The Adaptation Problem: How To Go From Page To Screen

From time to time, I will deviate from my usual review format to write an article commenting on something dealing with the world of movies. Just want to mix things up once in a while. 

“The book was better.”

That’s a phrase we here a lot when talking about movies adapted from books (which a lot of movies are). My thoughts on the relationship between movies and the books they’re based on have evolved over the years, but the question is, what compels people to think books are better than movies? They are two completely different art forms, with different expectations and tools to use to tell a story.

One reason may be depth. Since books are a written medium and movies are a visual one, books have an added advantage in character development, as they can explain things that can’t be expressed visually. An adaptation where this problem arises is the 2007 movie Atonement. This movie, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy as lovers who are torn apart by a legal misunderstanding and war, was probably as good an adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel that could’ve possibly been made. The reason making this movie was such a challenge was due to the way “Atonement” was written. McEwan spends pages and pages describing the inner machinations of each character. There is very little dialogue for a 350-page novel, with McEwan’s focus being on each character’s past and thought processes. But to turn that prose into a movie would be close to impossible, since there would be constant voiceover narration and nothing happening in the story, so the filmmakers had to compromise, sacrificing character depth in favor of a plot-driven narrative. Books can take all the time they need to give depth to characters, but movies only have a couple of hours, maybe three in rare occasions.

Another problem that arises is accuracy. Movies based on popular books will always be scrutinized for how faithful they are to the original text. My own feelings on how accurate adaptations should be have changed over time. For example, I was 13 when I saw “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in theaters. At the time, I thought it was an incredible movie, mostly because it was so faithful to the book. I felt the same way when I saw the second film, “Chamber of Secrets.” But when I watched each movie again when they came out on DVD, something didn’t feel right. Both movies, to me, felt like they were suffocated by their faithfulness to the original books. They didn’t have the liveliness or spontaneity that good movies should have, they were just going through the motions in preserving every line of dialogue and event word for word.

So here is the question: what makes a movie based on a book a successful adaptation? This answer will be different for everyone, but as I said, my thoughts on this changed. I used to think faithfulness was all that mattered. But now, I believe it doesn’t matter how faithful a movie is to the book, it just has to be able to capture the spirit of the book and, more importantly, be good.

Good adaptation:

Bad adaptation:


Take the Harry Potter series for example. I know the books like the back of my hand and I think their masterpieces, but of the first seven movies (I haven’t seen the newest one yet) the only ones I really like are “Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Half-Blood Prince.” There are some things I like about these movies. I think the acting is tremendous and they did actually try to make these movies good instead of just cashing in. I don’t care that they aren’t completely faithful to the books; the problem is they are not consistent from movie to movie with what they change about the story. The books combined to make a seamless, sprawling narrative that answered every major question. The films, however, are a freaking mess. There are plot holes all through the first seven movies because they broke the first rule of adapting the books: DON’T ASSUME EVERYONE WATCHING HAS READ THE BOOKS. For example: at the beginning of “DH Part 1,” they have the scene where Harry sees the eye in the shard of the two-way mirror he owns. There is just one problem: the movies never show where this mirror came from. Sirius gave Harry the mirror at the end of the fifth book, but that scene was not in the movie. So if you haven’t read the book, how the hell would you know where that mirror came from? That is just sloppy screenwriting. If you’re going to change things, be consistent dammit. But with “Prisoner of Azkaban”, they do change some plot points but they are minor ones, and more importantly, the movie works because Alfonso Cuaron, the director, didn’t care about accuracy and just wanted to make a great movie, which he did. Same thing with “Half-Blood Prince.” Yes, the ending was tweaked, but they retained that book’s emotional power. But the series as a whole needed a more consistent narrative for me to enjoy the entire saga.


So what filmmakers and writers of adaptations need to do is find some element of the books and expand upon it to make it cinematic, accuracy be damned. Some movies do manage to be great and faithful to the books, while others reshape the dough of the book into something more powerful. “No Country for Old Men” follows the book word for word, but the Coen Bros. wanted to showcase its theme of moral decay and the corruption of mankind, and they didn’t need to change the story that much to accomplish that. “The Lord of the Rings” movies work because Peter Jackson cut out all of the whimsical nonsense that marred Tolkien’s books (if you’ve read them, this can be distilled into two words: Tom Bombadil. Good God) and focused on the main plot (even though “The Lovely Bones,” one of my favorite books, was turned into one of my least favorite movies by the same person). Francis Ford Coppola took Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather,” which I haven’t read but a lot of people have told me it’s a pretty basic gangster novel, and turned it into American Shakespeare. Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” is also extremely faithful to Dennis Lehane’s novel, but the final line of the movie brilliantly adds some ambiguity to the ending that wasn’t in the book.

Filmmakers can’t be afraid to tweak the material they are given. That’s what made Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen,” a movie I actually do like even though it has one of the worst scenes in the history of movies (I couldn’t find it on YouTube, but I’m referring to the sex scene set to “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, it hurts just thinking about it), a disappointment because he was afraid to  change a word of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel. It’s just like the first two Potter movies; good adaptations happen when a writer and/or director adds his own element or reshapes the elements given to them to make something that can stand by itself as a movie and be a companion piece to the book.

Bottom line: They better not screw up “The Hunger Games.”

I want to ask everyone when they comment: Have some of your favorite books been made into movies? If so, what were they and how successful were the adaptations?




6 thoughts on “The Adaptation Problem: How To Go From Page To Screen

  1. Really smart way to break the pattern of your posts yet stay entirely within the topic. I also really love the exploration of this very common complaint. I agree with your initial premise — a book is a book, a film is a film. They work in different ways and have different objectives, sometimes different audiences. Even so, sometimes it’s hard not to be disappointed when a favorite book is less appealing as a film (or, I suppose, vice versa). To me, it’s a positive reaction as it shows that we still — despite all the challenges to the medium — fall in love with books, with words.

  2. Aaron,

    Great post. Liked how you deviated from film reviews and went into a rant/discussion topic. I really liked this one a lot, and I hope you do more of these in the future. But you asked a question at the end for us to answer (really cool, by the way) and let me think… You already mentioned Harry Potter and The Hunger Games (which also, I hope, they better not screw up.) Hmm… I guess one obvious series is Twilight. While the books may not be the best written (good god, no) they were addicting, and had this charm I think. The movies forwent all that for contracting Taylor Lautner to be shirtless in almost every scene. Terrible, terrible, terrible movies. But I suppose, any Stephen King adaptation (my favorite author). While it’s hard to point out any since almost all of his novels have been adapted, I will choose 1 good and 1 bad. Shawshank Redemption may be the best film I’ve seen of his (directed by Frank Darabount). He took a 108 page short story, which read more like a summary compared to the film, and really made it his own beast. Another great one is Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, which is almost completely different if you read the book. But what I loved about it, though very different, was it captivated the sheer terror that the book held. He really cut out more of the character elements the book had to make a truly terrifying film (one that still is up on the list that scared me the most when I first watched it.) A bad adaptation off the top of my head is Phantoms by Dean Koontz. I’m a HUGE horror fan. And while I do like the movie, compared to the book it was plain garbage. They cut out every single subplot, and even cut out over 10 characters. And added two that weren’t even apart of the book. The movie did not do great in capturing the terror of the book, nor the character development. It took the premise, and made it’s own monster, which was a flop.

    Chris Daniels

  3. Aaron,

    Firstly, I really like that you did something different than your normal movie reviews. Especially something like books being made into movies! I haven’t read all the Harry Potter books, but I have seen all the movies, and I would have never thought to look that deeply into them. I definitely agree with what your idea of a good adaptation of a movie based on a book is. The only books I’ve actually read that have been turned into movies were all the Twilight books, and we can all admit those movies sucked, lol. However! I have read The Hunger Games and am up to the third book. I am so excited to see the movie and your right; they better not screw it up! With that said, you should do a review about it on this blog as a follow up to this one once it comes out!


  4. I really like how you switched it up from a regular movie review. I enjoyed this because for the most part, I totally agree. I love my books and i know i’ve read an infinite amount of books and maybe a hundred movies. I’m always let down when the movie is so much worse than the book, because it almost ruins the book a bit for me. Great post, Aaron.

  5. Aaron,

    I like the switch you made this week. It was cool to see you talking about multiple movies, some you liked and some you didn’t, and why. The category of movies that are based on books was a good one for this because of how broad it is. I really enjoyed the first few Harry Potters (I haven’t read them all…..). When I saw the movies, I was definitely let down. I agree that you can’t assume everyone has read the book. Those who saw the films without reading the books probably tend to enjoy the films more. Also, you’re right, The Lovely Bones movie was reallllly bad. Good job man!

    – Brian

  6. Great way to engage your readers at the end of your post Aaron! I liked that you switched it up this week: it is a great deviation from your other posts. My favorite film adaption of a book was “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I like that you included examples of “good” adaptions versus “bad” adaptions. You have a lot of variety in this post. Hope you do another one like this soon!

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