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The adaptation of books to a movie or television format is tricky. On the one hand, there is an expectation that the movie should and will follow the original source material closely. On the other hand, a visual medium is a very different animal than print, and for a variety of reasons, it’s impossible to literally adapt a book word-for-word to film or television.

 

One of the biggest challenges of course is time. While there are no set limitations for the length of a book, there absolutely are for screenplays. The average movie runs two hours or less, and a 400+ page book isn’t going to fit in its entirety.  Movies force a streamlining that often results in sub-plots and minor characters being cut.

 

Another challenge of books-to-movies is finding a way to capture the interior monologue of a character, particularly when the story is told from that person’s point of view. Limited voice-over narration is great, but nobody wants to watch two hours of narration. That’s called an audio book- not a movie. This was a particular challenge for the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome, which had a lot of characters who spent a lot of time thinking. In the end, some characters were combined or left out, action was stretched out over months and not weeks, and the writers had to find ways to transform thoughts into something more visual.

 

Ready Player One took eight years to make it to the screenThe novel primarily takes place in a virtual reality world, and contains numerous pop cultural references to movies and video games (including to director Steven Spielberg’s own films) which had to be cut. Then there was the added difficulty of finding a way to faithfully recreate the book’s numerous locations. Trying to build sets for all of them would have astronomically expensive, but thanks to computer generated backgrounds and motion capture technology, they made it work. 

 

The 2018 Rom-Com Crazy Rich Asians is an example of a film that managed to stay loyal to the text, but author Kevin Kwan admits that the books delve much deeper into the world of the movie and the characters. There were also a few character changes, pared down plot points, and some added scenes that weren’t in the book, but all were done with Kwan’s approval.

 

Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto had a much longer path to the big screen (16 years), but the recent adaptation starring Julianne Moore stays pretty true to the book and has the benefit of an all-star cast and enduring source material.

 

I have a love/hate relationship with adaptations.  An adaptation can either be great (ie Harry Potter), or awful (such as the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower). Adapting a book for screen is no easy feat, but if the changes are so drastic that it has nothing in common with the book except for the name, it’s disappointing for both the writer and fans of the novel.

 

Then there’s the question of whether to read the book before or after seeing the movie. If I read the book first, I go into the movie with complete familiarity with the story and my own vision of what the character should look like. If the casting is too far off (as many felt was the case with Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher) or if the story veers too far from the source material, it’s difficult for me to enjoy the film as its own medium.

 

Seeing the movie before I read the book allows me to enjoy the movie as a movie, but once I’ve seen the movie, I’m reading the book with the movie in mind, and I'm constantly comparing the two. At the same time, seeing a movie adaptation first can inspire me to read the book, and in that case, I've been introduced to a great book I might never have read otherwise. 

 

Once in a very rare while, a movie adaptation is considered to be equal to or better than the books. Many people view the movie version of The Princess Bride as being as good as or better than the book, despite being different from the book. William Goldman was an accomplished screenwriter and adapted his own work for the screen which helps, but it’s a perfect example of both formats being enjoyed and appreciated on their own merits.

 

I also much prefer the Swedish film version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to the book. I felt that the movie did a great job of paring the story down to the most important elements and had better pacing then the book. The novel is nearly 500 pages long, and it definitely could have been similary streamlined. 

 

This coming year, we can look forward to adaptions of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette, A.J. Finn’s Woman in the Window and more, and I know I will be watching every single one of them with a critical eye and comparing them to the book.  

 

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Happy reading!

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