Thursday, June 3, 2010

Making Books Into Movies

It may be obvious to say this, but books and movies are different. And turning books into movies is a tricky thing. You’ve got the problem of meeting expectations. You’ve got the problem of converting a written text into a spoken product. And then you have the question of how closely you should follow the book? That’s the one that has me bothered.

It is virtually impossible to be 100% faithful to a book when making a movie. For example, books and films work at a different pace. Books can be much more contemplative. They can be far less linear. They can delve into in-depth discussions, motivations, backgrounds, and even the thoughts of the characters, something that is very difficult for films. Indeed converting a book into a screenplay takes a specialized skill that requires the writer to force narrative into dialog.

And even when it is possible to stay entirely faithful to a book, it is still impossible to meet everyone’s expectations. Books rely on written descriptions, whereas films present complete imagery. Thus, while every reader of a book may see a particular image differently, film goers are all given the same image. Therefore, it is impossible to produce the same images that each of the readers expects.

However, before the filmmakers even face any of these problems, they face the question of how faithful they intend to remain to the book. Some films, like the first Harry Potter or Presumed Innocent or L.A. Confidential stayed fairly faithful to the books. But others don’t. For example, The Ninth Gate had almost nothing to do with the book Club Dumas, upon which it is based. Or you have Blade Runner which, thankfully, took almost nothing from Phillip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In fact, these films were so different from the books that you might not even know they were based on these books if they didn’t make this claim in the credits.

And “based on” is the key here. Blade Runner didn’t call itself Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and proclaim that it was turning the book into the film. It was upfront about taking only a few ideas from Electric Sheep and creating its own derivative work. Thus, nobody went to the theater expecting to see Electric Sheep and instead finding some bastardized, barely-recognizable version.

Other films are not so honest. I’ve been a life-long fan of The Lord of the Ring and I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve read those books. So when I heard that they were making LOTR, I cringed. I didn’t know what indignity they would do to this masterpiece, but I was prepared for almost anything. Then they sent out their actors, producers and directors to swear to us that they were going to be faithful to the book. A couple of them even claimed, “we all had copies of the book on set and whenever there was a question of how the book went, we looked it up.” That got my hopes up. But they were lying. “Faithful” in this case meant jamming a love-story into the book and discarding the one already in there, converting one character to comic relief, and other Hollywood gimmicks.

And LOTR is far from alone and it’s far from the worst. If you’re going to make a book into a movie, if you’re making “Book: The Movie,” shouldn't you do your best to remain faithful to the material? Fans of the book want to see it brought to life, they don't want to see it torn apart, twisted and recreated as something new. Don’t change the characters, don’t play with the motivations, don’t insert Hollywood gimmicks, and don’t add or remove plot points. If you just can’t help yourself and you feel hopelessly compelled to slap the book around, then stop claiming that you’re making the book into a movie. Give it a new title and tell us it's “based on” the book.

There is plenty of room for both kinds of films, those that try to faithfully bring the book to life and those that look to use the book as a base and create derivative work. But claiming that you are being faithful when you aren’t is misleading. . . it’s false advertising. It's also asinine. People loved the book for a reason. Who is the filmmaker to try to change the book? By all means, shoot it as creatively as possible, but stop trying to turn these things into something else and then pretending to the world that you stayed faithful.

It's time to stop abusing original material. If you don't love the book, then don't try to turn it into a movie. Leave that to someone who actually enjoyed the book. And stop listening to that whole industry of people who do nothing but look down upon any faithful recreation, i.e. most film reviewers. They claim that staying faithful is not "artistic." But that's just the weak thinking of a small mind. A film can be artistic whether it follows a book or not. The real challenge is bringing the book to life, which is incredibly difficult. Indeed, tinkering with a book does not make a film artistic. Artistic is writing the book in the first place, or bringing it to life on film, or using it as a starting point for something greater. But tinkering, as these small minds advocate, is not art. That's hackwork. It's the equivalent of putting a hat on the Mona Lisa rather than rendering her in 3D or taking da Vinci's style and creating a new masterpiece. . . that's art. Stuff your hat.

That’s my thinking on this.


MegaTroll said...

I agree. I like a good remake now and then, but it really ticks me off when I go see a movie that's supposed to be a book, but they turned it into God knows what! If you didn't like the book, why make it into a movie? Let somebody else do it?

And I think Hollywood is all about fraud these days. Nothing they say in their ads ever fits with the movies they put it. They will say whatever they think they need to say to get people to watch the movie. If they spent as much time making good films that they do in planning how to sell them, then they would be making great movies, but they aren't.

AndrewPrice said...

Mega, I've got nothing against remakes or even taking a book and making something fairly new and creative out of it. What I can't stand though are the people who take 90% of the book, make one or two huge changes that don't need to be made, and then claim that they're being faithful to the book.

I also can't stand the condescending attitude that somehow it's beneath filmmakers to make a book into a movie without tinkering with it.

Also, when it comes to remakes, I think Hollywood has completely lost it. They seem to be stripmining the intellectual property of the past for character names and story titles that they can "remake," which seems to be code for "make a crappy generic movie and slap some old names on the characters."

The biggest offender that always comes to mind is Starsky & Hutch, which has nothing to do with the original. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if they didn't even decided to make it into a S&H remake until after they had finished the screenplay, and then they went back and just changed the character names when they were looking for a way to generate an audience.

Ponderosa said...

It has gotten to the point that if I've already read the book – I won’t see the movie. It just not worth the collateral damage. The images and feelings from the book are just too polluted and my skepticism is sooooo high that I do not suspend my disbelief while watching the movie.

On the other hand, if I have not read the book/short story and see the movie first – it ends up being a great (usually) experience when I do read the story. I tend to view the movie as a two hour ‘commercial’ for the book.

One exception was the The Natural even after reading the story – I'm sticking with the Hollywood version, thank you very much.

Oh and what was done to Aragorn was criminal – taking him from actively pursuing his destiny to be being resigned to it. Oy.

AndrewPrice said...

Ponderosa, I agree completely about Aragorn.

When they finally started being honest about the Lord of the Rings films they made, Peter Jackson said that they "needed" to make changes to the characters because the characters in LOTR were "flat" and that LOTR "isn't really a character-based book." F*** you Jackson. Apparently, Jackson needs to be beaten over the head with melodrama to understand characters.

I'm at the same point you are regarding book-movies. If I read the book first and I really liked the book, then I probably won't see the movie because I know that they're just going to mess with it. That's actually ironic because I used to look forward to great books being made into movies. But not anymore. At this point, I cringe because I know that they're going to squeeze the book into the Hollywood formula rather than the other way around.

What's worse, there's no reason for it. I understand the needs of film and that sometimes you need to make changes to make something work when it appears on film. . . but that doesn't explain wholesale plot changes and character changes.

On the other hand, also like you, I have on several occasions been pleasantly surprised to go read books that movies were based on. For example, The Ninth Gate got me to read Club Dumas which was very good, though very unrelated to the movie.

Anonymous said...

MegaTroll -

Having listened to many director commentaries and read many interviews, I can safely say that many filmmakers also hate the way their movies are marketed. Unless you're an A-list director, you don't have much say in the process and 9 times out of 10, the marketing team and the filmmaking team are of totally different opinions.

Andrew, et al -

In my case, I've usually seen the movie before reading the novel. I went on a Michael Crichton kick for a while and after reading his stuff, I don't think the films suffered too much. The Lost World in particular wasn't a great book to begin with (and I'm still not sure which came first: the film or the book).

But take something like Sphere. The book was very good. The movie was adequate (I like it but I'm in the minority on that one... ditto for Congo). I can enjoy them both on their own terms and I would still feel the same way about the films even if they weren't based on novels.

The Andromeda Strain was a great book and a great movie. It makes an interesting case since it was adapted twice: once by Robert Wise in the 70s and once on A&E a few years ago. The A&E version introduced several new plot elements and even time travel! It was meh. But again, I would've felt that way even if it hadn't been based on a book.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I haven't read Sphere, you say it's good? I actually liked the movie a lot.

I thought the original Andromeda Strain was a great movie (never read the book). But I lost interest in the remake so badly that I stopped watching it halfway through, which is rare -- I usually slog my way through any movie at least once. And I was actually looking forward to the remake to see what they could do with it.

I agree with your point about advertising. I think the advertising is cynical and borders or fraud. But I also think that the advertising has crept backwards into the filmmaking itself. It seems that more and more films are put together for the needs of the target market rather than any sort of sense of storytelling or "art."

I know that even in old Hollywood, they would screen test, but I've never heard of a moment like today where you know that large parts of the film -- from characters, to plot points, to locations -- are included to satisfy demographics. For example, I've even seen a couple of producers discuss how they are reducing the amount of dialog to make it easier to sell films in overseas markets.

That's why there hasn't been much in the way of good movies in a while, they aren't making movies, they are manufacturing product. And rather than pleasing the story, they are trying to hit particular market elements.

StanH said...

I was fortunate with LOTR that I had read the book thirty-five years ago, so it for me made the movie great entertainment, going to what Ponderosa said. Though Jackson took artistic license (dumbass) and changed characters, left out whole chapters, IMO was a great effort in film, for the sake of entertainment. Too extend the analogy, I had read the “Hobbit” first, and they made a cartoon I the ‘70s and I went and saw it with my girlfriend, and we picked it apart…closer to the reading. One of my all time favorite movies is “Being There” I own it and have watched it many times. People have told me that it’s not completely faithful to the book, so I’ll never read that book…Peter Sellers was brilliant, I don’t want to mess with my delusion.

The movie that’s gonna test the filmmaker, and the audience…if it’s ever made “Atlas Shrugged.”

CrispyRice said...

Boy you pegged that, Andrew - they're just marketing product now. I can't tell you the last new release that I was actually excited to go see.

Anyway, funny that this article came up now. I just finished reading Agatha Christie's _And Then There Were None_ and we got the movie from Netflix. It's already ALL WRONG from how I pictured it, lol!

We'll see if it stays true to the story. So far, they've already changed character names. Why? WHY??

Oh and one more word - Dune. I will say that I did enjoy the movie, but it's got nothing on the book.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I think you're right about Atlas Shrugged. That's going to be a hard one to make, especially given the messages in the book compared to the value of Hollywood. Plus, it's not the kind of book that really lends itself to any sort of action flick, which is what they'll want to do with it.

I guess we'll see.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I agree on Dune -- I enjoyed the movie but it was nothing compared to the book.

I don't know why they would change character names in And Then There Were None? I can't think of any reason to do that.

As for the current batch of movies, I'm seeing more and more people talking about this being a horrible era for Hollywood, and I certainly think that. I can't think of the last movie that came out that excited me. And ticket sales have been pretty miserable.

Mike K. said...

Although I enjoyed the LOTR movies, there was sure a lot for a fan of the book to complain about: the change to the basic natures of Aragorn and Faramir, the tossing of the Scouring of the Shire, and the alteration of Sam and Frodo's relationship once they capture Gollum are a few.

What drives me crazy was that they increased the peril of the Ring. It was plenty dangerous in the book, yet the wise could resist its lure. They just had to amp up the threat so that even Aragorn couldn't trust himself around it.

So what are they going to do with The Hobbit? How are they going to have Bilbo slip the Ring on and off every time he needs to vanish? By making the Ring so powerful they can't walk it back to a novelty in the "prequel." So are we going to get ominous music and a demonic eye when Bilbo slips the Ring on just to surprise the dwarves? Ugh.

A book I love nearly as much as LOTR is Watership Down. If you've never seen the cartoon version, check it out. It's quite a lengthy book with a lot of sub-creative elements, and yet they did a fine job in compressing it all.

CrispyRice said...

Mike, I love Watership Down, but honestly can't remember if I've seen the movie version. I will check it out!

The only good thing I can say about LOTR is that they captured the visual feel of the movie for me very well. I just pretend it's a different story. Kind of like the Harry Potter movies.

And update on Agatha Christie - the movie is quite different. IMDB seems to indicate that the movie is based on the play version, not the novel. So, there you are!

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, I agree completely about LOTR, each of those changes was unnecessary and shouldn't have been done, especially by a group claiming that they were following the book so closely. There was just no reason to remake such a beloved book and then to make fundamental, unnecessary changes!

And you're right about The Hobbit, how are they going to go backwards now that they've made the ring out as this nearly-demonic-possession level experience.

I have to admit that I haven't read Watership Down, though I hear very good things -- and I know several people who count that among their favorite books. I need to put that on my list.

AndrewPrice said...


I remember the film And Then There Were None being very different than the book.

In terms of Harry Potter, I saw the first film before I read the book. So I took the images from there when I read the book. And I thought it was fairly close to the movie. But by the third movie for sure, the look and feel of the films had changed and the films were losing whole subplots and switching around characters and it was really bothering me.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Perhaps I understated my case. I enjoy Sphere a lot. The first half is great but after all hell breaks lose and everyone dies (except for the three actors with their names above the title!), I lose interest. And my love for Congo has been well-documented. :-)

I never read the Rings books but I thought the movies were just fine. Obviously I had no idea what was different but sometimes elements need to be changed for a variety of reasons. I do however understand your complaint re: the way it was promoted.

Ditto for Harry Potter (never read 'em and at this point I have no idea what's going on!).

As for this: As for the current batch of movies, I'm seeing more and more people talking about this being a horrible era for Hollywood, and I certainly think that. I can't think of the last movie that came out that excited me. And ticket sales have been pretty miserable.

As a film school grad, the situation does concern me. Even I don't want to spend 10 bucks on what's playing. In the last 17 months, I have been to the theater exactly three times. I'm content to wait for Netflix. If I were still in film school where we went to see movies every weekend, I'm sure I'd be going to Get Him to the Greek tomorrow. But like I said above, I can wait.

The only movies I'm even remotely excited about are The Expendables and Inception. And the new trailer for a movie called Dinner for Schmucks looks amusing. That's it.

Anonymous said...

You can see that trailer here.

Stupid, but I like it. :-)

One last thought. You complain (and rightfully so; I agree with you) about studios trying to make movies for specific market elements. On the same note, people complain that Hollywood doesn't know what people want.

On one hand, they must know something if they're armed with all this data. On the other hand, many times, no one knows what they want until it's presented to them. No one knew they needed an iPad until Steve Jobs decided to sell one. :-)

We'll have to explore this more in-depth later. And it's a problem that doesn't just affect the movie biz.

Monica said...

The most horrendous example I can think of is the Disney cartoon version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Someone needs shot for thinking that plot was in any way adaptable for a children's movie. Victor Hugo had to be turning in his grave on that one. In general I wish Hollywood would get off their lazy brains and come up with original stories instead of taking the easy way out and destroying things.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree with you about Sphere, much better movie when it's still a mystery and before "the action" starts.

As for movies being bad right now, I really am seeing a lot of people say that, and I think it's true. I can't think of a period like the present where I really didn't care about anything I saw or anything on the up-coming calendar -- there were always one or two films a year (at a minimum) that I really wanted to see. But right now, I literally can't think of the last film that I was looking forward to seeing or that I would rank as great.

And I think that's because they've changed the way they make movies -- they aren't taking chances or shooting for the moon anymore. Instead, they're looking for the safest, most lowest-common denominator stuff they can find.

You should read The Hobbit and LOTR -- fantastic books. Beautiful writing, great characters, etc.

On your last point. . . that probably needs a whole column. I'll see what I can come up with. Off the cuff, however, I would say the problem (the reason you get both complaints at the same time) is this:

(1) First, Hollywood is trying to make movies to hit certain demographics, which means they cynically include things to appeal to those groups, whether they should be in the film artistically speaking or not. A good analogy would be for McDonalds to start frosting cheeseburgers because they know that kids like burgers and kids like frosting. So putting them together should maximize the audience. . . wrong.

(2) Secondly, the markets Hollywood is trying to reach are not (for lack of a better description) "middle America" generally. Instead, they are aiming first and foremost for 13-18 year old girls, who are the largest theater audience. Then they are aiming for middle-age male DVD-buyers. Finally, they are trying to make their films appeal to a foreign audience. What this gets you is a steady stream of teeny-chick flicks and violence-porn action flicks, both with limited dialog and little that really addresses our culture because that would offend foreigners. Anything else is considered too risky these days.

On top of this, you can add the heavy reliance on proven formulas, proven (aging) actors, and special effects, and what you get is garbage.

AndrewPrice said...

Monica, I agree. And I think that until Hollywood starts taking risks and trying to be creative again, they won't be turning out good films.

As for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I agree. I read that years ago and when I heard they were turning it into a children's cartoon, I thought "you've got to be kidding me. What a heavy, unpleasant story." But then, Disney had no intention of going anywhere near the story. They just wanted to do an ugly duckling story and use a famous name and setting in the process.

Anonymous said...

Before I head to bed...

Of course, it begs the question: "How does one define middle America?" I'm not the biggest fan of the phrase simply because, while it serves as a convenient shorthand (like "elites" = "bad people"), it really does a disservice to the people who actually live there and ignores the wonderful cultural diversity and individuality that make this country great.

As I said on BH, you have people on the coasts who aren't into movies and you have movie geeks who live in the heart of Bush Country (I know a couple).

But that's all semantics. From reading articles elsewhere, there seem to be two separate lines of thought. On one hand, a "middle America movie" has to be G- or PG-rated, family-friendly, and non-offensive. On the other hand, it has to be un-PC, made for adults and not catered to kids, and has to be smart, but not too smart. And values. You can't have "middle America" without "values" (another buzzword that's lost all meaning, IMHO).

I could've phrased that better (and it's a gross simplification) but I think you get my drift. :-) And I see I have to tone down my snark again.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, You've been reading too much political whining. When I say "middle America" I'm talking about values, themes and experiences that appeal to a broad swath of America.

Take for example, The Breakfast Club. That's hardly a political movie, right? But what it is is a film about the problems faced by various teenagers in a typical American high school. These are the issues that most American teenagers have struggled with, and most Americans can sympathize with the characters. Hence, it's a film that appeals to "middle America."

And my point is that Hollywood is abandoning these kinds of "middle America" films in favor of (1) niche films, and (2) blander films that won't offend foreign audiences.

Again, consider The Breakfast Club. If you went to the studios today with this idea, they would not film it the same way. First, the characters are too white American to sell in places like India and Italy. So they will want to add characters with foreign appeal, while also removing as many traces of Americana as they can. Thus, for example, Estevez would likely be made into a soccer player rather than a wrestler. And they would probably add a Chinese computer genius and a well-Americanized Indian kid.

They would also look at the film and say, how does this appeal to 13 year old girls? Hmm. Let's remove the male bonding parts because girls won't care about that. So instead, lets make the boys into emos and let's dig Lindsey Lohan out of whatever dumpster she's sleeping in and have her reprise her Mean Girls thing again.

As for the two lines of thought you mention. . . ug. I think these people are mixing up their own preferences with the country at large. I'm not saying there aren't such things as American values, there are. But when it comes to films, Americans don't demand strict compliance to those values -- far from it. But what they do demand is something that is relevant to them, i.e. something they can relate to, and something that doesn't insult them (though it may challenge them). The rest is just posturing by groups with minority preferences that want to make it sound like the rest of the country is secretly on their side.

That said, let me point out that the verdict is coming in that political correctness no longer sells. Americans are starting to actively shun movies that appear to be politically correct. Thus, I feel comfortable concluding that political correctness does not represent "middle American values" and apparently is offensive enough that it will turn off middle America.

Joel Farnham said...


I hear you. One exception that I found was Forrest Gump. The Movie was fantastic. I was extremely happy to have found out the movie was made from a book. I bought the book, read about a third and threw it away. It was that bad.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, That definitely happens. I had the same experience with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I saw Blade Runner first and wanted to read the book from whence it came. Talk about horrible! I struggled to finish that one.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Thanks. And I guess that's the problem with being inexperienced with political stuff: not being able to discern the good stuff from the whining (or assuming the whiners represent a majority).

That's why I like coming here. :-) If you haven't noticed, I like using this site as a sounding board. It's the only place right now where I can get objective feedback about matters to my right.

Interesting thoughts about The Breakfast Club. Sometimes I have to wonder... are foreign studios concerned with catering their films to US audiences? (I doubt it.) I cannot imagine a UK film exec telling a filmmaker: "We're flipping the driving shots! Americans drive on the other side of the road and we don't want to alienate them!" :-D

And I'm enjoying these 4:00 articles. Fun stuff!

P.S. The big teen movie I tried writing years ago would probably suffer a similar fate: too many American kids (and an Israeli!), no emo whining, and it's quite pro-capitalism.

BevfromNYC said...

Hollywood just doesn't do "classics" like Hunchback, Scarlett Letter, the list can go on. English producers like Merchant/Ivory does a much better job because they have an appreciation for the written word, in my humble opinion.

And in closing - "Gone With The Wind". 'nuff said.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, The Brits have done some great classics, especially when they've done television versions. I'm thinking for example of Pride and Prejudice and a few others that are very faithful to the books and extremely well done.

Merchant/Ivory has done some very good stuff.

Like I said, there's room for both types of films out there.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Glad to hear we're providing a bit of sanity! :-)

It's actually very hard to tell who is speaking for the public and who is a blow hard in politics. Some of the reasons for this are (1) everyone who is trying to push an agenda has an incentive to make it sound like they speak for "the silent majority," no matter how "minority" their view is, (2) many people assume that everyone thinks like they do because all their friends share their views, (3) many people simple don't know how to express themselves well, so what they say sounds confused or imprecise, and (4) most of the guys you hear on the radio or on television are mixing entertainment and politics, and nothing works better for developing an audience than taking extreme and hyperbolic stands -- outrage is good entertainment.

All of this makes for a confusing mix. And then you add in the echo chamber effect and soon people are mindlessly repeating things that are really meaningless, but they swear the country is ready to rise up and push this view.

My goal here is to bring a little sanity to the discussion of politics, both by bringing in some logic, by discussing the philosophical aspects of politics, and by observing human nature as it is rather than how I want it to be. So, for example, rather than listening to what people say, you are better off seeing what people do. Thus, rather than assuming that someone talking about boycotting a film represents any sort of social trend, I look to ticket sales to see if society at large is accepting the film or rejecting it. Actions are reliable, words aren't.

In terms of foreign films, I don't think any of them worry about making their films acceptable to us because few Americans will see foreign films. That said, many foreign films are becoming disturbing like Hollywood films.

Maybe your film would be better off as a book? There seems to be a lot more leeway in the publishing world.

As for the 4:00 pm posts, we'll have to see what we can do. The summer has been very slow and we're trying to figure out a good schedule.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. I'm enjoying the 4:00 pm posts too because they're good for flexing the mind.

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