“Great literature is not great literature until it’s been made into a movie.” – Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 7, 2013
There’s a deleted scene from Pulp Fiction (included in the published screenplay and among the DVD’s special features) in which Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace first meets John Travolta’s Vincent Vega and videotapes an interview with him, with the intention of getting to know him before they head out for the evening. She explains that one of her standard questions in these interviews is whether the subject is a Beatles person or an Elvis person. “Now Beatles people can like Elvis, and Elvis people can like The Beatles,” she says. “But nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere, you have to make a choice. And that choice tells you who you are.”
I feel the same way about books and movies. You can like both, but you can’t like them equally. Maybe you think you can. But you can’t. You’re either a book person or a movie person.
Way back in 2011, while I was putting this blog together and getting familiar with WordPress, I came across a post titled, “Why I Hate (Even Good) Movies Based on Books,” in which the blogger, R.H. Culp, expressed his frustration with books being adapted so often to film. As a writer of books himself, Mr. Culp is clearly a book person, and was asking why a book couldn’t be allowed to simply exist as a book. I wanted to leave a comment, but my thoughts were too long and my time too short, so I decided I’d just save it for my own eventual post on the topic.
Six years later…
I love to read, but it’s obvious to anyone who knows me and most who see me pass them on the street that I’m a movie person. And as a movie person, I have to start by pointing out just some of the movies we wouldn’t have if books were never adapted for the screen. The Godfather. The Wizard of Oz. Gone With the Wind. Jaws. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Silence of the Lambs. The Princess Bride. Apocalypse Now. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Shawshank Redemption. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Die Hard. The Lord of the Rings. The Graduate. Blade Runner. Mary Poppins. Dracula. Frankenstein (and by extension, Young Frankenstein). Brokeback Mountain. The Exorcist. Nearly every film made by Stanley Kubrick, including Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. More than half of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, including Rebecca, Psycho, Vertigo and Rear Window. The entire James Bond series.
I could pretty much rest my case right there and feel that I had more than justified the practice of adapting books into movies. The topic, however, merits more than that, and my intention is not to deliver a glib rebuke of Mr. Culp’s position. I understand his feelings. After all, this is a popular and enduring debate that dates back to the Stone Age, when an ambitious caveman first took the symbols chiseled on a stone tablet and translated the text into a cave drawing.
A book person might look at the list of titles I offered and stand their ground that we would all be just fine if these stories existed in print only, never having made the jump to celluloid. But come on; show me a person who wants to live in a world without The Godfather and The Princess Bride on film, and I’ll show you a person without a soul. Also, before we get too far along, don’t we have to expand the scenario to television? Legendary miniseries such as Roots and Lonesome Dove are based on books, as are some of today’s most popular shows, including Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Outlander. Even The Wire, regarded by many as the greatest TV series of all time, grew out of the David Simon books The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood — itself the basis of an HBO miniseries that preceded The Wire — and Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which also inspired NBC’s critically adored series Homicide: Life on the Street.
THE RIGHTS STUFF
In fact, David Simon offers a fine jumping off point for this topic. Because the answer to Mr. Culp’s question about why books can’t just remain books begins with the authors themselves. No matter how much Hollywood wants to buy, if the author doesn’t want to sell, the story ends there. Some writers are involved in the adaptation process and some stay away, but all of them have to sign on the dotted line. And there are practical reasons for them to do so. In a Q&A session with a class at Eugene Lang College, which is included among the extra features on The Wire‘s third season DVD set, Simon addresses this:
Why do it? It’s gonna get done. If somebody wants to do it, the author will always sell. Or invariably. It’s very rare when the author will not, because it’s hard getting paid as a writer. In the beginning, what it is, is you’re really just trying to extend the shelf life — literally the shelf life — of your book. It’s so hard to sell books in America, because people don’t read. I mean, Homicide sold 30,000 in hardback, maybe, and another 20 in trade paperback, and then the show came on the air. And by the time the show finished its run, it had sold like, 400,000 paperback. It’s like, ‘Oh, if there’s a TV show about it I’ll read it.’ So that’s the economy of scale as a writer. So if you can get your stuff made, if you can get a bad movie made about your book, you’re gonna do it. Anything will go from print to screen if they pay you money.
Tom Perrotta, the writer whose books have been adapted into films Election and Little Children and the HBO series The Leftovers, said in an interview with New York Magazine that even the decades-long, unsuccessful efforts to turn his first novel The Wishbones into a film paid him more money than he’d made doing anything else. “It went from a frustrating thing to an insurance policy,” he said. All six of Perrotta’s novels have been optioned for film or TV development. He collected an Oscar nomination for co-writing the Little Children screenplay, and along with Damon Lindelof of Lost fame, he is the co-creator and co-showrunner of The Leftovers, which enjoyed a well-regarded second season last year.
Simon is also correct that to a certain extent, the release of a movie or TV show based on a book does drive people who haven’t previously read the source material to check it out. Mr. Culp’s main concern seems to be the opposite: that the existence of a movie deters people from reading the book. That is undoubtedly true for many people, but it’s also undoubtedly true that many people will read the book because a film is coming out. Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl was a massively popular best-seller right out of the gate, and director David Fincher’s 2014 film version (adapted by Flynn herself) renewed the book’s popularity. It was back atop best-seller lists in the paperback categories when the movie came out, and while this is hardly a scientific statistic, I’ll just toss out there that at the time of the movie’s release, there were 273 copies of Gone Girl across the entire Los Angeles Public Library system, and every single one of them was checked out or on a hold shelf awaiting pick-up. Granted, Flynn’s novel was already a popular hit and the involvement of talents like Fincher and Ben Affleck assured high awareness of the movie. Not every book that gets adapted is a huge hit, and not every adaptation gets the kind of high-profile release of Gone Girl. But does anyone think the book would have been in such demand at that time if there weren’t a movie about to land?
Another reason authors might be willing to see their work translated for the screen is for the opportunity to dive even deeper into a world they created. This tends to be true more for TV adaptations than films, since TV’s ongoing, episodic structure more closely resembles that of a novel, and allows more time for story and character development than a movie limited to a few hours. After years of futile efforts to adapt Jonathan Franzen’s award-winning 2001 novel The Corrections into a film, super-producer Scott Rudin brought the project to HBO for development as a series. Franzen, who had not been involved with the attempts at a film adaptation, came onto the project to work alongside Rudin and Noah Baumbach, who was brought on to direct the series and co-write it with Franzen. The author enjoyed the process of re-visiting the book for a new medium. “Minor characters in the book are becoming very substantial characters in the show,” he told New York Magazine. “It’s fun. I’m coming back to the book as a stranger, essentially twelve years after I wrote it, and I’m filling in blanks that were deliberately blanks, but I’m having the pleasure of filling them in.” The creators planned a four-season run of ten episodes each, and shot the pilot in 2012 with a sterling cast featuring Chris Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans and Greta Gerwig. Unfortunately — or fortunately, for those who feared another beloved book being corrupted — HBO decided to pass on the series, feeling that the narrative structure — which frequently shifted between time periods and required different actors playing different characters at different ages — was too complicated. Having been deemed unfilmable, The Corrections stands as a feather in the cap for purists. Still, the fact that Franzen was enthusiastically involved in the attempt is exciting to consider.
Another author who is immersed in the TV adaptation of his work is The Walking Dead‘s Robert Kirkman, a writer and executive producer on AMC’s gargantuan hit. And the interesting twist here — which also applies to the equally popular Game of Thrones — is that the series on which the show is based has not yet concluded. Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics launched in 2003 and are still going strong. Fans of the comics who also follow the show are well aware by now, as the show’s seventh season is in production, that Kirkman is not afraid to change things up between page and screen. While the overarching plot of the show has followed that of the books, some characters who have died on the page remain alive on the show, and vice versa. Things that happen to one character in the comics might happen to a different character on TV. In an interview with TV Guide following a Season Three episode in which a main character on the show was killed despite still being alive in the comics, Kirkman said:
I think fans of the comics recognize that this show is a different animal…There are going to be differences from time to time and some big differences. People know the comic still exists, and I want people to experience both and get a somewhat different experience. I think it’s cool that there are differences that are going to make the show as dramatic, startling and unpredictable as the comic book was the first time you read it. That’s really what we’re going after.
The timeline of The Walking Dead comics is far beyond the events currently playing out on the TV show, but the same can not be said for Game of Thrones. As I’ve covered in some of my posts about that series, the TV show has now caught up to the novels, with the newly concluded season being the first to venture into new territory unfamiliar to readers. Like Kirkman with The Walking Dead, author George R.R. Martin is an executive producer on Game of Thrones; unlike Kirkman, he isn’t involved in the day-to-day running of the show. He has a producing credit, but other than writing the teleplay for a few episodes, he leaves the show in the hands of its creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
I always find it fascinating when novelists adapt their own material for the screen. Flynn’s script for Gone Girl faithfully follows the book’s plot, with the film version featuring the necessary trims and adjustments that must be made to accommodate the medium’s time constraints. There’s some valuable material that gets excised, and some that has little effect on the film. On the whole though, Flynn doesn’t do anything radical to her source material. The same can not be said for Scott Smith, who wrote the 1993 novel A Simple Plan and then adapted it into a 1998 movie directed by Sam Raimi and starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda. What’s so intriguing about Smith’s adaptation is how wildly it veers from his book. The film actually follows the book quite closely up to a certain major event that occurs in the middle of the story. From that point, the film radically diverges from the book, and although they eventually come back around to the same place for the climax — with one significant difference resulting from that mid-story divergence — the pathways are shockingly different. I’ve always wondered why Smith deviated so markedly from his novel, and whether the decision was based on how the novel’s events would come across on film vs. his own desire to try something different. Was the film’s direction something he considered for the novel but ultimately abandoned? I’d love to know, but have never been able to find any interviews with Smith discussing his adaptation.
So whether their reasons are financial or creative, authors seem to have no problem, for the most part, allowing their work to be translated to the screen. Furthermore, there are no shortage of filmmakers looking to bookshelves for great stories they can bring to life. I mentioned Stanley Kubrick at the beginning of the post, noting that almost every one of the director’s films was based on a book. He was a voracious reader, consuming all kinds of genres and styles, and was always reading with an eye toward what might make a good film. Diane Johnson, who co-wrote the screenplay for The Shining with Kubrick, said in a 1998 interview with film historian and critic Michel Ciment, “Kubrick always said it was better to adapt a book rather than write an original screenplay, and that you should choose a work that isn’t a masterpiece so you can improve upon it. Which is what he’s always done, except with Lolita.” People can argue about whether Kubrick’s films were always improvements upon their source material, but whether they were better than their books or not, his filmography boasts one classic after another. Perhaps his choice to adapt rather than start from scratch had to do with high standards for coming up with a great story. In a 1972 interview with Ciment, following the release of A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick said:
A good story is a kind of a miracle, and I think that is the way I would describe [Anthony] Burgess’s achievement with the novel. A Clockwork Orange has a wonderful plot, strong characters and clear philosophy. When you can write a book like that, you’ve really done something. On the other hand, writing the screenplay of the book is much more of a logical process — something between writing and breaking a code. It does not require the inspiration or the invention of the novelist. I’m not saying it’s easy to write a good screenplay. It certainly isn’t, and a lot of fine novels have been ruined in the process.
“THE BOOK WAS BETTER”
For book fans, that’s the concern: that the movie will ruin the book. Or if not ruin — since the book is still there to be enjoyed — the movie will be a disappointment. “The book is always better.” Isn’t that the most common statement made whenever this topic comes up? Well let’s be real…it’s not always better. We all know that. Right now, I’ll bet you can think of at least one example of a movie or TV show that you think is better than the book on which it was based. Go ahead. Mention it below in the comments section. I have a few that come immediately to mind. Field of Dreams, adapted by Phil Alden Robinson from the book Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. Wonder Boys, adapted by Steve Kloves from the book by Michael Chabon. Never Let Me Go, adapted by Alex Garland from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The English Patient, adapted by Anthony Minghella from the novel by Michael Ondaatje. The aforementioned A Simple Plan. These are movies that, for me, surpass the books they’re based on. (With the exception of Never Let Me Go, I read all of them after seeing the movies, and in all fairness, I do wonder if I’d still prefer the adaptations had I read the books first.) I never read The Bridges of Madison County, but from what I heard, it was a cheese-fest of the first order. Yet somehow screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and director Clint Eastwood turned it into a beautifully nuanced film with great performances from Eastwood and Meryl Streep. And good luck finding someone who will tell you that the novels Jaws or The Godfather are anywhere near as impressive as the films they became. I haven’t read The Godfather, but its reputation as a trashy beach read is well-known. I’ve read Jaws, and what’s most interesting about it is seeing how it’s different from Steven Spielberg’s film. (Lest you think I’m insulting authors Mario Puzo and Peter Benchley by maligning their books, bear in mind that both novelists co-wrote the respective screen adaptations.)
It may be rare that the movie or show is better than the book, but more often than people probably admit, the truth is that the book and the adaptation are both good. Different, but good. I could cite countless examples, and I’m sure you could too. One that comes quickly to mind is Misery. A faithful adaptation, but there are enough differences to make both worth your time. Chunks of Stephen King’s novel are comprised of the manuscript that the character Paul Sheldon is being forced to write by his rescuer/captor Annie Wilkes. So we get to taste the world of Paul’s book series which has inspired such demented devotion in Annie. Legendary Hollywood screenwriter and raconteur William Goldman wrote the script for Misery, and to open up the story beyond the confines of Annie’s house, he created the characters of Buster and Virginia, a married sheriff and deputy who work the case of Paul’s disappearance. In the novel, there is only a state trooper who shows up at one point to look for Paul. One of the biggest differences — though not really too big — is the punishment Annie exacts on Paul when she learns he has managed to escape his bedroom and wander the house while she was out. The punishment is essentially the same — she takes his legs out of commission through a process called hobbling. But the method changes. In the novel, armed with a blowtorch and an axe, she chops off his feet. In the movie, she smashes his legs with a sledgehammer. Goldman, in his book Four Screenplays, writes about first reading Misery and his reaction to the hobbling. “I could not fucking believe it. I mean, I knew she wasn’t going to tickle him with a peacock feather, but I never dreamt such behavior was possible. And I knew I had to write the movie. That scene would linger in audiences’ memories as I knew it would linger in mine.”
Goldman goes on to explain, however, that George Roy Hill, director of The Sting and Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who was set to direct Misery, left the project because he felt chopping Paul’s feet was too extreme. He couldn’t do it. Goldman, convinced that the scene was the key to the whole movie’s success, refused to take it out. Rob Reiner, initially just a producer on the film, stepped in to direct after Hill departed. But everyone connected to the film — other than Goldman — was now having second thoughts about the hobbling scene. Goldman couldn’t believe it, and held fast. He says that Warren Beatty, who was in talks to play Paul, articulated the problem with the scene as King and Goldman had written it. “Beatty’s point was this,” Goldman explains. “He had no trouble losing his feet at the ankles. But know that, if you did it, the guy would be crippled for life and would be a loser.” Once a scene like that comes to life from the page, it’s visceral in a different way, and the filmmakers’ fear was that while cutting off Paul’s feet works in the book, movie audiences would reject it. Ultimately, despite Goldman’s vehement protestations, Reiner and co-producer Andrew Scheinman did some script revisions and replaced the hobbling scene of King’s book with the one that made it into the movie. Goldman was livid. He writes:
The lopping scene was gone, now and forever replaced by the ankle-breaking scene. I hated it, but there it was.
I am a wise and experienced hand at this stuff, and I know when I am right.
And you know what?
I was wrong. It became instantly clear when we screened the movie.
What they had done — it was exactly the same scene except for the punishment act — worked wonderfully and was absolutely horrific enough. If we had gone the way I wanted, it would have been too much. The audience would have hated Kathy [Bates] and, in time, hated us.
If I had been in charge, Misery would have been this film you might have heard of but would never have gone to see. Because people who had seen it would have told you to ride clear. What makes a movie a hit is not the star and not the advertising but this: word of mouth.
Goldman’s story — and Beatty’s point contained within — gets to one of the main reasons that things often change between page and screen. Readers use their imagination to fill in the details provided by the writer, but once characters and situations come to life and no longer reside in the mind’s eye of the individual, everything from tone to performance can necessitate a change. Alexander Payne’s film version of Perrotta’s novel Election features a different ending than the book, which Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor addressed in a 1999 interview with Scenario Magazine. “We loved that ending in the book, and we shot it and it’s fine,” Payne said. “But the book is more ruminative and quiet and allowed that ending more. The movie came out too funny and too fast-paced and too cynical, and that ending just felt wrong.”
“Which is ironic,” Taylor added, “because the ending is one of the things that I love most about the book and was what convinced me that it was worth making as a movie. Because in spite of all this comedy, there was this beautiful moment of grace at the end…” After the movie was edited and shown to preview audiences, the production company offered Payne and Taylor the chance to come up with a new ending if they wanted, so they took the time to figure out what they would have devised had it been an original script. What they came up with is a perfect fit for the movie they made, and the change speaks to how a story takes on a life of its own when it makes the transition from page to screen.
Scott Frank, the screenwriter behind two of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations — Get Shorty and Out of Sight — also speaking to Scenario in 1999, discussed how a character who died in the book Out of Sight remained alive in the movie…though the change came late.
Right up until the very last draft. He was killed in the script, and at the last-minute [producer] Danny DeVito said to me: we just can’t kill this guy. You like the character so much, it’s such a left turn to kill him, given the way the movie’s evolved. It’s also for no reason…It’s one of those things where I was kicking myself for not having thought of it earlier…I just felt that audiences, having invested so much in these people, to get the rug pulled out from under them was too much. And on-screen, they’re alive in a way that they’re not in the book.
MAKING IT WORK
That last point connects back to what Warren Beatty was trying to say about the Paul Sheldon character in Misery, and why chopping off his feet in the film would have been a mistake. Movies come alive in a way that books do not, and sometimes changes need to be made to compensate for that difference. On the other hand, changes often happen for more mundane and practical reasons involving budget, logic and time constraints. In Goldman’s novel The Princess Bride, Inigo and Fezzik must make their way through the Zoo of Death — an underground cavern with multiple levels, each containing some of the world’s most dangerous animals — in order to rescue Westley from Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen. But the setting was too elaborate for the film’s budget, so it was replaced with the more modest Pit of Despair. Similarly, Game of Thrones faced budget limitations when realizing the second book/season’s massive Battle of Blackwater, and while they were still able to create a spectacular sequence that had no problem conveying the scope and scale of the clash, fans of the book missed the massive chain which is pulled from the water as a defense against an invading fleet. The effect was simply too expensive to include.
In the same interview with Scenario previously referenced, Out of Sight‘s Scott Frank explained how the need to streamline certain elements of the book for logic’s sake led to some of his decisions in adapting it. Almost all of the main characters in the film serve time together at the same prison, but in reality, given their varied crimes, they would not have been in the same place. “Even though it’s not real, a white-collar criminal wouldn’t have been in jail with those guys. But I thought there were too many different prisons in the story, and people were in prison at different times. It was hard for me to keep it straight, in the book. I thought the only thing to do was to visually see them there, in one prison, all together.”
Then there’s the issue of time. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in J.K. Rowling’s series, spends a great deal of time examining Dumbledore’s past and how it impacts Harry’s current mission. Yet even with the novel translated across two movies, not all of that history and backstory could be covered, partly for time reasons and partly because it’s material that Harry is wrestling with internally. The flow of the movie would be interrupted if we kept flashing back to a younger Dumbledore as a way to include what seemed like crucial intel, not to mention that in doing that, we would lose the filter of Harry’s perspective on his mentor. So instead, screenwriter Steve Kloves — with one simple line of dialogue from Harry — erased the need for all of that. One character challenges Harry to confront all the ways in which Dumbledore may have failed him and all the secrets he kept from him. Harry responds, “I trust the man I knew.” That’s it. Harry can move forward toward accomplishing his goal, and the film is freed from having to address chapters worth of material that would not necessarily work on film. There is a cost to this, of course. We wind up with a less intriguing, less enjoyably complex story than what Rowling offers on the page. But the movie can forge ahead with thrills and pleasures of its own, and the books are there for our enjoyment anytime we want to dig deeper.
Logic and time tend to be the primary concerns that necessitate streamlining a novel into a movie. Screenwriters often talk about finding the central idea or theme around which the movie version of the story can be built, and how that often boils down to their own interpretation. In his Scenario interview, Scott Frank explained this as it pertained to Get Shorty and Out of Sight:
I think that the key to any adaptation is to find out what the running theme of the book is. The thing with [Elmore] Leonard’s books, and the challenge of adapting them, is that it’s all so delicious. When you begin the process, you just love everything you read. It’s so much fun that you want to keep it all in the film. So you need some sort of template, and the only template you’ve got is: what does this mean to me? If you’re just trying to preserve the book, you get a real flat version for the movie. So you have to filter it through your own point of view and make it your own, to some degree; otherwise it has no shape. My first pass with his books has always produced long drafts. I would begin with a 180-or-so-page-long draft, where I would have virtually everything that’s in the book, in the script.
So you find out what the book is about for you. Everything else has to fall away. In Get Shorty, it was the idea of everyone coming to Los Angeles to reinvent themselves. This is a city of reinvention. Whether you’re a waiter who wants to be an actor, or a writer who wants to be a director, or, in the case of Get Shorty, a coke dealer who wants to be a producer. It’s about how people are constantly looking at themselves as something other than who they are. So it’s very simple — anything that isn’t about that idea just falls away. In the case of Out of Sight it was about a road not taken. It was about a guy who thought: what if I hadn’t been a bank robber? I could be with a woman like this, I could have that kind of life…In adapting the novel, anything that was not about “the road not taken” fell away.
This approach will often eliminate parts of a book that readers might love — Peter Jackson’s Frodo-centric approach to The Fellowship of the Ring meant that fan favorite character Tom Bombadil had to be jettisoned — but asking people to sit down and watch a story unspool on a screen is not the same as asking them to read it at their own pace. Onscreen tellings require a forward momentum; the page can take its time.
PROSE AND CONS
There are two things books can do that screen adaptations will never replicate: they can take you inside the head and the thought-process of a character (something no amount of voiceover narration, however skillfully deployed, can truly match), and they can revel in the power of the written word. If a novel is wonderfully written, that particular characteristic can not be translated to the screen. Not that people don’t try. Bryan Fuller, showrunner of Hannibal, explained that he and his writing staff would sometimes repurpose Thomas Harris’ prose as dialogue. “We put it in actors’ mouths because it was so beautifully written and we wanted the DNA of Thomas Harris to be present in all of the episodes…The text and the fetishization of the text was really all about the want to honor Thomas Harris in this adaptation.” Still, good writing itself logically can’t make the jump from page to screen, a point well made by essayist Calum March in a 2013 Paris Review piece about an attempt to bring J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise to the screen (an attempt which was just realized this year). He uses some brief examples from the book to illustrate how certain things Ballard is able to convey with words do not have an equivalent in the language of cinema. Yet just because stirring prose can’t be replicated onscreen doesn’t mean there can not still be value in an adaptation of the material. Several of Ballard’s works have been brought to the screen, the most notable examples being Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and David Cronenberg’s Crash, both of which succeeded on their own merits, whatever may have been — as Marsh titled his essay — lost in translation. Marsh humorously contrasts his Ballard examples with excerpts from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, where the writing is flat and descriptive, leaving the filmmakers to do little other than cast appropriate actors and follow the direction of the action.
Seeing as the pleasure of exquisite writing is nearly impossible to carry over in adapting a book to the screen, filmmakers who adapt books are likely responding to a great story that they want to see brought to life. Studio executives vying for the rights to the Harry Potter series probably saw dollar signs, but producer David Heyman, screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus were surely drawn to Rowling’s story and its cinematic possibilities. Or perhaps the response is to a great character, above all. In discussing Appaloosa on film critic Elvis Mitchell’s podcast The Treatment, Ed Harris — who directed, co-wrote and starred in the 2008 Western — said that he had brought Robert B. Parker’s book on a family vacation for some pleasure reading, and asked his agent to inquire about the rights after reading only a few scenes, so taken was he by the easygoing friendship between the two main characters. He also estimates that 85% of the dialogue in the movie came right out of the book. (It’s certainly easier to carry that from book to film than it is the kind of descriptive writing that March examines in his Ballard essay.)
Conversely, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen — also on The Treatment — talked about the need to eliminate much of the dialogue when adapting Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, particularly for the character of Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem. Chigurh doesn’t say much in the movie, whereas in the book he speaks quite a bit. But Joel points out that McCarthy offers little-to-no physical description of the character on the page, which creates a sense of mystery to him. Once an actor is cast, that mystery goes away. In order to preserve the character’s enigmatic nature for the film, the Coens stripped away much of his dialogue, allowing his ghoulish physicality to accomplish on-screen what his dialogue did on the page. (Give the full half-hour interview a listen for some terrific insight on the process of adapting McCarthy’s book.) This is also a reminder that we don’t have to make a choice between the book and the film. Chances are the two will be different enough to offer distinct rewards. Here, we have one character — Anton Chigurh — made equally yet uniquely compelling in the hands of two different storytellers in two different mediums.
FROM SCREEN TO PAGE
In my college screenwriting class, our professor had us examine the adaptation of Michael Tolkin’s novel The Player. We started by reading the book, then read the screenplay which Tolkin wrote, then watched Robert Altman’s film. It was the traditional way to experience the adaptation trajectory. I had already seen (and loved) The Player, however, so as I read the book, the movie was in my head. It was not the first time I’d read a book after seeing the movie it became, but it was the first time I realized doing it this way might well be the key to loosening up about books making the jump to the screen. This isn’t the order in which it’s usually done, and it’s an unrealistic scenario for the avid reader who is likely to have finished a book long before its movie comes out; maybe long before they know it’s even going to be a movie. But for those of us who move more slowly, and who might be inspired to finally pick up a book they’ve heard good things about because they know the movie is coming and they want to read the book beforehand, I would suggest trying it the other way around. When you read a book after seeing the movie, the story opens up instead of closing in. Movies are a purer distillation of story/plot and character arc, where a book allows you to swim in the details…and as March would point out in the case of something like High-Rise, enjoy high-quality writing. Even though you’ll still see the story unfold differently, somehow it doesn’t seem so problematic when things are expanding rather than contracting. We tend to be unforgiving toward the movie when it veers from the source material, yet when we go from screen to page, those same alterations are more easily accepted. The differences make the book seem more like an interesting alternative than a bastardization.
Admittedly, this approach has its downsides. What if you don’t like the movie? Are you going to invest the time to read the book — which you might find more enjoyable — if the movie didn’t satisfy you? More significantly, reading the book after seeing the movie undoubtedly robs you of the imagination you bring to the experience. I tried to read The Shining years ago, but Jack Nicholson’s performance from the movie loomed large in my mind. Knowing that Stephen King’s book was quite different from Kubrick’s film — and that one of King’s chief complaints about the adaptation is that Nicholson seemed off-kilter from the get-go, whereas the character was supposed to be a decent man who succumbs to the hotel’s forces — the vision of Nicholson became distracting, so I put the book aside. For many active readers, the great pleasure of sitting down with a book is conjuring the world and the characters in their own imagination. If you read the book after seeing the movie, you’re sacrificing some, if not all, of that experience, and that’s understandably too big a price to pay for someone who loves to read.
I’ve never pictured deeply detailed images of characters while reading, so this is generally less of an issue for me. Being a movie person, my imagination more often manifests by casting the book in my head. Even at age 15 or so, while reading Jurassic Park (I don’t remember if I knew it was movie-bound when I read it), I was assigning actors to the parts. For what it’s worth, my Jurassic Park featured Nick Nolte, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ron Silver, John Heard, Hume Cronyn and Mercedes Ruehl. (Such a movie nerd. Seriously, how many 15 year-olds knew John Heard, Ron Silver or Hume Cronyn by name?) The screen first/book second formula has generally worked for me, and I’ve been championing it ever since that experience with The Player.
In fact, my first encounter with the differences between books and movies also came about in this manner, and it happens to connect with another central concern Mr. Culp’s blog post expressed, which is the idea that kids in particular might be less inclined to read if watching the film is an alternative. But I think his fears for that demographic are unfounded. There are such omnipresent efforts to promote literacy and reading amongst children — campaigns conducted through schools, daycare, and libraries — that when kids have the opportunity and ability to read, they appear to do so with great enthusiasm. When I was in third or fourth grade, the class was assigned a book report, and I decided to read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I chose it because I loved the movie, The Secret of NIMH, and was curious about the book. What I found in the pages of Robert C. O’Brien’s novel was a story vastly different from that of the film. Characters from the movie were portrayed differently in the book, events were different, entire elements were missing…and none of this bothered me. On the contrary, those differences fascinated me.
That brings up another important point to remember when considering adaptations, which is that plenty of movies adapted from novels are barely adaptations at all, but rather nearly original concepts that are only loosely tied to or inspired by their source material. I encountered an excellent example of this around age 11, courtesy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It was another movie I loved enough to eagerly seek out the novel from which it was adapted, Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, by Gary K. Wolf. I was surprised to discover that the book told an entirely different story in which not even the concept was the same. The cartoon characters of the movie were, in the book, stars of comic strips. When they opened their mouths to speak, a word balloon would rise above them; their words had to be read, not heard. All the book and the movie have in common are characters named Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit, Eddie Valiant and Baby Herman. Nothing more. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is, for all intents and purposes, an original screenplay.
The same is true of the Jason Bourne series. Although each of the existing films does take its name from one of Robert Ludlum’s novels, there is almost zero connection between the books and the films. Writer/director Tony Gilroy, who wrote all four films in the series prior to this summer’s Jason Bourne, had this to say on The Treatment in 2007, after the release of The Bourne Ultimatum: “The first 15 minutes of the first film is sort of around the book, until you get to a safe deposit box in Switzerland. And after that, it has nothing to do with anything, anything to do with Ludlum. So once we’d finished the first film, no one ever thought that there would be a sequel…there was no intention of having it go forward, and by that point we were so far afield of the whole cosmology of what the books were about, there was no relationship whatsoever. So it’s pretty much original material all the way on out.”
Variety recently published a 10th anniversary retrospective on the making of The Devil Wears Prada, which details that Fox 2000 bought the rights to Laura Weisberger’s book before it was published, based on the first 100 pages of the manuscript as well as an outline of the full story. It’s not at all uncommon for studios or individual filmmakers to purchase the rights to a book before it hits shelves, but in the case of Prada, the adaptation process began particularly early, before Weisberger had even finished writing. Once it was released and became a bestseller, more details from the book’s plot were worked into the script. Yet the movie still shifted direction from the book, which is a revenge fantasy about a put-upon assistant striking back against her oppressive boss. Fox eventually hired David Frankel to direct the movie, partly because they were impressed with his idea that the material should be less about retribution and more about the sacrifices made by the women working at the story’s iconic fashion magazine. Frankel and Fox brought in Aline Brosh McKenna to write a new draft of the script, and the result is a movie that tells Weisberger’s story filtered and reshaped through the vision of the filmmakers. It goes back to what Scott Frank (and so many other screenwriters) say about determining their own take on the story. In the case of The Devil Wears Prada, it was less about finding the book’s through line than it was looking at the story from another angle, but the adaptation process follows the same course either way. The filmmakers have a strong response to the material and a desire to see it brought to life, but need to find a way for that material to work cinematically while perhaps also integrating their own ideas. (In a post a few years ago, I brought up a book called The Manikin, and how I think it could be a terrific movie even though I would make a couple of significant changes in order to deal with plot developments that I found hard to believe.)
Stories like Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games are very specific narratives that are obviously going to result in reasonably faithful adaptations that translate the original story for the screen, but many movies use their source material as a mere inspiration or jumping off point for something almost entirely new. Examples like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Bourne movies demonstrate that this can work out perfectly well.
BUT DON’T TAKE MY WORD FOR IT
For anyone who likes to read and watch movies, and finds this topic at all interesting, the best examination of the adaptation process may be John Irving’s memoir, My Movie Business. Irving’s books have been adapted into the films The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Door in the Floor, Simon Birch and The Cider House Rules. That last title is the focus of My Movie Business. It’s the only one of his novels that Irving adapted for the screen himself, and in My Movie Business he delves into the experience of translating the book over the course of a decade, as it evolved dramatically each time a new director came onto the project. At 170 pages, it’s a slender volume that serves as a quick read and an indispensable glimpse into the art of adaptation. Irving also talks a lot about the genesis of Cider House the novel, because it was a personal story inspired by the work of his grandfather, and therefore his investment in the material and his feeling about what was lost and changed in reshaping it for the screen took on additional significance and informed his thoughts on how it was brought to the screen.
Interestingly, Irving says that of the four major iterations the story went through during years of development, his favorite was the one that strayed furthest from his novel. When the director he was working with at the time would propose changes, he was rarely open to them at first. But he always came around to trying them, and often found that the story and the characters became stronger. The movie that eventually got made more closely resembled the novel, and Irving admits that he loves the finished film, but he was ready to take it in another direction. If the guy who wrote the book was open to radically changing it, can’t we the readers be more open to the idea?
Look, I’ll be the first to say that Hollywood is sorely in need of more original stories. But I’m much less turned off by a movie or show based on a book than I am by remakes, reboots, reimaginings and sequels. There are good examples in all of those categories, but the bad and unnecessary far outweigh the good and worthwhile. The translation of a book into a movie doesn’t strike me as nearly the bankruptcy of creativity as launching the third iteration of Spider-Man in a decade, or continuing to churn out Transformers movies, which somehow keep making millions of dollars even though no one seems to like them.
So as far as I’m concerned, books are fair game. I want them to be adapted with thought and care, but I try to be understanding about the necessary changes that will allow them to work onscreen. Adaptations are always going to involve loss. It’s unavoidable, and that’s a starting point we have to accept. To those like Mr. Culp who would say we don’t need to start in the first place, I’d counter that something new and uniquely enthralling can be born out of the disassembly and reconstruction that goes into adapting a book for the screen. A book and its filmed adaptation can both be terrific despite their inevitable differences. Sometimes the book will be better, sometimes the movie or show will be better, and sometimes they’ll both be pretty damn good. Just because a novel has the luxury of diving into details that wouldn’t work for a movie, or is written with a flair for description or language that can not be re-created on film, that doesn’t mean the movie is an inferior method of delivering the same story. The movie version might offer indelible performances, a breathtaking visual realization, or a soaring music score. Instead of automatically proclaiming that the book is always better, you need to shift your expectations. Adjust your perspective. Open yourselves up to the new interpretation that doesn’t replace, but rather compliments, the source material. To the book people among us: you need to adapt. Admit it: the world is a better place with Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone, Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya, Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins…