That’s what one often hears after seeing a movie. I’m not so sure that it’s always the case, though. In some cases the movie makes a much better story.
Lately I’ve been reading lots of books that have been made into movies – Carl Sagan’s Contact, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Harry Bates’ The Day the Earth Stood Still, and James Dickey’s Deliverance, among many others. Obviously, some screenplays do a much better job of taking the novel to the big screen than others. Deliverance, the movie, stuck very close to the novel. I, Robot, while an enjoyable movie, could only claim to be inspired by, or produced in the spirit of Asimov’s original.
As I’ve been reading these I’m struck by the choices that producers and screenwriters make in taking a novel to the big screen. I’m sure someone skilled in writing screenplays would be able to produce a better list, but these are a few of the more common changes I spot…
- Concessions for running time – This has got to be number one. It’s hard to convert a 900 page novel into something that will run in two hours. Something has to be omitted.
- Cerebral vs Action – Movies are action-oriented. Deep concepts are often lost (or, more often, sacrificed).
- Character compression – Sometimes characters are omitted or combined with others. I spotted this right away in Contact, but it also holds for many others, such as Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys and the movie October Sky.
- Time compression – This is only tangentially related to making a concession for running time. Often the timeline of a movie will be compressed to retain interest in the plot. For example, John Berendt’s novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil took place of a span of eight years and included four separate trials. In the movie this was compressed to a single year (and that is only evident from a very few random clues) and includes only one trial.
- Correcting anachronisms – This doesn’t mean bringing a novel set in the past to the present day (although that can be very effective.) Rather, this eliminates sticky problems with technology or culture, especially with movies set slightly in the future. This doesn’t have to mean sci-fi, though. Sometimes it takes quite awhile for a novel to make it to the big screen. The movie based on Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons eliminated the space plane, but kept the anti-matter bomb. Getting back to Contact, it refers to the first woman president prior to the year 2000, and talks about “secure telnet” rather than just using the now common phrase “Internet”. Of course, using actual footage of Bill Clinton as president created its own anachronistic problems.
These techniques I understand. What puzzles me are some of the other choices that are made, especially those that radically alter the ending of the movie. (WARNING – Spoilers) In John Grisham’s The Firm, Mitch McDeere steals tons of money from the Mob and ends the book on the run. In the movie, he gets money from the FBI, and it’s his brother that’s on the run. McDeere somehow manages to outsmart the mob and leaves Memphis to leave a (hopefully) nice quiet life. I guess these changes are in anticipation of viewer sentiment. A nice McDeere is more palatable than one that runs away with money. While the morally ambiguous may make a better story, it often doesn’t generate box office sales.
I’ve been looking for a resource that shows clear comparisons between the novel and its counterpart movie version, but I haven’t found a simple, easy-to-read one. If you do a Google search for “movie vs novel” you get lots of hits for downloadable essays, ready to submit to your teacher. About the closest I’ve found is Wikipedia. In most cases the entry for a title is followed by (novel) or (film). In the case of The Firm (1993 film), there is a section that describes differences from the novel in depth.
Sometimes these adaptations work and sometimes they don’t. I couldn’t tell you which I like better – the novel or film version of Contact. Both presented the same essential message, albeit with some alteration. Same goes for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Even The Firm, with its altered ending was enjoyable in both formats. Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was less so, because to made of the bright, hopeful parts of the trilogy dark.
I think it makes a difference whether or not the book is read before viewing the movie or after. A book may seem to drag after the fast-paced action of the movie. I’ve also heard some say, “Please don’t ruin my favorite book by making a movie of it.” One develops mental imagery that won’t match the movie visual.
It also depends on the starting material. The Day the Earth Stood Still was a dreadful short story, but the 1951 movie (no remakes, please) was an excellent film with a completely different message.
It often boils down to a matter of personal preference. However, don’t take my opinion! Go grab a book and read a good movie.