different experiences, and rely mostly on subjectivity. One will prefer the book version, another will prefer the film. It also depends on what you like to do most: read or watch a film? Often, it is hard to decide as people enjoy both and experience it in a contrasting way. Are you more a visual person or a listener? Are you more sensitive to words on a page which allow your imagination to function fully, or do you need to confront given images in order to have a clear picture of the set and the characters? Writing a book is also very different from writing for film, or from the actual act of filming, which involves images. Can we consider and read a film as a text, like a literary work? And most importantly, why would we have to chose? I guess we can appreciate both equally 🙂

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      I guess that’s what I wanted to touch on in my last paragraph, that it’s important to keep in mind that they are separate art forms and both have their pros and cons. The art forms themselves, literature and film, I couldn’t choose between and definitely do appreciate equally but for different reasons. I also want to emphasise that the novel and its film adaptation can both be enjoyed, even if you prefer one over the other. But I have to say its not very often that I’ve liked both equally, most of the time I’ve had a preference – and most but not all of the time it has been the novel to the film adaptation. Of course, as you point out, that is my own opinion and everyone’s preferences will differ, and some may not even have a preference.

  6. Austin

    In the end, I feel that novels and films are both constricted in one similar way, though movies are far more impacted by this than books. I speak of “catering to the culture”, by which I mean that as forms of commercial media, both movies and books must be able to sell. This clearly affects movies much more drastically since movies are much higher budget projects than books, but nonetheless, both are restrained by what happens to be commercially viable content. I’m not at all saying that a director, producer, or author cannot produce a work that does not fit with the current “media trend”; in fact, we only follow new frenzies because of innovative material. But this doesn’t change the fact and a production studio or company will be less willing to produce one’s work if they deem the content commercially null.

  7. Jeremy Hale
    0

    I personally think the novels are a lot better than the movies. Due to time constraints, it’s impossible to cover all the content of a book. So the lack of content and much lack of imagination are the main disadvantages of movies over books.

  8. If we regard the intended audience, films and cinema are an organized communal experience where we can share emotions without feeling embarrassed. Indeed, you often see consumers feverishly discussing the pros and cons of any film straight after it has concluded. Generally, novels require book clubs and online communities to achieve such interpersonal interaction. Contrastingly, novels are more ambiguous in their direct meanings or visualizations, which allows readers to obtain a more personal meaning and perspective.
    In regards to their respective physicalities, we go to marvel at the technology of cinema, with the spectacle of the retracting screen and 3D glasses. This spectacle allows us to marvel at our own advancements and superiority. In contrast, the physicality and tangibility of texts gives us a nostalgic respite in an increasingly digital age.

  9. A really well thought out article, with some great insight! Novels do tend to be better than their film adaption, as films as you point out face many limitations and are pretty much disadvantaged before the process has even begun. But there have been a few surprises!

  10. I really liked that this article wasn’t just black/white. You described exceptions to your “rules,” and were knowledgeable about the films you discussed. What do you think about Kindles vs. Physical copy of a book? I’ve never read an electronic book; I love the physical copy. My husband and I are definite book hoarders and collectors.

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      Thanks! I would be the same as you, I love the physical copy when it comes to books. I probably use electronics far more than I should as it is, so when it comes to reading I would much rather rest my eyes from the screen and curl up with a hard copy of the book!

  11. Mette Marie Kowalski

    I’m happy you mentioned the films that do make you think and be engaged in the experience, I thought you were going to just regard films as a ‘lesser’ art form. It’s true though that film adaptations rarely live up to the books but that’s also partly the fault of the audience. The film doesn’t *have* to follow the book that strictly. It’s just a whole other medium. That’s why you need to be careful about what to include etc. as mentioned in the Jane Eyre example. I really liked how THG didn’t include voice-over for example, and I appreciated Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice because it wasn’t really about her looks (in the movie anyway).
    Great article.

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      Thanks Mette! I actually watched Pride and Prejudice with Keira before reading the novel – and loved it so I had no problem with Keira as Elizabeth, but so many people do. I definitely don’t want to disregard film as a medium – I love film! I’m regretting the way I wrote my summary of the article as I said film not film adaption so I think people have had the wrong impression before they go on to read it. Hopefully the article is clear enough though. I just wanted to compare the telling of the same story in two different formats rather than compare the formats themselves. I think it comes down to the narrative – some adapt really well to the screen such as ‘Psycho’ and others probably should just be left as a piece of literature.

      • Mette Marie Kowalski

        You’re absolutely right!

        I guess the summary could lead people in the wrong direction but if they actually read your post they will know what you mean.

  12. I enjoyed reading this article and I think you made some really good points. Also, I am glad that you included exceptions and did not discredit what a film may offer that the book doesn’t as well. I think it is all about perception. One person may be satisfied with the characters and how the book is interpreted through film while another may be disappointed. However, novels provide so much room for your imagination. This is done In the end of a movie as well. We are sometimes left wondering what’s next? and creating continuing scenes and thoughts of the movie that’s left to the imagination. It’s awesome because in literature you develop the psychical attributes to the characters, interpret actions and scenes that novels allow you to create unlike film because all of these things are created for you. For example, you mentioned twilight, I read the book before I watched the film. Looking back, I do not recall how differently I viewed the characters without seeing the film because it brought the characters to life as I imagined. I was completely satisfied with the interpretation of the first book through film, the second not as much, but some may differ. As you stated, novels do not have limitations while films have so much to convey in a short amount of time and I felt as if parts were missing and did not do the film justice towards the end. A film is just one group of producers, directors, actors, etc interpretation of a book. There’s so much more I could say, nonetheless, good article.

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      Thanks so much for your comment! I think you are spot on with it being about perception! I also think the interpretation point is probably the biggest point with film adaptations not being able to satisfy everyone as they are giving you their interpretation not your own. Its funny though how after you watch a film and then you read the novel again, you can no longer imagine the characters as how you once did, they just become the characters you saw on the screen! Well that happens for me anyway!

  13. I agree to a certain extent. I believe that the best adaptations are not really adaptations at all. Perhaps Kubrick’s The Shining is an example of this or Apocalypse Now (which was, of course, based off of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). These films are not so much adaptations as much as unique artistic works in their own right. There is no or little attempt to maintain adherence to the written source and perhaps this is their strength. Their creators realize the limits and benefits of their medium and, in doing so, do away with attempting to “bring a book to life,” since it is a futile task. Instead they work upon the strengths of film (many which surpass any novel, hence their democratic popularity) and create a completely autonomous work.

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      That’s a very good point! Trying to replicate a film as closely as possible to a novel can work for certain works such as I think it did with “To Kill a Mockingbird” but if you want the film to stand alone and completely blow an audience away then, as you say, it would be best to try and create something new with the material.

  14. I couldn’t agree more. The book is always better than the film. Novels offer so much more into character depth. Film adaptations can be great sometimes, but readers will get so much more out of a novel. I think reading stays with someone more than watching a film sometimes.

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      Thanks AnaRose for your comment! Although some film adaptations have surprised me and have actually been better than the novel, it doesn’t happen all that often – for me anyway!

  15. PerkAlert

    This is a well structured article and I appreciate your devil’s advocate stance in showing both sides of the argument. I think the most we can hope for in book adaptations is a fresh perspective on the story. Sometimes the interpretation works and is even better than we could expect, but often it doesn’t, as you have pointed out in your various opinions.

    • PerkAlert

      One other thing… Since you pointed out Twilight, I feel that I have to mention that the only time I really appreciated the film series was when they played out Alice’s vision in the last movie. It’s a good example of how a film can take a fresh perspective and still stay within the confines of the novel.

      • Siobhan Calafiore

        I couldn’t agree more! It is always refreshing when a film surprises you and suddenly you are not so sure what will happen next. I think a fresh perspective would help the viewer get more involved in the story rather than sit back and simply judge it.

  16. They’re just different venues for storytelling, which is why I always feel that as long as a movie captures the essence and feel of a novel, I’m okay with it. All the details don’t have to be there, but the same emotions you got from the book you should get from the movie. In certain instances, the movie can improve on the book, like for Catching Fire. I thought the movie gave a lot more nuance to what was happening at the Capitol behind the scenes and the political struggle. I personally felt Perks of Being a Wallflower was better as a movie and I connected to the characters more (which is odd, considering the author wrote the screenplay, so it should have been the same). It really depends on the situation and story and both have their advantages.

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      I thought Perks of Being a Wallflower was a great film so I really want to read the novel! Sometimes it just depends on whether the story will work well as a film. But yes both have their advantages and both can be enjoyed, even if you enjoy one more!

  17. The major difference that I enjoyed you pointing out in this article was that they are two different mediums. Film is a visual medium that takes the parts of the novel that happened in your head, and puts them on screen. When the makers of the film read the book, that is how they pictured it. It is not wrong; it just puts emphasis on the fact that everyone is different. Novels are a larger format that includes many different aspects that make them great, as you pointed out. You can put a book down, and come back to it with more thoughts on the characters relationships than you were able to absorb in the span of two hours. On the other hand with movies, your character development is given straight to you, and is does not give rise to many parts of your own imagination. You may be interesting in the concept of a more interactive media experience, because i can tell you are an avid novel reader. I very much enjoyed the article.

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      Thanks for your comment! I appreciate it! You’re right in that I’m an avid reader and love being able to be a lot more involved in a novel – that’s probably why majority of the time I prefer novels to their film adaption. So I may be a little bias in that regard!

  18. Valeri Joy

    You make a lot of really interesting points, and it’s refreshing to see someone writing about this in such a well thought out manner! I especially enjoyed that you had exceptions because (as many people have pointed out) they are different mediums. I personally try my best to enjoy a movie without thinking about the book because there are going to be differences that bug me. Casting is usually the biggest one because there is no way they can pluck the image out of your head that you’ve created. In all, however, I don’t think one form is inherently better than the other; they’re just different means of enjoying the same story.

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      Thanks Val! There are definitely advantages to both so I wanted to make sure I pointed that out! And I agree completely that both can and should be enjoyed! While, in my own experience, I’ve preferred more novels than film adaptions- while still being able to enjoy the film adaption, I know this isn’t always the case and it really comes down to you as an individual and what you like whether that be words, visuals and sound, or both. I wouldn’t say one form is ‘better’ than the other, but that one form can be ‘preferred’ to the other depending on the individual.

  19. Michelle Webb

    Such a fantastic article, very enjoyable to read. Thank you!

  20. Casey B
    0

    Great article! Love your work 🙂

  21. Stormy Skies

    There is only so much a 3 1/2 hour movie can fit in based on a novel.

  22. JessicaGarcia
    0

    This is a never ending discussion. Let’s conclude it by stating that movies and books are very different from each other, both of which are beautiful and fascinating in their own little ways.

  23. I love reading a great story, but when I see someone making it into a movie I usually cringe and avoid watching it because I know that it will leave out details that, like you said ‘help the story progress more naturally.’ And while I do see movies based on books, usually ones I haven’t yet read, I would really like to see a movie either specifically be loosely-based on the book, or a retelling of it. Almost like a fan fiction I guess, but without all the weird bits. I think it would be interesting to see different interpretations of stories that don’t necessarily try to correlate with the original story and don’t pretend to be the same as it.

  24. Nicole St. Onge

    This is a topic that I think will always be debated. Personally, I prefer the books over the movie versions, since the movies typically have a habit of butchering the image I saw in the book. Of course, there are some exceptions; I thought the Harry Potter films were really well done, in comparison to the books!

  25. I always think it’s difficult comparing novels and films, because they are such different mediums and, generally, aiming to accomplish different goals. A novel is a story you can carry with you wherever you like, it can take, as you said in your article, a very long time to get through, and I generally find it to be a far weightier and more complete experience. Cinema, however, has something literature doesn’t: urgency. An immediate block of two hours of story-telling, complete with music, the performances and strong visual hooks to draw the viewer in, can produce a knock-out effect every bit as potent, but perhaps not as lasting, as that of a novel. For me, I think when adapting a novel for cinema, the adaptations that know that they are adaptations, and understand that their job is to carve out their own story, not just retread the pages of the book, are the ones that really work. Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ for example, may have been disliked by Stephen King and fans of the book (and I’m one of them), but I admire the way the director took the material and shaped it to his own ends, and produced a fantastic film from it. I think a lot of people that say they want a film of a book they love actually don’t realise that they don’t want a film, they want a visual representation of the book. Adaptation and representation are two different things. I’ve always thought it’s vital to capture the spirit of the source material, rather than the letter. The adaptations I love the most, as are the films that were created for the screen, are the ones that use the medium to its full advantage. There’s no point making a film of a book, or making a film at all, if you’re not going to use the advantages that the medium offers. A lot of film-makers and screenwriters seem to go ahead and make a film, when actually it’s not the best medium for their story. An example of this is the BBC’s ‘Sherlock’; not only does it seem to me a fine display of the brilliance of the Sherlock Holmes character, it also takes advantage of the fact that the story is being told in a visual medium, and so we have things like the text on the screen, the moment in series 2 when the bed comes up to catch Sherlock, the mind palace in series 3, and others. That’s how to adapt literature, IMO.
    I once heard a great analogy for this, that cinema is like going ice-skating, where the water is frozen over and you’re skimming the surface, but nevertheless can create amazing things on that surface, whereas literature is more akin to swimming, where you can dive below the surface of the water and are submerged, lost just as you can become in a novel. I quite like that idea actually. Anyway, great work, and really stimulating choice of topic!

    • Siobhan Calafiore

      Thanks for the feedback and contributing to the editing process of this piece! And some really great and insightful points you’ve brought up here! I do agree with you that the most important part of an adaption is as you say capturing the spirit of the source material!

  26. An obvious example of the movie being far superior to the book is Forrest Gump. The book was terrible, but, as you point out, it contained the kernel of an amazing idea that was developed fully in the movie.

  27. Candice Evenson

    I was concerned about the film adaptation of The Hunger Games at first, because the story is told in first person. I still think that something is missing without seeing Katniss’ thoughts, but overall the movie has been a strong version (although I do have problems with Madge being left out along with the origin of the iconic mockingjay pen). Like you said, there is limited time to take in the movie and reflect upon it. It’s interesting that more and more movies are making their last installment in two parts. Hopefully this will give them more room to develop the story more fully. Casting is of course a crucial part of the success of a movie, when being compared by a fan to the novel. People will always argue about the success of an actor to portray a character because everyone participates with their imagination when they read.

    When I saw Avatar (Last Airbender), I remember thinking to myself, “huh…this is awful, but it would probably make a great cartoon.” I’m glad I went and watched the series that inspired the live action movie because, like the particular structure of chapters in a novel, there was less constraint on the development of episodes.

  28. Good article, while books were my first love I still am very passionate about film and I think a preference for either medium of storytelling reveals more about the individuals than film or novels as a whole, especially with both mediums being incredibly diverse.

  29. I do think that films can work well if they manage to hit on the main parts of the story, and can take out subplots well. Jaws is a good example of that certainly. I also think that films can take out a lot of the sensory detail that a novel has–it’s all visual, while at least in a book we can get sights and smells.
    A few questions:
    Do you think that the audience changes after a book’s cover is updated to reflect the characters in the movie?
    Do TV shows (Game of Thrones is the premier example) get around some of these issues?
    And also what effect does it have when the novel’s author is also in charge of the screenplay of the film?
    Overall a good well thought answer about why books tend to win out!

    • Mary Awad

      I feel when a book’s cover is changed to the movie it appeals to a more mainstream audience. And in recent films, well see how The Fault in Our Stars turn out because John Green had a huge part in it, although he didn’t write the screenplay. We shall see~

  30. kreiman

    Excellent points. My greatest criticism of the film industry would be when the adaptation strays (or runs) from the author’s stated purpose for the novel. An example would be the recent “Narnia” movies. The first was fairly true to the author’s intent to depict Christ/Christianity in a unique way to young people. Then Hollywood decided it wanted nothing to do with that theme and stripped the next movies of it’s allusions and meaning. Strangely enough, this led to the movies not being as successful, and the series has not continued. Hollywood, it seems wants nothing to do with the “realities” of Narnia…and those who love Narnia will not see it stripped of its heart.

  31. Loved the article. I hate how public opinion tends to stray towards the two mediums being interchangeable. How a director could possibly consider themrself capable of recreating some of history’s greatest pieces of literature is beyond me. What were you thinking Baz Luhrman?

  32. rubengc

    I think the radio play could rival the two genre’s too. some of the BBC’s work has been sublime.

    Great article.

  33. Awesome article! You make a lot of great points about the pros and cons of both. I think that film versions of books can be a great thing even if you lose a lot. Personally, the real problem is that if there’s a movie made from a book, people (on average) will opt out of reading the original work. One of my best decisions was to actually read the LOTR trilogy before watching the films. I think both have so much to offer and its a completely different experience. So the problem might not be that a movie has shortcomings that books don’t and vice versa, but that the masses would choose the movie over the book every time.

  34. I find it interesting that you cite Atonement as a novel that is better than the movie because my initial reaction when reading the abstract of your article was that Atonement was an exception. It is always my go-to when discussing the movie versus book debate. Granted, I watched the movie first and then, even as an avid lover of literature, I struggled through the novel. Your argument may just grant Atonement a re-read.

  35. Mary Awad

    I love your comment about words. Reading about the green light in Gatsby is so much more powerful than seeing it. Words have this powerful, magical quality that really makes reading wonderful. When an author can string words together in a beautiful way films can sometime ruin it.

    Also, imagine a movie of catcher in the rye? How would that go?

  36. Danny Cox

    This was a fun article to read, and as a pretty well-known controversy, I think you did it proud. I especially liked your entries from Oscar Wilde. It’s amazing to try to analyze and decode the descriptive language of legends like that!

  37. Helen Parshall

    Excellent article, I loved the final conclusion you drew that they are both different and equally worthy art forms. I always hate feeling like I have to choose between one or the other, when I enjoy each adaptation for different reasons.

  38. Tigey

    Agree with your casting remarks on Knightley, Rooney, and Peck. Harper Lee wanted no one else to play Lee and refused remakes for that reason. Rooney’s role was embarrassing, the Asian stereotyping was so bad. Knightley could never be called anything but beautiful.

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