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Movie Adaptations: Is the film version ever allowed to best the novel?

Up until a few years ago I was one of many book lovers who firmly believed it’s virtually impossible for a film adaptation to be better than the novel it’s based on. Obviously it’s impossible to condense several hundred pages into two or three hours and maintain the story’s integrity, especially with all of the subplots, minor characters, nuances and emotional depth that are lost in translation.

When I undertook the daunting task of adapting Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility into a stage play in 2002, I approached it with a dubious attitude. While I enjoyed Emma Thompson’s film version well enough, I figured a stage play would be even worse with its limited imagery and settings. What I discovered instead was that I had a knack for combining scenes and characters, eliminating less important ones, and maintaining what I thought was a fairly seamless congruence. A couple of years after that, Dramatic Play Publishing, who published my adaptation, commissioned a stage version of Persuasion. Tackling this project proved to be even easier than the first, and I discovered something else in the process. Sometimes cutting scenes, characters and even subplots can actually help a story rather than hinder it.

It’s been several years since my theater days, but because of those two adaptations, I’m extremely interested in the art of adaptation. I make a point of seeing films whose novel counterparts I’ve read, and even vice-versa. It used to be a rule of mine to read the novel first, but I’ve learned it can be fun to watch the film first and then as I read the novel, “see” the characters in my mind’s eye in the form of the actors who play them. In studying the differences between novels and films, I’ve developed an appreciation for the amount of work that goes into the screenplay.

There’s so much more involved than simply cutting scenes; one has to make sure everything still flows, makes sense, and at the same time, keeps the fans happy. While it’s impossible to say definitively that any particular film is better than the novel, as that conclusion is purely dependent on an individual’s opinion (though I believe it’s a universal truth that Eragon is a crap film), I do feel safe in saying that, at the very least, certain elements of the film can be better. And I have decided on a couple of occasions in recent years that I did actually enjoy a film overall more than the novel.

Take Game of Thrones, for example. (Go ahead: grab your torches and pitchforks. I’ll wait.) This is one of my favorite novels, so I was absolutely giddy waiting for the HBO premiere. Halfway through the season, I decided to re-read the novel since I hadn’t read it since it was first published, and I was curious to see how faithful the adaptation was to the novel. After reading it again, and watching the rest of the season, I was very surprised to find myself disappointed with the novel, but impressed with the series.

Martin’s strengths (again, this is just my opinion) lie in his dialogue and character development. The writing itself is a bit on the raw side; there isn’t a whole lot of finesse or beauty there. There’s also an overabundance of minor characters. I find it incredibly annoying when I have to constantly flip to an appendix to keep characters straight. I felt that the adaptation played to Martin’s strengths: most of the dialogue was lifted straight from the novel and was spot-on, and many minor characters were cut. And in a film, weak writing is not an issue. Do I care that Daenerys’s eyes were not violet in the series? Not especially. Also, characters that didn’t make an impression on me in the novel were made interesting by the actors. I never particularly cared for Ser Jorah Mormont one way or the other, but Iain Glen brought him to life with subtle expressions and voice inflection. To tell the truth, I didn’t even care for Eddard Stark all that much until Sean Bean stepped into the role.

Another favorite film and novel of mine is The Princess Bride. I’m still undecided as to which one is better overall, but I will say that I did appreciate the omission of the long-winded beginning of the novel that is devoted to William Goldman’s fictitious attempts to get his hands on the story from his childhood for his own son. While parts are charming, it ain’t Princess Bride. And while I was very disappointed that the courtship between Westley and Buttercup was hacked to pieces in the film, I was more relieved that the Zoo of Death – pages and pages detailing Rugen’s menagerie that Inigo and Fezzik must conquer – was cut. And of course there’s the fact that, at 14-years-old, I fell madly, madly in love with Cary Elwes playing Westley. (Let’s just not talk about his career after that.)

No discussion of fantasy-novel adaptations would be complete without mentioning Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, but the fact is, I haven’t earned the right to make a comparison as I haven’t read the novels.

Here, I’ll say it for you, “GASP!”

I know, I tried to read them, but I just wasn’t captivated and lost interest. I did, however, enjoy the films. Sometimes, after all, there is something to be said for brevity.

Is there a film adaptation you enjoyed more than the novel?

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13 Comments

  1. Avatar jenny zoss says:

    stardust. i loved the book, but i felt that the shortcuts they took in the movie made even more sense. and robert de niro stole the show. it was AMAZING.

  2. Avatar Tora says:

    People who nitpick about Game of Thrones are fanatic book pedants. They did everything perfectly in the show, and since I read the book after watching the series, it actually enhanced my experience of reading the book.

    I was a little disappointed that the Blackfish had been cut though, he would have been a really cool character. But I’ll survive.

  3. Avatar Minesril says:

    Atonement. Film was absolutely gorgeous and had me in floods of tears. I then read the book, which was rubbish. I think films which are better than books come about when screenwriters read a book that isn’t great, but has a good idea, which can be used and activated better in a film/stage medium than in print.

  4. Avatar Hannah says:

    It can happen. For me, the Lord of the Rings films were vastly more entertaining than the books. I appreciated Tolkeins ideas, but pages and pages of descriptions about fields etc could get quite boring. I was never really a fan of the Sam and Frodo parts of the books so deciding to switch between the action in the films was a much better way to tell the story in my opinion.

    Loved Game of Thrones too, but haven’t read the books yet. From what I’ve been told, Martin, like Tolkein, is also a fan of long descriptive scenes, so perhaps I’m better off waiting for the next series!

    The Princess Bride is an interesting example to bring up. If I remember correctly, the screenplay was written by the book’s author William Goldman, so it probably had a better chance than most at meeting the same standard. I can’t choose which one I prefer, I love them both.

  5. I’ll go with you on that for Stardust; I did enjoy that more than the book (don’t tell Neil!). Atonement though…I wonder if I would have liked the book less if I had seen the film first. It was already one of my favorites before the film came out, but I thought they did a fantastic job on the adaptation also. Thanks everyone!

  6. Avatar Jude Johnson says:

    I agree completely on Atonement. I just could not slog through that book. The film was very well done.
    LOTR did a more than decent job on trying to condense three very long and intricately detailed books. I appreciated some of the cuts (Tom Bombadil) and the New Zealand locales were more stunning than what I’d imagined. I have high hopes for The Hobbit.
    One of the most faithful film adaptations was the Hornblower series. Heck, they took EIGHT two-hour films to barely get through the first three books. The cinematography was outstanding, and the collection of BBC talents brought minor characters to vivid life in ways Forester never imagined.
    But most of the time…shudder. The film adaptation of Eragon was horrid.

  7. Avatar Princess Lulubelle says:

    Whuh? Stardust was better than the book? No. No. No.

  8. Avatar Khaldun says:

    I disagree that A Game of Thrones had been done perfectly on HBO. Some of the changes were done for the better, but there were mistakes made. If you check out the post on winter-is-coming about worst changes and read the comments you’ll see some examples. It’s a great show, no question, but A Game of Thrones should be on the same level as The Wire, and after the first season it simply isn’t. Very excited about the second season though!!!

  9. I agree with you on Lord of the Rings. I thought the movies were brilliant and watched them several times, but I haven’t finished the books. I had to force myself to slog through the first one and promised that I would read the others someday.

  10. Avatar Dan the Funky Scarecrow says:

    I’d put the film The Shawshank Redemption far ahead of the novella it was adapted from, Rita Hayworth & the Shawshank Redemption, along with Apt Pupil from the same collection. I’d also argue that the majority of Bond films adapted directly the Fleming novels are far superior to the source material. I’ll own up to vastly preferring The Flight of Dragons to Gordon R. Dickson’s The Dragon & the George, as well.

    With fantasy it’s a little hard to think of too many more examples that weren’t covered in the OP or previous comments, primarily because so little of the major work has been filmed over the years, when compared with thrillers, historical novels or contemporary fiction. So many of the fantasy films made in recent years are based on YA fantasy novels I haven’t read: The Spiderwick Chronicles, Bridge to Terabithia, Jumanji, Percy Jackson etc… I suppose if you want to call The Lovely Bones a fantasy, I’d speak in its favour. I found the film acceptable enough, but I loathed the book.

  11. Avatar Michael C says:

    I think people with adaptation means permanent replacement rather then interpretation. Yes a film/tv series can best a book if the spirit of the story is there. Screen and Print two different creative mediums both with equal strengths and weaknesses. So I think fans of works have to realise that certain characters or scenes will have to be dropped in favour of a shorter way to explain piece of the treasured mythos. I liked the stance of Peter Jackson stated that this is his interpretation of the books. I think he took the core concepts and mythos of Tolkien and used other mediums like art, costume and music designs to communicate the world to the audience. I think there is nothing wrong with reading the book and imagining that actor as that character. As for Potter I was unspoiled up to book 6 and 7. I was slightly disappointed (though understood) how they went a little too Harry focussed in all 6 films until book 7 where including everything in that film sort of lacked in emotional weight because Rowling was also wrapping up series long minor characters and story lines. I will end with at least one mention of my wish list made into film series books.
    The Elenium series by David Eddings

  12. Avatar Satari says:

    My most favourite stories ever are the David Eddings books Polgara, belgarath, the Belgariad the Elenium and the Malorean. Before the matrix and lord of the rings movies were made, i would never have thought these books could ever be put into a film….. However i now feel if these books are not made into movies it is a crying shame for many generations will miss out on these incredible stories. it may be an epic job for a film maker considering the intricate story lines but though i am sure is possible. these movies would be seriously watched by all those who are David eddings Fans & many of the harry potter fans and there fore would bring massive profits to the person taking the job on. The special effects can definitely be done now with all the technology available … seems like a task for James Cameron without a doubt and perhaps a partnership with a few others high caliber directors…. I think Al Pachino as Belgareth would be awesome.

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