The Reason Adaptation is So Difficult and How to Overcome It

by Britton Perelman - updated on August 31, 2020

Roll credits and cue you leaving the theater, muttering something like, “Dammit, the book was so much better.”

Familiar, right? That’s happened far too many times than it should have, I’m sure. And that’s the rampant problem with adaptations — more often than not, they just don’t compare to their paperback counterparts. 

There’s a reason for that though, and it comes down to the fundamental difference between books and movies. 

Books are about reading, imagining, and feeling; movies are about seeing, hearing, and feeling. Unless you’re seeing a foreign film or watching at home with the subtitles on, movies don’t have text. Books do — they have hundreds and hundreds of pages of it. By their very nature, that means there’s more space, more time, and more room for internal explanation. As a reader, you’re privy to thoughts, internal monologues, and detailed descriptions of people and events. But movies are external; they rely on action, dialogue, and visuals. As an audience member, you get only what’s on the screen, only what the filmmaker gives you. 

Forget changes to characters and the exemptions of favorite scenes, the reason that adaptations are often so disappointing is that those paragraphs and paragraphs of beautiful prose just don’t transfer to the screen.

But there is a way to successfully adapt a book for the screen, one that doesn’t necessitate subtitles or a four-hour runtime. You must take the internal and make it external. That’s not easy by any means. In order to make all the internal parts of a novel work for the screen, it takes crafty writing and careful attention to detail.

Have a book that would make a great adaptation? Enter the ScreenCraft Cinematic Book Contest here.

Look at Room, the adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel that won Brie Larson an Academy Award. The book, which is written from Jack’s perspective, is heavily internal — there are tons of details and backstory and thoughts that needed to be made external in some way for movie audiences.

One big way Donoghue saved some of that internal monologue in the adaptation process was by using a voiceover technique to establish Jack as the “narrator,” a technique that brings him to the forefront of the story and allows him to tell the audience about the world in which he lives. Donoghue and the filmmakers also made sure to include details from the novel that fans of the book would notice, but casual moviegoers would simply consider thorough production design (the egg-shell snake Jack plays with, and the stain on Carpet in Room, for example).

Keeping small details from a book in the eventual movie adaptation is a significant way to retain the integrity of a written story. This works in many ways — either when explained in a film’s story, or when simply included as a subtle nod to something in the book that fans will understand.

Read 8 of the Best Book-to-Film Adaptations of the Past 8 Years.

For example, Oscar-winning Call Me By Your Name is guilty of this to a beautiful fault, as the movie itself functions more as a companion to the novel than an adaptation. A lot of the meaning in the events of the story and the thoughts Elio has as he falls for Oliver aren’t explained through the film — but those who have read the book will know exactly what is going on (take, for example, the short montage of Oliver’s various colored swimming trunks). This kind of adaptation, when done well, succeeds for both audiences — those who have read the novel and those who haven’t. 

But there are other ways to successfully transfer a story from page to screen. Silver Linings Playbook relied on adapted dialogue and strong characters to retain the tone of Matthew Quick’s novel. Baz Luhrmann had some of the most famous and important lines of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby written out as visual graphics in his movie adaptation. The Big Short employed celebrity cameos to explain complicated terms and issues regarding the housing market. 

Adaptations succeed when they retain the integrity and tone that made their source material so beloved. Taking a book or novel and turning it into a movie is no small feat, but if you can find a way to transform the internal to external in a way that gets to the root of what the story’s all about, you’ll have a screenplay that diehard fans of the book and newcomers alike will love.

Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.

Photo credit: Silver Linings Playbook

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