The Many Challenges of Adapting a Book to Film

A common complaint about Hollywood (and an entirely justified one) is in regards to a total lack of originality. Reboots, remakes, and sequels are cranked out practically every month. Among all these complaints, one that has recently gotten much quieter is adaptations. Specifically, book adaptations.

These are incredibly hit or miss. There are some adaptations that are more beloved than the original book, such as with ‘Fight Club’ or ‘Jurassic Park’. Others drive the fans completely crazy and sometimes even ignore the source material almost completely, such as in ‘Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief’. These don’t come out nearly as often as they once did, as they’ll more often be adapted into TV shows nowadays (thanks in no small part to ‘Game of Thrones’). But when they do come out, they are often harshly scrutinized. Much more so than most films.


I do understand why, of course. Falling in love with a story and its characters and watching them be changed into something else can be infuriating, especially if the new version is worse than the original. It can give new audiences a false idea as to the quality of the original story, which kills the greatest potential advantage of an adaptation: the expansion of a fanbase.

“Why can’t they just get it right?” People ask. “It shouldn’t be that hard! Did they even read the book?”

Well… yes. Often times, they did. At the very least, they skimmed it. Chances are, the people behind the adaptation are trying their best! But adapting a book, which can often take upwards of several days to read through, into a two-hour film is not easy.

In a good book, everything is necessary. Every scene, every character, and every line of dialogue should be absolutely crucial to the overall plot. You could add extra details to further flesh out the characters or setting, as books are meant to be enjoyed over time. But as you may guess: this doesn’t fly in a film.

Screenwriters in the business of adapting books to film. The audience doesn’t want to sit there and watch the same film for seven hours straight, no matter how incredible the story being told is. Sitting in a chair for several hours and staring at a screen, while it works for some people (me), is incredibly uncomfortable on the eyes and back.

You need to trim down on a lot of details to compress the story. Be it by compressing or simply removing scenes entirely, a screenwriter needs to do a lot to make the story fit into movie format. It’s like when you’re a kid, cramming the square block into the circle slot in your little mix-and-match board. Only instead of just forcing them in there, you trim the shape down until it does fit.

The trouble comes in choosing what to cut and what to leave alone. If you have to cut out significant details, can you shape the story to work with it while still staying true to the source material? Or, if you have to transform the story so dramatically that it becomes something new entirely, can you make it work while still keeping the fans happy?

In the last few years, film adaptations have started trying to side-step the issue with multi-part adaptations. This way, the number of details you need to chop down is significantly reduced. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it still makes it slightly easier to properly adapt a story. But changes are still absolutely necessary, regardless of how many parts the adaptation has.

“Well, why not just get the original writer to do it?” You may be asking. “They know the story better than anyone! If they do it, they can change it in a way that the fans are okay with!”

Except here’s the thing: writing a book and writing a script are two very different things. A book can be as long as needed. A script needs to fit into a two-hour time frame. Having skills in one category does not inherently give ability in the other.

Just look at J.K. Rowling! She wrote seven highly-successful books (which I have several problems with, but I can admit that they are still a part of my childhood) and amassed a huge level of success! But then, when she took a stab at screenwriting with her ‘Fantastic Beasts’ series, she quickly fell flat on her face.

But hey! They at least she tried. At least I think…

This is why TV show adaptations are quickly becoming more popular. A TV show is a time investment, one that can take far more time than a movie could. This approach works especially well for long series with long books, as each individual book can semi-easily adapt each entry into one or two seasons. These adaptations can much more accurately depict the world and characters than a film can!

Again, just look at ‘Game of Thrones’! The first few seasons of the show quickly became one of the biggest pop-culture phenomena in recent years! It brought the events of the books to life, changing details not to save time but to make the story more tolerable for a larger audience (because no one in their right mind wants to watch a twelve-year-old girl get fingered by a thirty-something-year-old man). Many people who enjoyed the books enjoyed the show, as it felt like the words had come to life!

Until the seventh and eighth seasons completely turned the fans against them. But to be fair: they did run out of books to adapt.

In short: don’t bully screenwriters for a bad adaptation. They try their best to adapt the story properly. It isn’t nearly as easy as people make it out to be. Feel free to criticize and make your opinion known. But try to understand the challenges they face rather than simply shrugging them off.


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