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Adaptation Part 1: The Book was Better

Have you ever left the cinema with a feeling of disappointment after having seen the film version of a book you loved? Making a film out of a successful novel has tempted many film makers. But the transition from novel to film is not easy, and sometimes it ends up as a meagre adaption of a great story.


These words appear in the article; make sure you know them before you read the text.


casting, narrative, to counsel, previously, to perceive, adaption, feature film, to emphasize, to justify, diversity, to justify, diversity, to transfer, transition, identifiable, to approve, to distort

From Literature to Film

Camera crew film the piece called 'The Age of Bullshit 2010' by George Shaw

Camera crew film the piece called 'The Age of Bullshit 2010' by George Shaw

First the author will have to give his or her permission to transfer the literary work into a motion picture. Once the financial things have been sorted out and there is an official producer, the actual film work starts. First a script writer must write a film script based on the narrative of the book; it is a challenge to turn a piece of literature into a visual presentation. Script writers are professionals who know how to structure a story for film and how a narrative will work best as a filmic expression, but they are not authors. So in most cases they will have to counsel the writer as they go along, but many authors may also want to stay out of this process and leave it in the hands of the script writer. Then there are all the other aspects of a film production, casting, shooting, and editing. They shoot the same scene over and over until the director is satisfied, and the cutting and editing also will take a lot of work to complete. It is a very time-demanding process with a lot of different elements that have to come together before the final result is ready for release. And then there is the publishing and distribution process which has to do with marketing and promoting the film for the box office.

My Mind’s Eye

We are all familiar with the phrase “I think the book was better” after one has seen the film version of a novel one previously has read. Let’s reflect a bit on why this, in most cases, probably is a correct statement. First of all, the two media are perceived differently, but in some way they both end up as pictures, visually or mentally. The universe of a novel comes alive in the mind of the reader; he has to see the plot, the characters, and the setting in his mind’s eye. However, when you watch a film these pictures are ready made for you; the director and the camera-crew present their own visualization of the same features. And if these images clash with your own pre-created pictures, which they more than often do, the film version will in most cases come out as “wrong”, because our brain will react negatively to a new and different version. It is funny that the other way around it works a bit differently. If one picks up the book after having seen a filmed adaption, one will usually find that the images from the film are a supporting element for a visual understanding of the text.

Cut to the Chase

But there are other elements that make the film version come out as lacking compared to the literary text. One is the extent of the plot and the complexity of the universe the novel can offer. A book can take you to different settings and places just like that. The writer has only the limitation of his own imagination when he creates his literary universe, and many famous novels have a plot that develops over a long time span in many different settings. This will of course give the script writer and the director of a film a dilemma – what to leave out? To cover every detail in the novel is simply impossible for a regular two-hour feature film. Film makers tend to select the most dramatic scenes to capture the audiences, so they will often “cut to the chase” as they say in Hollywood. So your disappointment with the film may also be justified because so much has been left out. The film may be as good as any, but compared to the diversity of the book it simply does not add up. The structure and chronology may also be presented differently in a film version because the director and the editor will take liberties in giving the film their own personal artistic touch.

Less is More

On the other hand, there are a number of features of a film that the literary version cannot compete with. One of these is music and sound effects. They are there to complement the scenes and emphasize the tension or the development of the plot. Even the silent movies in the old days were accompanied by piano music performed live during the show. But the question is – how many effects and how much musical support does a film need to be appreciated? In some films, particularly in some Hollywood productions the music is a very important element of the total concept, and will set the mood of every scene like the icing on a cake. But if you watch e.g. a French or Italian film the music usually plays a much less dominant role, and the filmic effect is often better. Natural sounds and silence leave more attention to what goes on on the screen. Some Hollywood producers should perhaps remember that often “less is more”, particularly when it comes to “literary films”. Another feature which separates the way we perceive a film version and a literary text is how the film can manipulate by using lighting and camera angles. In that respect also we are in the hands of the director and the camera crew. Reading a book, on the other hand, is a silent and private process that takes place in the mind of the reader without supplementary effects of any kind.

Two Successful Lords

The Lord of the Rings Cover

The Lord of the Rings Cover

There are a number of examples of how literature has been put into film with disastrous results, but at the same time many novels have been so successfully transferred to the screen that they have become film classics. A successful transition from text to film has to preserve the epic elements of the book, and it must supplement the narrative positively. In some cases a film can even clarify certain obscure elements of a book and in that way add up to the way we understand the story. A brilliant example is Peter Jackson’s extensive film version of J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”. There were many sceptics among the fans before the release of the first of the three films, but most of them were brought to silence by the spectacular scenes and the way the narrative was displayed on the screen. William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” is another good example of a successful transition from literature to film. It has been filmed twice with rather different filmic approaches. The first, black and white version from 1963 is quite true to the original text in Golding’s novel and has managed to keep the disturbing atmosphere of the novel. The newest version (1990) tells the same story, but puts it in a more modern context, which is a venture that has flopped before, but in this case it works quite well. This film makes Golding’s agenda even more evident and unsettling, because it gives the theme a more universal value and makes it more identifiable with a modern world.

Will the Author Approve?

To sum up, film and literature are two completely different ways of telling a story. They both have their advantages compared to the other. But when a film sets out to tell the same story that you have read in a book, there are certain elements that will define the outcome of such a transition. The result may be good or bad, but it certainly will be different. For many authors it is flattering to be asked and probably tempting to approve of a film version, since it is an opportunity to reach a bigger audience. But it is a fact that many authors have become quite dissatisfied with the way their literary work has turned out on the screen as a commercial light-version they hardly recognise. Perhaps that is why J.D. Salinger who wrote “The Catcher in The Rye” (1945) never allowed his famous novel to be turned into a movie, even though it is a very visual story, and many directors have wanted to do it. He probably did not want to let a film maker distort the images his book had created in the minds of his readers.


  1. Explain the meaning of and difference between visual and mental images.
  2. Explain the phrases "less is more" and "cut to the chase".
  3. Why do you think "The Lord of the Rings" was such a succesful transition from literature to film?
  4. List some of the main advantages and disadvantages of the two different media - literature and film.

Compare Book and Film

Wuthering Heights and The Constant Gardener

Read the first chapter of the novels. Then watch the beginning of the film (about 15 mins).
Do they start in the same way? How does the information received compare with respect to setting, characters, etc.?

These links are to the film trailers, but it would be more infomative to work with the actual feature films. The Constant Gardener - Trailer, Wuthering Heights 2009 - Trailer

Lord of the Flies

Do an in-depth study of "Lord of the Flies" where you compare the original novel by William Golding and the "updated" 1990 film version. Make a presentation where you point out differences and similarities between the two versions. Do you think Golding approved of the new film version? (He died in 1993.) You may even take this further: Watch the black and white version from 1963 as well and include that in your comparison. When you have read the book, and watched the film(s), search the net for information and inspiration for your presentation.

Sist oppdatert 20.11.2018
Skrevet av Jan-Louis Nagel


Art and Films