Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Why is the movie never as good as the book?

KT's picture

Earlier in the semester, I was delighted to hear that we would be watching the theatrical adaptation of Orchid Thief. I read the novel back in the ‘90s and remember really enjoying it. (I’m not usually one to read about flowers, but I read an excerpt and got reeled in). I should have known better, however, than to look forward to the film. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that was better than the book. If they make a hit movie from a novel, it makes me want to read the book, not see the movie.

In light of what we’ve discussed about an ever-expanding Library of Babel and the new explorations of life, meaning and experience that “should” occur when presented in an alternate modality (films versus books), it made me wonder why films don’t ever seem to go beyond the novel and build on what so many readers enjoyed about the book. In Adaptation, not only could Charlie not adapt the essence of the book, but he turned it into a story about how films can’t do what books can. 

We were posed a question earlier in the semester about whether films are the new novel and I think that when books are made into films, it answers that question.

Agree or disagree? I welcome other points of view.


Poppyflower's picture

Change is Necessary

I agree with many of the above statements. I think it is very difficult to see something that we so clearly envision one way be adapted into the vision of another. Taking a novel and making it into a film is all about interpretation. And if the director or screenwriter sees the ultimate vision/outcome in a way that you are personally not used to, the acceptance of that film can be challenging. Of course, no director who is adapting a movie from a novel is going to satisfy everyone...they first have to figure out what way the novel will best translate into a movie, and how to not overwhelm the audience, especially those who are unfamiliar with the story. And while this translation of the movie could mean that certain aspects of the storyline are lost, sometimes it is a necessary cut for the sake of clarity in the movie, along with trying to keep it at a reasonable movie time. People keep bringing up Harry Potter, and I also know that many people were not happy with the films because they were not true to the books. However, if one thinks about it, if the makers of the movie were to incorporate every scene from the book into the film, we would be sitting there for five hours or more. That is also why the the final installation of the film franchise is done in two parts. Two separate movies because they want to include everything. Yet even with this, the movies (or at least the released first part) is very fast paced and would be hard for someone who has never read the books to understand. And although I have never read "The Orchid Thief," based on what I learned from "Adaptation," it would not make a good feature length film without embellishing it, which is what the film makers did. The film industry and the novel industry are two completely different forms of media, and often time, changes have to be made in order to make a cohesive film.

skindeep's picture

still thinking

i agree with ashley, every time we read a really great novel, we create the film in our minds, and this is part of what makes it a really great novel for us. when this question was asked in class on tuesday, the first book/movie that came to my mind was peter pan. i recently read the original story of peter pan and it absolutely blew my mind. but it didnt take away from the movie that i loved as a child - was this because i watched the movie first? would i have loved the movie any less if i had read the book first? or, would i love the harry potter movies any more if i had watched them before i read the books? what does this say about the influences of media on our kids?

by introducing movie versions of the books we all love, are we taking away the joy/possible importance of reading for kids? is this part of the reason why we think movies are 'going to be the new novel'? because the only way that idea can come close to becoming a new reality is if we breed it. if teachers start showing movies in class instead of asking the kids to analyze the book, if parents leave their kids in front of the television before bed before reading them a story, or encouraging them to read a story. and the scary thing is, those things are happening.

on another note, i wonder why we are more put off by movies than we are with plays. the lion king (movie) was adapted as a play on broadway - a play that is its own version of the movie, just as a movie is its own version of a book - but people love it. no one seems to be complaining about it. i for this particular example it could be that people do not have as personal a connection with movies as they often do with books.  but in general, for books that are adapted to plays, im going to assume that it comes down to accessibilty - plays just arent as easily available to an audience as movies are. but could it also be that plays seem to be more personal in the manner in which they adapt to books? so it still seems like they're creating something - something real and personal. rather than a movie which can come off as being generic?

ashley's picture

Inspired By....

I think the reason why the film never seems to be as good as the original form of the work is because we, as readers, have already made a movie out of the novel. Our mind generates images to fit the scenes in the chapters we are reading. The descriptions of characters and surroundings are the ink on the paintbrush that is our imagination. Each person sees a novel play out differently in his/her head, and when we deem it an amazing novel, we cannot forget that our own imagination played a role in how we perceived the overall experience. Now, our high esteem towards the storyline makes us a lot more critical of others' interpretations of the same story that we read and loved. And of course, nothing can match that which we originally came up with. Details and hues are not the same on the big screen as they were in our mind's eye.

I think in a way it is a similar to re-makes of movies that you love. For me, I had an experience as such with the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (which coincidentally is adapted from a book). I've never read the book, but I wonder if I had read it prior to watching the 1971 version of Willy Wonka if I would have had a different interaction with the movie. When the new version of the film came out in 2005, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I was very conflicted because I love Tim Burton films but I did not want to see my beloved Willy Wonka ruined for me. For this reason, I refused to watch the movie for some years, insistent on that there should not have been a re-make. I finally came to a middle ground, where I decided that I could watch the new version of the movie as a completely different movie and keep it separate in my mind from the original. What would ruin it for me was if I tried to make comparisons about what I liked in the original film and what the new version lacked. I watched it as a Tim Burton film inspired by Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but still separate from it. The keyword here to keep in mind is "inspired", where if we view adaptations of books to films as such, we cannot judge them as harshly as not living up to the book, but rather enjoy them for their theatrical qualities.

Lethologica's picture

View and Limitation

So, the question is, why aren't movie adaptions as 'good' as books? I think the answer may be that we, as the viewers, have too many expectations. After reading a book, and finding out that it's been made into a movie, we expect that movie to be that book, or at least something similar to it. It bothers us when the movie does not follow the same exact plot, when it focuses of something different, or when the characters behave differently or don't meet our expectations of how they should look. It seems to me that we tend to not even consider that the movie shouldn't be the same as the book; maybe it is the same story, but the media is different, and so different things are possible and different sources are available. As mentioned earlier in the thread, films cannot do what books can: that's true, to an extent. However, it is also true that books can't always do what movies can. Both medias have their own strengths and weaknesses, their own things that they are good at. I think that if we, as the viewers of an adapted movie, could only accept that the movie is not simply a reincarnation of the book, but an entity in its own right, we might enjoy some of those movies better. That's not to say that all of those movies will be well done and worth watching, but that some of those movies, when taken out from under the shadows of their predecessors, can very well be good movies in their own right.

mgz24's picture

Film or novel?

 When we were posed the question about whether film was becoming the new novel, I never thought of books that have been made into film.  I think that these adaptations should almost be put into a separate genre.  Although I had never thought in these terms before, I agree with ewashburn in that film adaptations are the filmmaker's interpretation of the material.  And while I don't think that these film adaptations are or will become the new novel, I do think that our generation is moving towards film to replace novels.  I think an interesting parallel would be to look at "trashy beach" novels versus a "legitimate" novel.  People of previous generations would probably be horrified of some of the trashy novels that are out there, just as some of us are horrified of the thought that film could one day completely replace novels.  I'm still not completely sure that this will ever happen, but I do think that a lot of times it is much easier to watch a great movie than to read a great book, and for those of us who have short attention spans a movie may be easier to get through than needing the patience to read 200 pages.  I'm still not completely sure where I stand on these issues, but I do think that film is going to start taking a much more important place in the literary and scholarly world, but I also don't believe that the novel will ever completely be erased, because it does still provide some aspects that a film will never be able to provide.  

ewashburn's picture

The Filmmaker's Interpretation

 I wonder whether you want to read the book instead of see the movie because you want to form your own impressions of the book before witnessing someone else's. As I wrote about in my paper, when we see film adaptations of novels or comics, what we are seeing is the filmmaker's interpretation of the material. Instead of forming our own conclusions from the abstract characters, and instead of pursuing what we find interesting thematically as we read, we as viewers are barraged by the visual, and are forced into seeing how the director views the material. Instead of forming our own conclusions about the source material, we instead have to form conclusions based on someone else's interpretation. It seems to me that, in that sense, film adaptations are forms of "the new novel" only as long as we allow ourselves to view the interaction between the works and accept that what we see has already been through the wringer of interpretation. 

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
2 + 3 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.