My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, March 19, 2018

Why are Movie Adaptations so Iffy? (Mailbox)

Why do movie adaptations of books so often suck?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple a week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  Talking to me on the street may end up in your "question" being a mailbox and your name becoming Cedrick.]   

Cedrick asks:   

I just sat through The Dark Tower, and man I really wanted to like it, but...just no. I think the last time I thought a movie was really honestly true to its source material was The Shawshank Redemption. Even Lord of the Rings added all that Arwen bullshit and took out some of the best stuff. Don't even get me started on The Hobbit. What the fuck! They usually make such crappy changes to movies. Why can't movies just do a book fucking....RIGHT?

My reply:

They're not bad, Cedrick. They're just not BOOKS. Only books are books. I love movies, and I love books, but they're very different.

Full confession: this question didn't exactly get sent to me. It was more one of those questions that someone asks me and I pretend I got it as a letter. ("Surely that conversation I eavesdropped on overheard on the bus COULD be a letter someone sent in!") It was actually from a conversation I had around the time that I was doing The Book Was so Much Better poll a couple of months back. I'm not even sure the person's name was Cedrick, but they looked like a Cedrick, so I'm running with it. I'm writing it because last week Facebook has split down roughly the middle over whether A Wrinkle in Time was a terribad Disney adaptation that chose form over substance or a touching adaptation that cleaved close to the soul of the original while giving it a well needed makeover from it's 1962-strong-Christian-overtones source material. (And I'm sure that none of the comments on any social media will try to rehash that discussion because that's not really the point of this article. Yep. Just sure of it.)

Book nerds always want perfect movies and they'll pretty much never get them. Yes, of course there will always be the usual cavalcade of reasons movies suck from budget problems to director firings to producers trying too micromanage an artistic vision. But even accounting for the regular reasons movies suck, most word nerds won't get their fantasy come true, and there are several reasons for that but we can unpack the big ones.

1- Movies are just different.

If you want to piss off a film student, show them that meme with the iceberg.
That's the one.
Oh look...an angry mob outside my window. I wonder what they're on about.

Man oh man, will this make them turn that really pretty purple. You will get pages long screeds about how reductive this is. (Why don't they ever make a film about it, I wonder.) They will make counter memes and call you names. Whole empires will be crushed. It's inspired really.

The thing is, it's both true AND reductive. A movie is a different medium. You could just as easily reverse the words here and also be right. A movie shows you different things that a book can't.

You can't describe every last detail of a room the way a camera panning across it would, and if you tried your audience would be in a coma before the forty pages you needed were half over. One sweeping panoramic shot can take the place of pages of clunky attempts to describe a place's geography. Acting–especially good acting–can bring life and inflections to words. (Ever READ a Mamet play? Everyone either doesn't finish a sentence or says it at least twice, all while "MMMMM" ing their way through the scene changes.) A filmmaker has tools at their disposal that the pure linguistics of the written medium simply doesn't. Similarly showing a character's inner thought processes is a lot different unless you want to do shitty Dune-style voice overs. And a book can clear five minutes of vital exposition in a short paragraph. And no amount of prose rhythm or wordplay genius is likely to make it to a movie. Books have tools at their disposal that films don't. Different media will always create a different story.

2- You have to take out something. And not everyone's going to like what you pick.

You know the reason Shawshank Redemption moved to film so well? It's actually a surprisingly simple and oft unknown fact about movie adaptations. Obviously it had star power and a good director and a lot of things going for it, but the main reason the adaptation was so loyal to its source material is that it wasn't a novel.

It was a novella. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption clocks in at 38,000 words. Which is about 85 pages or so. (I'd have to dig up my copy of Different Seasons to verify this, but the PDF is 88, so I'm guessing that's about right.)

88 pages became a 2:22 minute movie. And they STILL took some minor stuff out. (Red's trial and such.)

And while they changed a few things, they were able to make a NEARLY two and a half hour movie and cram in almost the entire narrative. The same is true of Stand By Me. With short stories you have to add a bunch of padding and with novels you have to take a HUGE amount of stuff out. It's impossible to hit all the beats. And we're not just talking about Tom Bombadil and the scouring of The Shire. The shorter a source is, the more likely its movie will be loyal to its vision.

Now if an 88 page novella becomes a two and half hour movie, how much do you suppose you have to cut from a 200 page kids book to get a 100 minute film (which is around the average for younger audiences)? What about a four hundred and fifty page book with a run time of a couple of hours? Or a seven book series into a single movie?

You have to take things out.

And anyone who really likes that book isn't going to like one moment of it being cut away. ("What?? How dare they leave out Fiyero's diarrhea in this remake of Wicked.") And whatever choices you make, not everyone is going to agree with what you cut and what you kept. The ascension of serial television might see a great adaptation on Hulu or Netflix or Amazon, but we're probably not getting one down at the AMC-14

3- Not every change is for the worst.

We all know the Jonah Jameson Hollywood exec caricature lighting his Cuban cigar with a hundred dollar bill and saying: "Needs more sex! I'm not doing Wuthering Heights unless it has a car chase in it. Get me pictures of Spider Man!"

Reality is a bit more complicated.

This movie is crap crap crap megacrap.
I'll give you $200 million to produce it if you add a giant robot lizard. Kids love robots.
Image credit: Columbia Pictures CorporationMarvel/Enterprises/Laura Ziskin Productions

Yes, many decisions Hollywood makes are based on what will make a movie more profitable, and some of them display a remarkable lack of source-material knowledge (somehow I don't think Demi Moore gasping and grinding on the New England rice* harvest was quite what Hawthorne had in mind), but they do occasionally take a chance or release something that doesn't just sound like sweet angels printing money.


Hollywood is a business though. You want art films that lose money, you can go to film festivals or dig around on Youtube. Honestly. I'm not kidding. Some of that stuff is Br-fucking-illant. And yes, you might have to spend some time wondering why the clown is making pancakes, but a lot of it will just be fantabulous compared to Hollywood formulas. This isn't just my artsy fartsy side either. They're often compelling and fun and extremely well done.

When it comes to making movies out of books though, you probably need a budget that even a grad film student with a shiny grant isn't going to be able to match. And Hollywood has to try make back its significant investment, pay about ten gagillion guild and union members, and turn a profit because it's a business and THIS. IS. SPARTA CAPITALISM.  (Though some movies make back LOTS of money, most movies lose money, and so Hollywood is constantly trying to refine its recipe.) And that means someone's going to do some market research and try to figure out how to make the movie more accessible. "Accessible" is a little different than "add a giant robot."

Now here it's important that we acknowledge that two roads are diverging in a yellow wood.

When I say "not every change is for the worst" I want you to understand that some of them truly goddamned were. Turning Gatsby into basically a music video, dragging out a kids book into three indulgent movies (with shitty CGI), putting the white person front and center in the narrative even when they weren't, casting Mike Myers, whacky voice overs to replace "thought" text, stripping the religious undertones from a book about religious undertones and just turning it into a movie about a really kick ass polar bear, or abandoning the religious OVERTONES in a book that is an allegory about Christianity and turning the movie into a story about white kids running around killing Mediterranean looking bad guys, trying to completely change the tone from satire to serious or from serious to satire or from satire to satirizing the serious people who don't get that it's satire....well, you get the idea.

And then there's THIS shit.
New Line Cinima
Some changes suck and are terrible and are made because cis het white dude executives think cis het white dudes are "everyman" (and will sell) and white dude lenses on the world are the only ones that count.

But that's not always true these days...

Sometimes these changes really are inclusive and increase the access (not just the marketing image of whiteness, male gaze, toxic masculinity). Some of these books were written before civil rights or the ERA. They maybe have themes that are more resonant for the era in which they were written like anti-tribalism, capitalism, or exceptionalism. Perhaps they are are sausage fests and lily whitewashed whitefests. They espouse toxic masculinity. They have characters who are homophobic, transphobic, racist, or misogynist in a way that adds nothing to the story. Changing certain things to make the story more enjoyable to a wider audience is not always a bad thing. And I know you have some feels about Arwen, but she's probably in that movie because someone said: "This fucking wangfest needs more than just Galadriel and Eowyn!"

We've been telling stories a little differently to reflect the social values of the time since Beowulf and before.

Or sometimes it's just a case of what has happened in between within media and/or the genre. Having your villain be just a brain in a 1962 book is different than after 55 years of that being a sci-fi trope that got so cliché it became lampooned and then a big joke.

"Michaelangelo...dude, one smack with the chucks ought to
totally detubularize his pizza movie night."

And if our author is not beloved to the point of being understood in their own time (like maybe Shakespeare and a few others), some changes might get made.

Other than a few hundred thousand raging book nerd purists (and I want to make it perfectly clear that I am one of those raging book nerd purists), not a lot of people are going to see some anachronism that's dry like Russian black bread or steeped in postwar Christian allegory or because they loved the book. They're going to want the relatable (to today's multicultural audiences) protagonist, the resonate (to today's topicality) conflict, and...maybe that one scene that was a little navel-gazing could be given some panache.

Or you know....a car chase.

4- Once the changes start, it's really important to figure out what matters

Okay so now you, intrepid filmmaking team given a budget by the studio that isn't enough but will have to do as long as you add an action sequence that isn't in the book at around 30 minutes to keep the pace from plodding and losing the audience.

You also have to change a few things because it's 2018 and no one wants that purely cissexist heteronormative source material.

And you have to take a lot out to make a movie that isn't nine hours long.

You HAVE to make changes, so what will it be? What do you change? What if you pull an important character or relegate them to a minor role then farm their lines to someone else. What if the new person wouldn't say it that way? Which subplots will you be getting rid of? Is the narrative more important or the theme? Which characters do you focus on?

How do you go about deciding which core ideas are essential to the soul of what this book is? Once you've decided that and a vision begins to crystallize, it becomes a lot easier to decide what's not going to make it into the movie medium. ("Okay, I want to focus on the story of what it means to have free will, then I'm going to take out cyber babbel parts that focus on the tech and what it can do.") And whatever you pick, it's going to disappoint some of the people who know your source material well enough to know what you left behind.

5- And then you get the creative licence.

Not because a cut had to be made or a thing changed for today's audiences or whatever, but just something the filmmaker decides to change. Because that's something artists do. Because movie adaptations are essentially one artist retelling another in a whole different media. And a lot of times, even if their change is right on the money for a general audience and and right for someone who'd never read the book and right for a casual fan and right for a the folks who found the change interesting and delightful, they still annoy the folks who just wanted to see the print come to life on the screen with absolutely no alterations.

This is why the more reread and beloved a book is, the more likely you are to probably hate the movie. Those books you read once and can't really remember are the ones you'll not shed too many tears over.

All of these are the reasons why occasionally you get a movie like Blade Runner, The Godfather, or Princess Bride that arguably ends up being better than its book. (Rare, but it happens.) A team identifies a far more resonating facet of a story to focus on, and a lot people run around never even knowing there's a book.

So when we book nerds go to see movies, we can accept that if we're lucky, we're going to see a bit of audio/visual media roughly similar to the book we like with some familiar moments that hopefully cleaves close to the spirit of its source material. If we're not so lucky, the filmmaker has made some changes that pretty much ruin the whole thing. But either way we're not going to get "THE BOOK ON SCREEN™" so it's important to remember that we're watching the movie for a MOVIE'S sake and that it's an adaptation.


  1. One big thing is that scripts run roughly a page a minute and movies are roughly 88 to 120 minutes long. My first draft of Book 5 runs about 250 pages and the finished product will be longer. To film this, it will be necessary to eliminate three subplots and truncate scenes. This means that in a book in which all the characters and plots/subplots play off each other, providing layers of meaning and interplay, you're going to have to pick one. Movies simplify. They have to. How many people sat through all seven hours of Louis Malle's Phantom India? Yeah, I did and it was great. Date night material it was not. Different mediums tell different stories.

  2. One thing I've realised is that in many of my favourite books, a lot of the most significant action takes place in the protagonists' minds. Cinema is all action, and narration really doesn't meet the need. This is why a lot of films of books can feel like someone showing you a slideshow of their holiday "This happens, then this happens, thenxthis happens etc." because they're all slices of action in what may have been a way more introspective book.