Sometimes you have to wonder why book to film adaptations fail more often than not. After all, isn’t it just copying and pasting text into a script format?
In short, no it isn’t. In long, have a read of our detailed analysis of why film adaptations of books can fail.
Warning, major spoiler for The Dark Tower series.
1. Failure of the script to replicate a character’s thoughts.
A major drawback to adapting a manuscript to a script is that viewers can only “see” what’s occurring on screen, and not what the characters are thinking.
This is where adapting a story to a script becomes problematic, especially when characters have a lot of internal monologues, which leads to character development through flashbacks and childhood anecdotes (Stephen King is notorious for using these plot devices for his characters).
In cases like this, skilled scriptwriters have a few writing tricks at their disposal. One of these is using a narrator (considered to be the “voice” of the author).
It’s used quite well in The Shawshank Redemption – an adaptation of Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, and the adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire.
However using a narration as a plot device is considered the lazy way to adapt a manuscript.
If a narrator isn’t used, storytelling devices such as flashbacks can help show the audience a character’s backstory or why they are acting they way they are when faced with a particular situation.
However when the scriptwriter chooses not employ these methods, it can lead to the next issue with stories being adapted into screenplays.
2, When the script has to change the plot and delete key characters in order for the story to be filmeable/fit the budget.
Perhaps the main difference between an original script and adapting a story is that the scriptwriter would need to keep an eye on “real world” factors, such as budget and location. An author can write with a lot more freedom.
Sometimes the imagination of the author is so out of this world, the filmmakers have to make changes to the original storyline in order to make a coherent film.
There are also budgetary constraints to worry about when trying to adapt an author’s vision to a workable film script.
The most recent example of a bad adaptation making wholesale changes would be The Dark Tower (2017), where the filmmakers relied on how the series ended – the narrative was a continuation of Roland’s pursuit of the Man in Black in an alternate dimension/timeline.
I could play along with this thought process, but the deletion of characters completely changed the narrative and themes of The Dark Tower series.
However, adapting The Dark Tower series (there are seven books and a couple of short stories and a stand alone book involved) was always going to be a tough job.
On the other end of the spectrum, in terms of deleting unnecessary sub plots and characters, I thought both the Swedish and American versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were exceptionally well made.
The author of the Millennium series, Stieg Larsson, was fond of throwing in unnecessary sub plots and characters. which more often than not sidetracked the narrative. The film adaptations cut through the superfluous material and characters, delivering a more streamlined narrative to the viewer.
Which leads us to the next point…
3. An adaptation can live and die by the casting of the characters.
Seeing as most successful novels have well written characters, this is probably the most crucial element of book to film adaptations.
Another major factor would be whether those who have read the source material agree with the casting in the adaptation.
The script adaptation may veer off the source material by a large margin, but as long as the characters’ attributes stay the same, the audience will accept the changes more often than not.
A prime example of this is the Jason Bourne character, where the only thing in common between the books and the adapted screenplay is the character’s name. Perhaps because the genre was action oriented, it made it easier for the filmmakers to move away from the source material.
The casting for both Swedish and American versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was also exceptional. Noomi Rapace (Swedish) and Rooney Mara (US version) brought to life on-screen the Lisbeth Salander I wanted by my side if I were ever hunted by an evil organisation.
For the Jack Reacher (2012) adaptation, the casting of Jack Reacher caused quite a stir with fans. After all, according to the book’s description, Reacher was a hulking 6 foot 5.
Instead fans of the books got Tom Cruise.
As someone who hasn’t read the books, I thought the story was great and Cruise was believable as someone who cared about justice more than due process.
But to reiterate, I’ve never read the books, so my care factor for the casting was not that high.
On the flip side, even though I understood the reasoning behind Idris Elba’s casting as Roland Deschain in The Dark Tower, the wholesale changes to the narrative destroyed any credibility that Idris Elba had of portraying the tortured soul that was The Gunslinger, who had a huge backstory that was skimmed over by the script.
Changing the narrative of the source material can become a minefield, leading us to the final point…
4. Changing the theme and the narrative in order for the filmmakers to have their unique take on the story.
Perhaps the biggest pet peeve readers have is when filmmakers decide to mess around with the original source material in order to fit their “vision” of the story.
I’ll have to (unfortunately) once again use a couple of Stephen King book to film adaptations.
Dreamcatcher (2003) commited the sin of completely changing a core character’s backstory and story arc, which meant the majority of the adaptation was different and predictably weaker than the source material.
The adaptation of 11.22.63 had its work cut out in trying to adapt a book that combined three genres (a love story, time travel and historical fiction) into a workable script.
The format chosen was a mini-series release on Hulu, which thankfully gave more leeway to adapt the sheer volume of the source material.
However there were still some deletions, character changes and sub plot alterations that I thought made the screen version a poorer one compared to the source material.
With the success of the adapation of the Song of Ice and Fire series, I yearn for when a superb fantasy series such as Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Trilogy can be made.
However, the most logical way to look at the process of how a story can be adapted to screen would be to look at the budget set out for the script and the platform on which the script would be told.
Will the budget be as big as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or can the adaptation be told through a series format just like Game of Thrones?
And most important of all, how much is the writer asking for the screen rights?
These decisions can certainly affect a filmmaker’s ability to accurately transfer the story to a script.
For now us fans of The Dark Tower series and the Riftwar Trilogy can only hope any future adaptations follow the source material closely.
Oh, so you dislike book to film adaptations? Have a read of our article discussing (criticising) whether the new Jungle Book adaptation (2018) needs to be made.