Book to Film – Some More Perspectives

by Stuart

Abstract: One view is that you can never make a good book into a good film. But is this necessarily true? Is the trick in good screenplay writing and what other forces come into play? Are some books more adaptable than others and where does this place the “Harry Potter” series?

Much has been written about how well or badly the Harry Potter books have been adapted into the films and we’ve seen endless comments about how ultimately an adaptation is doomed to failure – and yet the films are incredibly popular, to the extent that there are many Potter fans that have never actually read the books… so what are we missing here?

We all acknowledge that a book and a film are two very different forms of telling a story. The key differences are, first of all, a book uses words to paint a picture and the imagination creates that picture in our mind. As every individual is different so is their imagined view of the world depicted in the book.

Secondly, a book is not limited in length or complexity of plot – it is the author’s skill that ensures that such complexity is still manageable and intelligible to the reader.

Thirdly, a book is not designed to be consumed in one sitting. Although a few Potter die-hards might read any of the books from cover to cover without stopping, the majority read any book bit by bit, chapter by chapter. If necessary they may go back and re-read sections, and so on.

Compare that to a movie. The first crucial difference is that a movie uses images as part of the way it tells the story. The writer, art director, director, and so on make the choice of set and location, which actors play which parts and in which way. These are fixed and the viewer has to accept them.

Secondly, a film cannot realistically be more than three or so hours long (yes there have been some epics that are longer, and, of course, Deathly Hallows was split into two films, but the rule, by and large, stands). The only visual genre which can buck this trend is the TV series, and it’s interesting to imagine how Harry Potter would have been treated had it been made as such… but that’s not the topic of discussion here.

Finally, a movie is designed to be consumed in one sitting. OK, you can pause a DVD and go back and look at certain sections, but that doesn’t change the basic premise.

So the first question you have to ask yourself is, should you ever try to adapt a book into a film at all, especially with such inherent differences in the two genres? Will such an adaptation ever be as ‘good’ (however you define that) as the original book?

For good or ill, the movie is the dominant form of storytelling – far more people go to the movies than read books. Watching a film in the cinema can be an overwhelmingly thrilling and exciting experience that can never be matched by reading a book alone in a room… Well, actually that’s not quite true. Both have a unique thrill and excitement of their own, but the cinematic experience is much more immediately compelling. And let’s not forget the commercial imperative – movies make far more money than books.

If we accept that a successful book will be made into a movie, how do we ensure it will be a true adaptation of the book? How, indeed, do we define ‘true’?

The absolutely fundamental difference between a book and a film is that a film is someone’s visualization of the setting, characters, and plot presented in the book – it’s what’s in their mind’s eye when they read the book. Unless this visualization is at least acceptable to the fans of the book or more accurately is true to the book (because it’s designed to also appeal to someone who’s never read the book) the film adaptation falls at the first hurdle.

By far the biggest issue is how the plot and depiction of the characters are treated – and this is where many film adaptations fall down, Harry Potter included. The dilemma in the screenwriter’s head always seems to be, do I remain completely faithful to the plot in the book or do I in some way change or ‘improve’ it? And remember at this point we’re talking about a highly talented writer (the screenwriter) working with another writer’s(the author’s) material.

Sometimes the answer is easy. Take the recent (2005) screen adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe based on C.S. Lewis’s book. Virtually nothing is left out or modified, simply because the book itself is very short with a compelling narrative that includes relatively few key scenes and little complex plotting… ideal material.

When you come to something as complex as Order of the Phoenix (more than 700 pages long with numerous sub-plots) you do have a problem as you simply can’t faithfully follow the book from end to end leaving nothing out… well you can’t if you are trying to create a film of no more than 150 minutes or so. And this presents an interesting dilemma… how sacrosanct are the text and the finer points of the plot anyway?

Once a book is published that’s it, the text cannot be changed. It represents what the author considers at the time to be their best effort. But… with the benefit of fresh eyes and equal talent, who’s to say that, in fact, the plot and narrative of the novel couldn’t be improved? Unnecessary and boring bits, the passages that don’t work or are confusing and add little to the plot, removed…characters combined… etc? How many novels can you think of where there are parts that are slow-going and confusing… which you pass over to get back to the action? More than you might think and that even includes the Potter novels.

Unfortunately, even with the ‘boring’ bits removed and enlightened reworkings included, most novels are still way too long to be rendered page by page to the screen. Much more work is necessary to produce a screenplay that will fit into the required time frame, and it is here that the success or failure of an adaptation ultimately lies.

Much has been said about ‘keeping the spirit of the book’ in the film – and this is something of a dangerous concept because it is highly subjective as to what this ‘spirit’ actually is. Even the best screenwriters can get this wrong with disastrous consequences leading them to miss out on the wrong bits, wilfully change crucial plot points, and even change the motivation and nature of major characters. This may be done to get the audience to strongly empathize with a main character, to fit in with the cinematic genre… or simply that the studio does not like the religious or political motivations of a particular character. The disastrous 2007 adaptation of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (released as The Golden Compass) is a case in point as New Line Cinema feared a religious backlash because of the novel’s overt anti-Catholic sentiments.

But… if the writer gets this right and the audience accepts that the film is a stand-alone piece of work that reflects the original novel very strongly, then the film will be a winner. It may also, strangely enough, be a winner simply because the screenplay that emerged, however divergent from the novel, was brilliant in its own right and the film was directed by a master director.

A case in point is the three film adaptations of John Buchan’s novel The 39 Steps. The one that is most remembered is the 1935 Hitchcock version, widely regarded as the best film with this title. However its plot and content differ widely from the original novel and people might argue it’s not really a film of the book at all. The 1959 remake with Kenneth Moore was pretty much regarded as a remake of the Hitchcock movie without the master’s directorial expertise. The least well-known is the 1978 version starring Robert Powell, and yet this is much closer to the novel than any of the others. It’s regarded as a pretty good movie but not in the same league as the Hitchcock version.

So where does this leave us with Harry Potter? The first thing you have to remember is that when the film first went into production only three of the seven books had been published and the last three hadn’t even been written. You also should remember that J.K. Rowling was maturing as a writer, as was the nature and content of each book and the style went from a C.S. Lewis simplicity to an almost Tolkein-esque complexity and darkness over the course of the seven novels.

One thing they did get exactly right was the visualization of the whole wizarding world and the casting which made the film characters ‘appear as if they’d walked straight out of the book’ to quote one reviewer at the time, and that has persisted through all of the film adaptations. Because of the simplicity of the book, little was missed out and the style of writing suited Chris Columbus’ directing style to a T. Compare this to the 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes, written by Columbus, and you’ll see why.

The trouble is, as the novels progressed, their length got longer, meaning more and more was left out, characters were left out, key plot elements were given to other characters, and so on. For example, in Goblet of Fire, it is Dobby that tells Harry about Gillyweed. In the movie, he doesn’t appear, and it is Neville that tells him about Gillyweed… not an unreasonable change, given Neville’s prowess in Herbology, but a material change from the novel, nevertheless.

This ‘mucking about with the plot’ culminated in Order of the Phoenix, an almost unacceptably cut-down version of the book… the shortest film of the longest book. It may have been because a change of screenwriter (Michael Goldenberg temporarily replacing Steve Kloves) gave us someone who was unfamiliar with the books and had little empathy, but it certainly showed – simply too much was left out to make it comprehensible.

And the following films? A mixed bunch really… neither satisfactory nor unsatisfactory. For the last book, Deathly Hallows, it saddened me that even with double the screen time, too much of the richness of the original novel was still missing.

So to end… the original question was: can you ever make a good book into a good film? The answer has to be yes, but it happens all too rarely. Does making a book into a film spoil the book? I’d answer that by quoting what Steven King said when asked the same question about his own novels. Pointing to a line of his novels on the shelf beside him he replied, “They’re all still there… they haven’t changed a bit”.