Don’t Judge a Book by its Movie

I admit it. I’m one of those annoying people who constantly complains about how much better the book is, after having watched the film adaptation of it. Come with me to see a movie that’s based on a book I’ve read and I’ll keep you informed throughout with insightful comments like, “That’s not how it happened in the book,” and “Oh no, they cut out my favorite part,” and “This scene is so much better in the book.”

For anyone who’s suffered through my running commentary (mostly my husband): I’m sorry.

But…I can’t help it!

Besides, 95% of the time I’m right: the book is way better.

The Golden Compass Movie 2007

Philip Pullman's Golden Compass was a fantastical novel full of magic and heart that explored dark and violent themes from the perspective of a young girl. The movie version swiped out all of the magic and heart, and the remaining skeleton was therefore both jarringly vanilla and terrifyingly grotesque.

I’ve learned over the years to accept film-versions of beloved novels as merely one person’s interpretation of a story that had to be cut down and simplified in order to fit into two hours. I’ve learned to appreciate that even if my overall opinion of the movie is just “meh,” that at least I’ll get to see the characters on the big screen, rather than just in my imagination. And I’ve lowered my expectations to the mere hope that the writers and directors and producers will get at least one scene right, and allow me to completely immerse myself in a beloved story, even if it’s just for a moment.

But more often than not, I still end up leaving the theater underwhelmed, if not seriously annoyed.

I know, Mr. Barty Crouch, Jr., I too am pissed off that the directors of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire removed all the mystery when they made it into a movie. In the very first scene they gave away the surprise ending to one of the only plot elements of the book that made sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those book purists.

I’m not going to complain if a screenwriter or actor changed the wording of one character’s line from chapter four, or if the hero had blonde hair in the book but was being portrayed by an actor with brown hair. I love it when a director intelligently cuts a scene that barely worked on the page and has no hope of translating to film (e.g., Ron Howard’s wise decision to NOT have Robert Langdon jump out of the helicopter and miraculously survive at the end of Angels and Demons), or when a screenwriter adds a bit of dialogue that is pure brilliance (e.g. screenwriter Deborah Moggach’s beautiful dialogue at the end of the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice: You may only call me “Mrs. Darcy”… when you are completely, and perfectly, and incandescently happy.” “Then how are you this evening… Mrs. Darcy? Mrs. Darcy… Mrs. Darcy…” SWOON).

I have my issues with the film adaptations of the Twilight novels, but let's face it, Jacob's "I am hotter than you" line in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse movie is an epic win.

No, in fact, it is directors (and screenwriters) that care too much about that kind of nonsense who usually make mediocre movies out of phenomenal books.

But those aren’t the worst types of directors and writers. Oh, no. The worst ones are those douchebags who have either never read the book, or hated the book, and set out to make their own version of the story and in the end produce a pile of crap that only bears a vague resemblance to the original masterpiece.  They are the ones who end up making horrible movies out of phenomenal books.

The problem is that turning a book into a movie isn’t easy. Hollywood producers seem to think it is, but it isn’t. They look at a best-selling novel and they assume that if they make a movie with the same name, they’ll make millions of dollars. Unfortunately, they are usually right.

But if only they would take the time to do it RIGHT, then they could earn millions more!

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the few film adaptations that I actually enjoyed more than the original book version. In addition to its beautiful cinematography and sets and costumes and acting, the screenwriters and director took the time to cull Tolkien's weaknesses and highlight his strengths. For example, they managed to get Frodo out of the Shire in less than 200 pages, created a Rivendell that was even more breathtaking than that described in the book, and gave the female characters something to do besides be gloriously beautiful or try to be men, all without tarnishing some of the best moments ever written.

Yes, you can make a movie out of a book (especially if said book is insanely popular amongst the teen population) and break box office records. But 20 years later, no one will care about it. The books might still retain their popularity for generations to come, but unless you do it well, the movie will be a passing fad. Case in point: Elvis. His music? Legendary. His movies? Don’t be surprised if people born after 1985 aren’t even aware of the fact that he made any.

Here’s the thing: the best books are written by fantastic authors. But book-to-movie adaptations are rarely written by equally fantastic screenwriters.

Because what works on the page is rarely going to work as is on screen. A good screenwriter has to really “get” the book, but they also need to have the know-how to translate what was so loved about a book into a screenplay that will elicit the same reaction. That means they have to tell the story in a different way, restructure a character’s development, add scenes, remove scenes, re-write dialogue, reorganize plot points, cut characters, change settings, etc. And throughout all of this, they have to retain enough of the original flavor and key moments to really do the source material justice.

Could you imagine if a screenwriter massacred Mr. Darcy’s "My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever," by changing it to “I’m still fond of you, but if you don’t feel the same, just let me know and I’ll keep my mouth shut.” Egads.

In short, it might be harder to translate a great book into a great film than it is to simply write a great film. You’ve got to do everything right when it comes to writing the screenplay, just as you would have to do for any great film, and yet there is the added pressure of having to remain true to the source material.

It is not an easy task.

And the sooner Hollywood realizes that, the better off we’ll all be.

But until they do: I urge you not to judge a book by its movie.

(Laura Sheehan’s debut novel, Dancing with Danger will be released by Red Sage Publishing on May 1, 2012).