Five Rules Movie Adaptations of Books Need to Follow

Five Rules Movie Adaptations of Books Need to Follow

Every time they announce a new book to movie translation, we melt out of the wood work. The people who are cautiously optimistic in the rising sea of excitement. The people who have been burned before. The people who understand how difficult it is to take the deep nuance and vivid flavor of a the living world we love in word form and condense it into two hours of big screen time.

I still remember the movie adaptation that made me this way; it was The Golden Compass. I was ecstatic from the moment they announced it. I agreed with every casting choice, re-read the book in anticipation of the release, and waited eagerly to see all my favorite scenes on the big screen. I walked out of that theater deflated, wondering how I could ever trust a movie studio with my favorite books again. I won’t wax eloquent on what they did wrong (I’ve talked about it before). But I’ve grown a lot since then, both as a writer and as a fan.

I used to believe movie adaptations had to be 100% accurate to the book. That certain scenes couldn’t be touched and, if anything important was missing, the adaptation would have to be flushed down the toilet. Yes, I was one of those people who pushed up their glasses while they moaned about how things happened differently in the book.

I’m not sure what changed me. Maybe it was finally getting through the Lord of the Rings books and realizing how beneficial some of the movie’s changes were. Maybe it was simply learning enough about writing to understand that a movie and a novel are different beasts with different needs. But I think mostly it’s a deeper understanding of stories and what makes them tick.

So while I remain cautiously optimistic (which saved me from devastation when we went to see The Dark Tower), I’m much more forgiving about book to movie translations than I used to be. In fact, my personal guidelines for a good book to movie translation are fairly straightforward.

1. Stay True to the Source Lore
Movie makers simply can’t cram every piece of lore found in the novel into the movie adaptation. It doesn’t matter how meticulous they are, they just don’t have time. That leads to the making of a lot of tough choices, and I don’t envy anyone that task. How to decide what to keep and what to cut? And what’s safe to fiddle with?

As a general rule, I think anything primary to the function of the world should be included in the movie. For instance, if the world has magic, you shouldn’t fundamentally change the way it works onscreen. If there is some core principal around which the world functions, depict it as you find it. An example would be the way the aliens in Avatar hook themselves into the world around them (though this doesn’t come from a book).

When you need to change or add something for the adaptation, stick to the book’s original lore. If your addition or change feels like it fits naturally in the world you’re working with, go for it. As long as nothing blatantly contradicts what you find in the book, you can probably make it work without too much fuss. I, at least, find I can stomach it.

2. Keep the Characters True to Themselves
Characters are the core building blocks of every story. I truly believe no one will give a crap about your awesome world if you don’t populate it with interesting people they can connect to. People go to movie adaptations of books to see their favorite characters come to life on screen. And they want those characters to act the way they do in their books. That doesn’t mean characters have to do exactly the same thing, or speak exactly the same lines of dialogue, but their overall behavior should be accurate to their description in the book.

In the introduction to the novel collection of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams admits that he sometimes changed the setting and story so that characters could speak and act the same way they did in the radio show. Which might sound crazy, but it worked well. Incidentally, this was the line The Dark Tower crossed to lose me. The novel series is defined by Roland’s tenacity on his quest to find the tower – the movie makers ignored this, giving Roland a completely different quest.

3. Add Something New and Meaningful
Okay, I admit it; a word-for-word book to movie adaptation would probably be boring (even though I’d still sit through it and enjoy it). In addition to drawing a book’s fans to the theater, movie makers are also trying to draw the interest of non-readers, perhaps even turn them into fans. That means the movie has to be exciting and engaging all the way through, no time for intricate, winding side plots even if they were your favorite part of the book.

How can a movie stay engaging for non-readers without alienating long-time fans of the book series? Add something new. Enhance the experience for people who are already familiar with the story and the world it takes place in. Answer a question the book leaves unanswered. Expand on a popular piece of lore or tidbit of story. The Lord of the Rings movies did this with the battle of Helm’s Deep – which amounted to a few paragraphs describing a battle already over by the time the main characters arrived in the book. It also did this with the romance between Arwen and Aragorn, which was only ever described in an appendix in the novels.

4. Don’t Delete Key Scenes in Favor of New Material
While it’s a good idea to enhance the experience for fans by adding new material, it’s a bad idea to take out key parts of the story to accommodate that material. I get it; there’s a lot of scenes that won’t make the cut, and everyone has a different idea of what comprises the key scenes for a book. But it’s often obvious when a plot or scene has been cut or modified to accommodate a producer’s pet subplot. If you have to cut or compromise a key scene or lore detail to make your addition work, don’t do it! When in doubt, give priority to the original source material. Even the conlanger who built the languages for Game of Thrones used the words and names George R.R. Martin established in the books as his base, rather than starting from scratch. Staying true to the source material at all times is key!

5.Don’t Change the Ending
This was The Golden Compass‘s cardinal sin. Someone thought it was a good idea to drop the last two chapters of the book, so the movie could have a happy ending. But it just doesn’t satisfy the story’s central conflict. Lyra spends a significant portion of the movie searching for her father, as well as her friend Roger. In the book, taking Roger to her father not only concludes the story’s main plot, it catapults Lyra into the central conflict of the next book.

If an ending is sad, don’t try to make it happy. Things don’t always have to work out in the end. Even if the movie can’t end the same way as the book, it should at least feel satisfying. The movie probably shouldn’t strike off into its own territory and never come back to the original plot. People are more forgiving if they get a movie close to the story they loved than they are of a movie that bears little resemblance to its source material (I’m looking at you, Dark Tower).

What do you look for in a successful book to movie adaptation?

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