This article was first published in 2017 and updated in 2018.
You’ve heard it a thousand times before: The book is better than the movie. Is this just some people’s way of seeming intellectually superior? Or is there something to it? Let’s talk about the books vs movies argument.
If you love books, you’ll likely emphatically agree that the book version of any story is superior to the film version. Sometimes, a great director with a vision gets it right. I never liked a film version of Romeo and Juliet until Baz Luhrmann brought it to the big screen. Here’s a look at why some adaptations of books just aren’t successful on the big screen:
Word Play Doesn’t Translate
So much of what makes a book or a story come alive on the page is the use of figurative language and other word play. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – technically a play – is often lost to modern audiences because the language just doesn’t translate on screen. We can hear the cadence of the dialogue, but we can’t fully appreciate the consistent pattern throughout each line of the play, descriptions and all. Modern audiences also fail to grasp the full meaning of some of the outdated language, so the irony, sarcasm, and other subtle emotions are lost.
Similarly, a book like The Last Temptation of Christ is hard to translate on screen. Much of the beauty of the book is in the richness of its language. Only plot and dialogue are conveyed on screen, not the metaphor, symbolism, alliteration, and other figurative language. When you read, you appreciate the masterful choice of language, as well as the particulars of the story.
Some Imagery is Hard to Capture
It seems hard to believe that a visual medium like film would not be able to convey some imagery better than a book, but it’s true. Some imagery lives more in the realm of a dreamscape. It is surrealistic and blends emotion with visuals, so what you see with your eyes may not be what is meant to be conveyed.
You can see a perfect example of this in the book Beloved, which was made into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton. Much of the book was a blend of magical realism and metaphor, which is very difficult to translate into the visual reality of film. You have to feel these things, and you can only feel them by actually being there or by being immersed in your own imagination, as suggested by the story. My favourite book vs movie quote is:
The book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader
– Paul Coelho
Action is Changed for Drama
When books are adapted, some of the action in the book is changed so that it makes for better drama or better flow in a movie. For example, when the book The Never-Ending Story starts, we meet Atreyu in his own land. In the movie, we first meet him in the Ivory Tower, which helps start the action faster. However, the book shows Bastian’s dad grieving the loss of his wife, not Bastian himself. The book depicts Bastian as more lonely at the start, and his journey is a more satisfying one than in the movie.
In the book The Wizard of Oz, there are additional characters, like the Queen of the Field Mice, who rescues the Cowardly Lion from the Poppy Field. She’s cut from the movie to streamline the cast of characters and the action, but she adds a little something extra in the book.
Books Have No Limit
When reading a book, you are free to read at your own pace and enjoy the story in your own time. Some books are only one hundred pages long but others could be up to a thousand pages. And people still read both.
However, movies are limited to a two hour slot where they can capture people’s attention. Anywhere between one and a half hours and two and a half hours seems to be the norm for a film and if they can’t fit all the elements of the plot into that time (and they never will), then they inevitably end up cutting corners and simplifying characters and plot lines.
As such a film adaptation will never have all the details that a reader desires and many end up disappointed when entire scenes and characters end up cut from the film. The trend of splitting movie adaptations into two halves does nothing to help matters either. With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, two films still wasn’t enough. With The Hobbit, three films was too excessive and yet it still didn’t convey everything from the books.
Actors aren’t How You Imagined
The movies might cast actors who don’t look the way you imagined the characters would look, which can often be a very difficult thing to look past. A common issue in Hollywood is whitewashing the cast and, more recently, forced diversity.
The problem with the former is obvious – if the book is set in a foreign country with foreign characters but is given an all white cast when it’s adapted for the screen then this is wrong, wrong, wrong. They did this with the Netflix movie adaptation of the manga Death Note and the film received huge amounts of backlash as a result. On the other hand, the film Crazy Rich Asians has received lots of praise for sticking to an all Asian cast for this book to film adaptation. If that doesn’t prove to Hollywood the importance of staying as true to the book as possible when it comes to casting then I don’t know what does.
Conversely, forced diversity can negatively impact a book to film adaptation as well. J K Rowling’s works have been accused of forced diversity in Hollywood and casting a Black Hermione, Korean Nagini and gay Dumbledore have all been branded desperate attempts tick the “diversity” box. Many fans of Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts have criticised Rowling for trying to retrospectively claim that her works do include lots of diverse characters.
Actors aren’t up to Scratch
Further to the point above, even if an actor looks the part, they might fail to truly translate their character from page to screen. A books show the inner thoughts of the characters, which shows their feelings and motivations, and these things can be lost in the movies when the actors aren’t up to scratch. Take Keanu Reaves in the 1992 film adaptation of Dracula. He plays vampire hunter Jonathan Harker but everything about him is wrong for this role, most notably, his accent. Or Ginny Weasley in the Harry Potter films; she’s just a bit flat, isn’t she? We could be here all day discussing Harry Potter book vs movie.
Money, money, money
Whilst a publisher will be on the lookout for stories to move, to thrill and to absorb the reader, the top priority in film production is money. An easy way to make sure they get people to the cinema so that money starts rolling in is to cast people that are beautiful and famous and create bigger bangs. Usually at the expense of accurate storytelling. This is why some book to film adaptations take nothing but the bare bones of the book plot before being turned into a theatrical drama that barely resembles the original copy.
There are a lot of other things that movies can do to the stories from your favourite books that make them less satisfying. There’s definitely something to it when people say that the movie is not as good as the book, but the reason why can vary. And it doesn’t mean that the movie is never as good as the book. We’ve seen some great adaptations of some great books and I will admit that I actually prefer the Lord of the Rings films to the books. Shh.
What are some of your favourite film adaptations?
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