It is a truth universally acknowledged that book lovers are ferociously overprotective when it comes to film adaptations of their favourite stories. They follow the pre-production news closely, and they’re not afraid to voice their opinions about whether the actors look enough like the characters. And if that’s not sufficient, they share their list of predictions about changes based on the two-minute trailers. God forbid that Augustus Waters is unattractive or if Gatsby’s parties are anything less than an exorbitant extravaganza – anything less and the studio will be bombarded by an influx of angrily worded tweets.
However, most disappointment with book-to-film adaptations is due to a lack of appreciation of the fact that books and films are two very different storytelling mediums. There is often a reason that the writer chose to tell their story through a book instead of another medium. Thus, there are parts of the story that are heavily rooted in the structures and conventions that do not necessarily translate well to film. For instance, there is the issue of length. A novel can be anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 words long – maybe even more – whereas the standard film ranges between 90-120 minutes. Unless, of course, there is Oscar buzz, then the film will usually drag on a little longer. No screenwriter could capture all 200,000 words directly into a 120-minute film, so it will be necessary for parts of the story to be adapted accordingly. Perhaps this issue of length is also one of the driving factors behind the shift from film to TV series adaptations of books, such as A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Handmaid’s Tale. This medium gives the screenwriters more space to play with the story and does not force them to make as many compromises.
A common problem with screen adaptations is the difficulty of capturing a strong first-person voice on screen, as we saw in the Twilight and The Hunger Games series. Twilight tried to remain true to Bella Swan’s long, introspective monologues and, thus, made a film quite laden with voiceover, perhaps to the detriment of the viewing experience. On the contrary, The Hunger Games films focused very much on Katniss Everdeen as the main character but accepted the fact that they could not tell the exact story that she told in the books. The films featured several new scenes that are only implied or suggested by Katniss in the books, such as the death of Seneca Crane and a conversation between President Snow and his granddaughter, which enrich the world of the book.
However, a film cannot take too much creative liberty with adapting the story if it begins to deviate from the overall message of the book. For instance, The Golden Compass is an infamous example of a film adaptation which misses the point of the book entirely. The director vetoed the dark and shocking finish to the book Northern Lights for a more family-friendly and death-free finale. It was the equivalent of finishing an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 where Winston Smith escapes from Room 101 and lives happily ever after. This is not to say that no creative liberty may be taken at all, as proven by the metafilm Adaptation. This film reworks the main ideas of the nonfiction book The Orchid Thief and twists them into an entirely new story. While there is even more of a radical difference between book and film than in The Golden Compass, this adaptation is perhaps more successful because the overall theme and message remain the same.
In a way, film adaptations will never be as good as the books on which they are based. Nothing can match the experience of reading a book for the first time and the vivid world that your imagination creates. No matter how many famous Hollywood actors or CGI effects that filmmakers pull into a film, it is never going to look exactly as you pictured it. There is something magical about reading a book that has no film adaptation and being able to craft the world of the story for yourself – instead of immediately picturing Daniel Radcliffe whenever someone mentions Harry Potter. So, until they invent the technology to show exactly what you imagine inside your head, it seems as though we shall have to settle for less than perfect film adaptations of books.