The Book Was Better?

by limebirdlaura

We have all gone to the movies to see a favorite book-turned-film, only to utter the phrase “the book was better.” I’m guilty of it, I will admit that. But I took a class on adaptation a couple of years ago which has changed my view of adaptations, from the screenwriter’s point of view.

As a screenwriter when you are given a book to adapt for film, you are taking control of the story. You are literally free to do whatever you want with those characters – for better or for worse. In my adaptation class, our semester long project was to adapt the book Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore. The assignment required that we add 25% original content. Now, that is certainly not some movie studio standard that screenwriters live by, it was just a class in the comfy confines of the university. Our professor was forcing us to let go of the idea that word for word what was in the book needed to be on-screen, and I have to say I rather enjoyed the assignment.

The rule of thumb for scripts is that 1 page of your script will equal 1 minute of film. That makes it pretty impossible to have every single solitary word from the book in your script. I know as book lovers we find it hard to let go of our favorite scenes (or characters), but sometimes it’s necessary to omit things to keep the story going.  Books are a different medium than films are after all. We read books at leisure curled up on the couch on cold winter nights, but the movie has to successfully get through the story in two hours, give or take.

For example, let’s talk about a little love of mine. You might have heard of a story called Harry Potter. There is a house elf in the books named Dobby, who shows up off and on through books 2-7. In the films, though, he was only in the 2nd and 7th. In the middle, all of his important scenes and lines were given to the character Neville Longbottom.

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry needs to find a way to breathe underwater. In the book, Dobby overhears Professor Moody talking about an herb called gillyweed which allows people to breathe underwater, and he then in turn gives Harry the gillyweed. In the movie, however, Neville learns about gillyweed from a book that Professor Moody gave him, and when he hears that Harry needs to breathe underwater he gives Harry the herb. This makes sense as far as the story goes, because Neville is a friend of Harry’s and wants to help him, and as a student he is really proficient in Herbology.

I did always miss Dobby in the movies. Why couldn’t they just put Dobby in? They would just need to make him for a minute or two after all. But did it hurt the story to have Neville doing these things rather than Dobby? No. Does it pain me to admit that the movies were fine without Dobby in them? Yes, very much so, don’t make me do that again, OK? Not cool. The point is, I’m not sure why they decided to leave Dobby out of most of the movies – maybe it would have cost too much to do the CGI to create Dobby, maybe it would have taken longer to explain why Dobby was there and what Dobby was doing. Whatever the reason was, the story didn’t hurt from the Dobby-Neville switch-up.

I know it’s hard to let go of a favorite book when it feels they are butchering the story on-screen. But next time you find yourself mourning the loss of a favorite line or a favorite scene try not to take it too badly and ask yourself if the movie is bad because it’s not like the book, or is it just a bad movie overall?

What are some of your favorite adaptations?

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29 Comments to “The Book Was Better?”

  1. I know how its like. Im studying film and the scriptwriting process is crucial. Of course the book is better than the film, cause you cant fit the whole book into a movie. But the sad part is that the important scenes to the fans are not included in the film and thats why adaptation sucks.

    I love the HP adaptation, partially cause it introduced me to HP. So i have the films to thank.

    • I got into Harry Potter after watching the first film too (and… after being a bit of a Harry hater for years without really knowing what it was about, my husband likes to point that out!)

      The book isn’t always better, I do have examples (Forrest Gump…. travesty of a book, well in my opinion at least). I think it’s bad when they try to do too much for one film (although this business of splitting the last book of a series into two films is getting to annoy me, I wish if they were going to do that they’d release them sooner than a year and a half apart). A lot of the Stephen King adaptations are like that – better suited for a mini series. Of course they don’t always get it right that way either (Bag of Bones…what a mistake)

      Thanks for commenting :) Are you enjoying studying film ? I love it!

  2. I’ve never had the problem of believing the book is better than the movie because I see them as two different things, which you alluded to. I like them both for what they are. Take, for example, The Time Traveler’s Wife. That is a huge book with a lot of stuff jam packed. The movie would have been twice as long and would still have needed cutting. However, I love the movie as well. There were some tough decisions to be made, and I think they did an admirable job. Moral of the story: enjoy both for what they are.

    Why read the book if scene for scene the movie is an exact copy? The did that with the remake of Psycho. Both were movies, of course, but the remake was shot exactly like the old one. It didn’t add anything new, no new perspective. For that reason, it bombed.

    • For years I did have that problem, just screaming up one aisle and down the other in the theater when they did a book wrong. But I’ve definitely learned to accept them both for the different mediums they are. I have noticed that when folks watch a movie first, and then read a book that the differences between the two don’t seem to enrage them quite as much as it does when they’ve read the book first. That’s just folks I know of course.

      I’ve not read or seen The Time Traveler’s wife, but I always have to give a movie kudos if they manage to pull off a successful story that doesn’t make you feel like you’re missing something, when the novel was large.

      I agree with you on Psycho, there was no reason to remake that. Honestly, I can’t believe anyone was gutsy enough to tackle remaking a Hitchcock film at all!

      And sometimes when they remake a movie that is a more literal translation of the book, it fails. Like Stephen King’s The Shinning. (oh I must always be relating something to Stephen King it seems). I haven’t read the story honestly, but from what I gather the mini series made in the 90′s was a more literal translation than the one Stanley Kubric made. I remember watching the 90′s version thinking it didn’t pack the punch that Kubric’s version did, even though Stephen King himself wrote the teleplay for it.

      Anyway, I’m starting to write a novel here LOL I will shut up now :) Thank you for the comment!

      • Of course, I’m easy to please. When everyone else hates something, I usually like it or at least find some value in it. Plus, I don’t read as much as others, so I have fewer examples to go on in my head. In the end you won’t please everyone.

  3. For me, I think it’s more important to get the spirit of the story/characters rather than make sure every little detail gets on screen. Like you mentioned, the Harry Potter movies aren’t faithful in every way (sometime they leave out MAJOR information) but I think they capture the spirit of the books well. On the other hand, I don’t think the Golden Compass movie really captured the subtleties of that book, and I think that’s one reason it didn’t do as well.

    • Oh I like the way you put that, to get the spirit of the story. That is a really important thing, especially for lovers of the book. At least with the bigger franchises, studios have a built-in audience when they tackle making the movie – and with things like The Golden Compass example, they are alienating that fan base. I haven’t actually seen it, because the trailers put me off for some reason. I wonder if the movie would seem bad if there was never a book, that’s what I’m always trying to decide when I go to a movie that is based on the book and I feel that the movie is rubbish. It’s so hard not to think about the book! I try really really hard though.

      Thanks for the comment :)

  4. In the past I’ve tried to watch the movie before I read the book, then I could somehow appreciate the differences and it didn’t make me crazy. I’ve seen/read some that I felt the translation from book to screen wasn’t handled how I would have liked, one example John Grisham’s Pelican Brief.

    An avid fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, I anxiously awaited the Lord Of The Rings movies, and absolutely immersed myself in them when they came out. They were fantastic and really followed the books well. I wish they would do The Hobbit too! I guess my point is that if it’s done well, the movie almost seems to compliment the book.

    • Neeks – The Hobbit will be released in the US on the 14th December 2012! :)

      • ohmygosh! …I’ll have to look it up, it is, it’s directed by Peter Jackson so it’ll be great! Thanks Beth, I hadn’t seen this. I don’t watch very much television at all and hadn’t seen the trailer. :)

    • Hehehe yep you’ll be happy with The Hobbit :)

      Sometimes if I know a movie coming out looks interesting and is based on a book I haven’t read, I just skip reading the book first, so I don’t let even a little bit of the nagging book reader in me emerge while I’m watching the movie.

  5. A very interesting post. I never really thought of things from the screenwriter’s point of view. I think you are right, they are different, and we shouldn’t go into a movie with the expectation they will be a literal translation. I have usually found that if I see the movie first, before reading the book, I enjoy the movie on its own. And then if I choose to read the book after seeing the movie, I enjoy that as well. I guess for me it comes down to expectations.

    • I’m the same way! For some reason it seems when you watch the movie first then read the book, it’s not as bad when there are differences. It’s strange how that happens.

  6. I always do book then film if I can as you get so much more from a book, and I’m definitely more of a bookworm than film-buff. As they are such different experiences I tend to prefer doing one or the other because of the differences, although I don’t mind so much when it’s clear why changes in the film have been made. In the Potter films my impression was they handed over some of the key moments to Neville so they could develop his character without being able to devote the time to his back-story that you get in the books. I’ve never understood people who just do the Potter films without reading the books as they’re missing out on so much.

    One exception I can think of is Stardust where I went from film to book – absolutely one of my favourite films, but the book was merely good!

    • Oh I so agree. I watched the first Harry Potter movie (when they were making the 5th I think….I was pretty late to the Potter stuff) and then ran out and got all the books I could and read them without stopping. When the 7th book came out I did nothing that entire weekend but read it. But I think even though there are some changes in the movies, like the Dobby/Neville thing , they still all have that magic and spirit to them that makes them good. Plus Rowling herself had to approve all the scripts and worked with the screenwriter the whole way so any changes or omissions had to go through the master herself. \

      Watching comic book movies with my husband is a real treat. *SIGH* “OH COME ON” *Crawls in a fetal position to cry* HEHEHE he rages so much at them.

  7. Sometimes it works the other way around, for example (before the hype) I read Twilight and Eclipse and then I gave up. I assumed Twilight was a debut novel and the shaky bits would be imporoved on with practice so I read Eclipse, but I was wrong it was awful. My boyfriend doesn’t read but when Twilight came out in the cinema he wanted to go, so after making him promise me popcorn I agreed to go with him and I actually enjoyed it. Sometimes it’s good to cut a book down as in my opinion (and I know I’m in the minority) the books were rubbish, Bela whines too much and I cant stand the book character but at least the movie version has a spine;)

    Also Neeks I too loved the Lord of the Rings films – very true to the spirit of the books and when I watched the IMDB Trailer for the Hobbit earlier this month it gave me goosebumps, roll on December!

    • You are so right, there are definitely examples of when a movie works a whole lot better than the books (Though I have to be honest I am a bit of a fan girl of the Twilight books and movies – eeeep)

      The one that comes to mind for me is Forrest Gump. The book……… oh my gosh so bad. I used to do data entry (oooh mind numbing work) and I’d listen to books on tape which is how I “read” Forrest Gump. I think I sat there the whole time with my mouth open. The movie is this wonderful heart-warming / heart-breaking story of American history with all these rich characters. The book was about a man who wasn’t super great, he then became an astronaut with a monkey who pee’s in the space shuttle. Only to crash land in a nest of cannibals. (I might be generalizing here, it’s been years since I read it and those are the parts that stick out to me) Anyway, I went to read the book expecting it to be like the film and it wasn’t.
      I thought even though the movie deviated from the book in places, it made for a better story.

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed the Harry Potter movies. Though they could never encompass everything in the book, they stayed true to the main plot and the characters. My biggest issue with movie adaptations is when it’s like sampling a song. They take a smidge of the original book and then swirl it into something completely different and represent it as being like the original book.

    • Thanks for commenting Kourtney :) I love all of the Potter movies too, I love anything Harry Potter though so I might be biased. I made my husband go with me to see the last film the day it came out,then I forced it upon my baby sister and mom, and then we went back to watch the 3D version.. any excuse I swear!

      I like the way you put that, like sampling a song. It always bums me out when I hear a song on the radio thinking it’s one thing, then two seconds in it turns out to just be a bit of a sample in a completely different song.

  9. Great post Laura! You know what I’m an avid HP fan, but I actually didn’t even really notice the absence of Dobby. I think it definitely worked with Neville doing the lines instead.

    I’ve never really thought about it from the screenwriters point of view, but I can see how it would be tricky. Like Sally, I usually try to read book first then movie second,but I have to say there are a few books that I haven’t actually read. Like, Forrest Gump I didn’t know there was a book and Sally’s example of the Stardust book, I did know there was one, but I haven’t read it. I think I might give it a miss though after what Sally said about it!

    Anyway, I digress, great post Laura, I’ll definitely give it a bit more thought before I rant about a movie adaptation again! :P

    • Thanks Beth :)

      I think they probably couldn’t have gotten away with giving all of Dobby’s lines to someone else like Ron or someone, having Neville worked. And you know I’m a big Neville fan, so I’m fine with that!! ;)

      If I find out a movie looks interesting and then learn it’s a book, if there is time I will see about grabbing the book. I did that with Watchmen, my husband insisted I read the graphic novel before we went to the theater. Sometimes I don’t even realize movies are books first, like with Forrest Gump. I didn’t that for a long time. I kind of want to read it again because it seems really ridiculous in my head and I wonder if I’m making it out to be something it’s not.

      And feel free to rant away, sometimes they really do butcher a story (like Mike pointed out in his post the other day about Green Lantern)

  10. Great post, Laura. I love learning about this script writing biz. So cool. And great example you provided re harry potter film. I guess I tell myself that the film will be a lot different than the book. What usually happens is that I enjoy the two versions for what they are and it all turns out to be fine.

    • Thank you Kate :) I admit there have been a few times I’ve run from the theater cussing about what they did to my lovely book, but these past few years I’ve been good at keeping the book and movie separate in my head. But I agree with you, enjoy both for what they are.

  11. Sea Biscuit is an example of a book that was, in my opinion, excellent. The movie was also very good, but should not have been billed as being based on the book. Why did they have to change the facts of the story when the facts were compelling enough to keep any audience engaged? It doesn’t make sense to me…

  12. Totally agree with the comments above.

    One that hit me (before seeing the film) was Tom Bombadil. When I heard that this wonderful character and (admittedly side) story was not going to be in The Lord of the Rings movies I was very disappointed. However, Peter Jackson was right; the story does not advance the overall narrative, in fact it slows it up. As the extended version of the movie (I think of it as one movie as that is what it is really) clocks in at 11 hours 20 minutes without Tom Bombadil I can understand that he had to make the cut!

  13. I’ve never thought of it this way before. If I read the book first, I don’t really like to watch the movies, and vice-versa. However, I have slowly begun to accept the fact that they can be seen as separate. It’s still hard sometimes, but thinking about it as you said, from a screenwriter’s perspective will help. Thanks for this great post!

    • Thank you for the comment :) I try really hard to separate them too, but sometimes it’s hard. Like last night I went to watch the Hunger Games, I spent about 30 min afterwards with my husband “but in the book Peeta did this”, “but in the book Katniss said this”… I finally forced myself to stop that! :D

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