K&M Commentary: The Movie vs. The Book

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I’ve always been fascinated by the different reactions people have to movies based on popular books. In many ways the passion of fans towards some literature rivals that of any movie. So naturally whenever a film is made based on a popular novel or book series you’re going to get a plethora of responses. But is it fair to hold a movie in contempt for steering away from the source material? Or is it fair to restrict a film within the bounds of the book(s) it is based on?

I tend to be pretty lenient when it comes to this subject. The reality is that movies are a drastically different storytelling medium than books. Movies are confined by time and have the added responsibility of visualizing what books allow us to create in our minds. There are a number of challenges that filmmakers face when bringing a popular bit of literature to the big screen and often times they are met by a very critical and biased audience.

But that’s not to say filmmakers get a free pass. I allow them a lot of creative liberties as long as they don’t abuse the story or key characters. As long as there exists respect for the source material I’m okay. But there are many examples of poor creative choices which has butchered the book(s) movies are based on. Just look at some examples from the comic book superhero genre. Joel Schumaker’s Batman films made a mockery of the character and his wonderful rogues gallery. The pathetic mistreatment of the Cyclops character in “X-Men: The Last Stand” was almost criminal. Even last year on a smaller scale “Iron Man 3” took a prominent character from Iron Man lore and obliterated him.

But there are other things worth considering as well. Is the movie intended to be a full on adaptation or is it loosely based on the book. I think people are often turned off from a movie because of its inaccuracies when it’s never intended to be a full adaptation of the book. “World War Z” is a good example. In many ways Max Brooks’ novel reads like a United Nations zombie report (as screenwriter Michael J. Straczynski noted). Realizing that, the film clearly took on a different form. So it was “loosely based” on the novel. Yet many took issue with the filmmakers’ divergences even though their intentions were obvious. So in that case is it fair to judge the film by anything other than its own merits. It’s an interesting question.

This is a tricky topic especially considering the passion of both movie and book fans. For me this is the perfect formula: Watch the movie first then read the book. This lets the movie be viewed objectively and allows the book to expand and broaden the story. But obviously that isn’t always possible nor is it fair to those who love reading. Just remember the hurdles and obstacles that filmmakers face and always consider their aim and intent. As long as they aren’t insulting or disrespecting the source material, we should be able to measure and appreciate their work if it’s done well.

So what are your thoughts on the subject? Agree or disagree? I’d love to hear your take in the comments section below. As always, thanks for reading.


29 thoughts on “K&M Commentary: The Movie vs. The Book

  1. There are many examples of movies that have besmirched the book they were based on, what I always find fascinating is when a movie improves on the book.The two best examples I can think of are The Godfather and Jaws, movies that took the story and streamlined it, cut out the melodrama and made something near perfect. Some films manage to get a great book into shape when they are thought to be unadaptable.

    • That’s interesting but I can see why. I guess if the book has already told the story in two hours it takes the mystery away from the reading experience. I can see where avid readers would find that to be a bummer.

  2. Hmm, yes a very complicated and thought-provoking topic indeed. I am 90% on your side when it comes to film adaptations of books. Where I stand (or might stand differently from you) is that it really does come down to the book/material being adapted. I want to believe that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was very, very faithful to the events described on the pages — though me not reading the book makes this not the best example since I can’t compare, but I have this nagging feeling they are almost the same thing; whereas something like (for example from my recent TBT themes, I’m doing Roald Dahl) Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was a perfectly adapted film from his book (so I thought, apparently Dahl himself hated the production) is a less serious topic, so if it were to stray from the source the issue wouldn’t be as big a deal. If McQueen had taken liberties with Northup’s telling, that would be more traumatic and problematic, I think.

    • Fantastic point. I think adapting a deeply sensitive and important piece of nonfiction definitely carries with it an added sense of responsibility. In some ways it can see it be the toughest to adapt. I mean take something like “World War Z” versus “12 Years”. Both should be approached by filmmakers in very different ways.

  3. I actually started a draft on this very subject the other day! Or more specifically, can you criticise a film’s story if it’s based on a book? It’s a really interesting topic and one that people get really incredulous about. Films are always criticised for destroying books but it’s just impossible to tell the exact same story on screen, there will always be differences, although in my opinion it should still stick to the same general story. Just as long as the film tells a good story then I don’t really care if some of the stuff is changed in it.

    • I think we are coming from the same place. I just want a movie to tell me a good story, just like a book. I will say that a movie does owe the source material respect and when it damages key elements of the book or books I tend to dislike it.

  4. I usually prefer to read a book before seeing the film adaptation but I’m usually left pretty pleased with how the writers have transformed the text for cinema. I can’t think of any major upsets there have been for me in terms of book adaptations and I think audiences need to be better at understanding what works on screen and what doesn’t. I loved the book A Little Princess as a child and the film changes one of the biggest parts of the ending but I didn’t mind because they both worked well as separate art forms. I think a lot of films really bring out the magic of the books like The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series and make them somewhat more accessible.

    • Very well said! I think understanding the two forms is essential to really appreciating what they each can bring to a story. I do believe getting too hung up on seamless adaptations shackles filmmakers to the point of potentially hurting their films. That’s why I like giving them plenty of room to work. My only request – just respect the source material. Thanks for the great comments.

  5. Depending on the situation I have read the book first with some films and watched the film first with some books. I think creative license has to be taken for any adaptation but the spirit of the book must remain… unless the book is really just an “inspiration point”, like the example you give of World War Z (which I loved… and I had read the book).

    • I love what you say “the spirit of the book”. That’s it exactly. That’s all I expect unless you are adapting a very sensitive work of nonfiction. A filmmaker has to be allowed to work and develop their own vision.

  6. Very interesting article. I think sometimes directors have a hard time casting the right person as a certain character, and satisfying the fans of the book with the choices made.

  7. Great article. Your overall theme is dead on. The source material doesn’t necessarily have to be followed word for word, but it must be respected. The bottom line is everything that makes a book work, may not have the same magic on the big screen. I specifically did a break down of the novel “I Am Legend” and the three direct adaptations of it where I talk about what works and what doesn’t in each: http://dellonmovies.blogspot.com/2013/10/3-movies-1-book-i-am-legend.html.

    Of course, as some have said, the stakes are different when you’re dealing with non-fiction. There, filmmakers have to be as faithful to the facts as possible. Even then, there are some liberties that can be taken without really altering the spirit of the story’s larger truth. For instance, Alan Arkin’s character in Argo is actually a composite of several people. Spike Lee uses at least two such characters in Malcolm X (his own and West Indian Archie). I think it works out very well in both movies. The big problems come when filmmakers start fudging the facts in order to push their own agenda or personal viewpoint about the subject. Again, this goes against your big rule: respect the source.

    • Great points and great examples. I think you’re exactly right. There are several instances where personal agendas creep into a filmmaker’s work and the movie suffers from it. Nonfiction is a tricky thing and must be handled with more care particularly when heavier subject matter.

      But as you mention, good filmmakers can incorporate made up characters into a nonfictional adaptation to great effect. This is mostly done for dramatic effect but it doesn’t always hurt the movie.

  8. Generally I agree. Great commentary.

    My personal thought has always been movies can do whatever they want to a books’ plot. The priority should be keeping the characters and themes.

    But even that is not a ‘rule’ for me. If a movie is made well and has interesting characters, I tend not to care all that much how it veers from the source material.

    • I think you’re right. I do believe if you’re borrowing off of someone else’s idea you have to respect that material. But I talk to so many people who have big issues when movies veer away from a book they love. Some people when talking about a movie always assess it in the shadow of the book. That isn’t really fair to the filmmaker or his vision. Plus it shackles him and confines his creative ability.

  9. They are apples and oranges, separate art forms. I do like it when the book version and the film version is close. Most times the book is better than the film. Sometimes, the film is just as or better than. I was creating a blog about this! Nice post, Keith

    • Thanks Cindy.I think there is definitely enough to room to judge both forms on their own merits. It all comes down to understanding the strengths and weaknesses of both and understanding (as you mentioned) that they are apples and oranges.

  10. Great commentary Keith, I’m with you on this one. I tend to be pretty lenient as it’s just a completely different medium. What I scrutinize more is the characters, and how close they are portrayed in film. Some hit the mark but some are completely different/fall short of what I envision. It’s not just in terms of looks but the *essence* of the character that matters more.

    • Hey Ruth! I love your last line. That’s it exactly. I think characters and how they are depicted play a huge role in the success of an adaptation. How many times has a movie disappointed because it fumbled when handling the characters.

  11. I’ve always felt that movies don’t need to necessarily distinct themselves from their novel counterparts, but should work on their own. No Country For Old Men is a great example, it’s very true to the book yet also calls into resemblance Fargo.

    • I agree. Films don’t have to be distinct. On the flip side I’m okay with creative changes that make it a better film while respecting the source material. “No Country” is an amazing adaptation. It does stick incredibly close to the book and does so to great effect.

  12. I always think it’s important to read the original source first of all. Reading can take you places a film can’t quite achieve (never say never of course) and there’s nothing worse than knowing the end of book before you’ve even began. The likelihood of even reading it all, is seriously diminished.

    I enjoy comparing both but have to admit that most times in seriously disappointed in the film version. Although, there are exceptions… There was some major changes to One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest but I still found that the changes were just as effective and the film remains one if my favourites to this day. So does the novel.

    • Great points particularly the one about ruining the ending of the book and how that effects the likelihood of it even being read. But you also express the difficulties that come from reading the book first, namely that a film rarely lives up to some people’s expectations.

      It’s a pretty fascinating discussion.

  13. Pingback: When the film is better than the book | Cindy Bruchman

  14. Pingback: K&M Commentary : Questionable Casting | Keith & the Movies

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