Emily Harring

It’s one of the most stressful phrases a book lover will ever hear: book-to-movie adaptations. Cringe-worthy and panic inducing, book-to-movie adaptations rarely please every reader. As someone with high expectations for both movies and books, I never go into a book-to-movie adaptation and think I will be completely blown away by it, because it most likely will not meet the expectations I have. This doesn’t mean, however, that book-to-movie adaptations can’t be enjoyable.  (Shocker, I know.)

There’s something incredibly important to remember when going into book-to-movie adaptations: it’s an adaptation. Seems silly to mention, but I think a lot of people forget the fact that what they are going to see is one interpretation of the book from the producers’ and director’s point-of-view. This can be traumatizing for readers, but it is important to keep in mind that individual constructions of characters and the world are specific to the reader; a movie could never completely match the reader’s initial vision of the novel.

 Another important thing to remember is that it is not feasibly possible to fit a 300+ page book into ninety minutes of screen time. Some things will have to be left out of sheer necessity. While the missed details may be completely integral to how individual readers view the text, they may not fit into the interpretation the filmmakers have. Thus, these parts will be dropped from the movie in order to give time to other larger details. 

Let’s all keep in mind that books and movies set out to do two separate things. While both are pieces of art, they should be appreciated for different reasons. I hesitate to say that books are more complex than movies, because some movies can be incredibly complex in what they do and force viewers to think more critically than they might with other films. Books, however, make readers visualize everything within their own minds. Films offer visuals and paint the picture for the viewers, directing them to what they are supposed to see and how they should see it. These differences make the transition from book to movie incredibly difficult; some images within a novel are simply untranslatable. The reverse is true, as well: some aspects of a film could never successfully be written into a book.

Again, this isn’t to say that all book-to-movie adaptations are bad. Sometimes, casting directors do a fabulous job and manage to find the perfect people for a role; one of the best adaptations I have seen is Atonement, originally written by Ian McEwan. The novel, which is about a young girl that gives a confession that she spends the rest of her life trying to atone for, has many qualities that may seem untranslatable to the screen, especially due to McEwan’s beautiful language. However, the movie works well and stays true to the novel. The casting decisions for that film were spot on (in my opinion) and the director managed to stay spot on with the story. The movie was visually stunning and I could tell they did their homework on the little details in costumes and scenery to make everything historically accurate. Did I mention the fact that the beauty of the book was not harmed in the making of this movie? I feel like that’s worth repeating, because it’s so very rare.

Director Joe Wright did not change the major plot points of the novel to try and make the movie more Hollywood friendly. He could have easily changed the ending to make it more satisfactory, but instead retains the tragedy that makes the novel so beautiful. He also manages to stay true to the atmosphere of the novel; he isolates characters and shows the audience how the character feels simply by their body language and surroundings, without having to rely on inner monologues. Audience members can see the guilt that Briony has not in her words and through what she says, but instead how she acts and interacts with her community as she grows older. Thus, Wright manages to take the seemingly untranslatable moments and change them in a way that does not lose meaning, but makes them fit to the screen through his use of cinematography and music.

This is not to say that filmmakers always make the right decisions when it comes to adaptations. Sometimes, the things they leave out are necessary for the plot; sometimes they change the story so much the only thing similar between the book and the movie is the title. The best thing to do in this scenario is forget the movie exists and continue to live happily in your denial. For example, the only thing the movie Ella Enchanted has in common with the novel by Gail Carson Levine is the title. Levine created an interesting world with a strong main character, all of which was lost in the adaptation. In the novel, there is no crazy uncle attempting to kill the prince. That entire subplot doesn’t exist. Char’s family, rather, is happy and the kingdom is prosperous. Ella is never asked to kill Char in the novel; instead, she refuses to marry him because she is cognizant enough of the fact that her curse could be used against the royal family and harm the one she loves. She makes a conscious decision to let Char go in order to save him. This shows far more depth on the character’s part than anything Ella does in the movie. The movie adaptation loses all of Ella’s independence and sass, and instead leaves viewers with an insufficient character who could never hold up to Levine’s

Book-to-movie adaptations can create serious physical pain for the reader. I understand. The pain will pass and you will be okay. Promise. Enjoy it for what it is, eat some popcorn, and cuddle your precious novel when you get home. While bad adaptations can happen to good books, don’t let the fact that a film does not technically stay true to a novel ruin it for you. Just let it be a good movie and sally forth from there. Unless it’s Ella Enchanted, in which case it never happened.

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