Book-to-film adaptations are all the rage right now in Hollywood. Thanks in large part to the shaky economy, purchasing an already established brand and turning it into a film has become the go to. A few years ago, when I had a new baby and a new screenplay completed, I received some very valuable advice from a producer.
“You can’t sell this,” she said. “It’s wonderful, but impossible to sell on spec in this market. And it will only get worse.” She went on to suggest I produce the film myself, or adapt it into a novel and try to break into publishing. “It’s easier to secure financing that way.”
The amount of books to be adapted to films, or miniseries, or television shows, has sky rocketed. And so has the amount of horribly done adaptations. For every good film version of a beloved novel, there are three bad ones.
So, what is it that makes a book adaptation worthy? Many producers would say a massive audience and a high-concept. Let’s examine some great adaptations and see what made them so flippin’ fabulous beyond a huge readership and potential for merchandising and attempt to riddle out the answer.
The Lord of the Rings – Author J.R.R. Tolkien, Director/Writer Peter Jackson
It is my personal opinion that high fantasy epics work well as big budget films. The world building in fantasy novels is a veritable playground for special effects masters, the clothing a joy for costume designers, and the sweeping plots and complex characters a banquet for actors. Lord of the Rings worked because the filmmaker made a movie based on the books, but didn’t try to transcribe what can only be achieved in prose onto the screen. Where some movie adaptations struggle is trying to stick too closely to the source material.
Unpopular opinion time — I like my adaptations to be an interpretation. No one can create the world from your imagination perfectly on screen, no actor can satisfy everyone’s image of an adored character. Great adaptations are one filmmaker’s impression of a work, not everyone’s.
To Kill a Mockingbird – Author Harper Lee, Director Robert Mulligan
What makes To Kill a Mockingbird a wonderful adaptation is the way they streamlined the plot lines. The film is condensed, as it must be, but manages to hold onto the big plot points without feeling awkward because they shifted the perspective.
News flash about the difference between a film and a novel: books can have a first-person POV, films cannot. The problem with many adaptations of YA novels, and main reason I believe a film can feel jarring when you’ve experienced the story through the protagonist’s internal monologue, is the shift from first to third person. To Kill a Mockingbird did a beautiful job giving the film a “voice” like Scout, by using music and perspective shifts — namely bringing Jem, her brother, more into the forefront — to tell the story in a broader way.
Pride and Prejudice — Author Jane Austen, Director Many British Guys
Pride and Prejudice has been reimagined not only in film, but as retellings in literary form as well. The reason this book is so popular to adapt is threefold:
First, the story is simple. On the page there are no big fight scenes or need for CGI — yes, I haven’t forgotten what I said about those things earlier — so the budget for these films can be small or huge depending on the production value desired.
Second, the story is so famous that no matter how many times they remake it we will still go see it. Seriously, remake it again, only this time with cyborgs. Money in the bag, friends.
Third, and most importantly, the narrative tone is easy to capture through dialog and expression; therefore, you don’t lose the quality of the novels prose when you translate the story to film.
Enjoy your favorite adaptation today, and please, share in comments what you think makes a book-to-film worth viewing.