-- by Allison Bruning
A new movie based on one of your favorite books has just hit the silver screen. You’re really excited and can’t wait to see the movie. You go the cinema, buy you tickets, and wait in the theatre with you popcorn and soda. (It’s not the whole movie experience without popcorn and soda.) As you watch the movie with your friends or family you begin to notice the little things you loved about the book are missing or the plot line has completely changed. While those who haven’t read the book are thrilled over the exciting movie you’re not so highly amused. So what happened? How could a movie be different from the book you just read? You thought since you liked the author’s work it would be the same as the movie. Right?
You looked stunned. I use to think the same thing. I’ve always been an avid reader. Whenever Hollywood would release a movie based on a book I would make every effort to read the book before I saw the movie. I didn’t pay much attention to the differences between the two mediums until I started my writing career five years. I wanted my novels to hit the silver screen just like my writing heroines, JK Rowlings and Stephanie Meyers. I even read the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini before I saw Eragon. I was greatly disappointed in the Hollywood version of Eragon. Let’s face it; the book was better than the movie. How many times have we heard someone say that about some book that had been turned into a movie? As an author and a reader I wanted to know why that is. I found my answer when I started my MFA in Creative Writing at Full Sail University.
The answer is so simple it was astounding. The problem with adapting any book into a screenplay is that they are two different kinds of mediums driven by two very different forces. When an author writes a book the reader is told the story through the eyes of the protagonists. We are inside the main character’s head for the majority of the novel. We hear their thoughts, experience their emotions and live the story through their body. Think of it as a sort of out of the body experience. Sometimes the author will allow us to hear the thoughts of the antagonist or secondary characters. We leave the story feeling as if we had been somehow transported to another time or place. And we want that same feeling to permeate onto the silver screen.
There’s only one problem. Screenplays are not internally driven. A screenplay is a visual medium. The story has to be seen and heard. The audience cannot live the story through the eyes of the protagonist but must experience it with the protagonists. We are transported to the time and place of the story as if we living every step of action with our beloved main character. Although we are living the story with our new friend, just like in life, we are not always privy to what the character is thinking. We have to ascertain those feeling and emotions from the actor who is portraying that character. You have to pay close attention to the dialogue and body language in order to determine what that character actually feels. Sometimes a screenwriter will allow the audience into a character’s head via voiceovers. Voiceovers are when a character is speaking over a scene but we do not see them. It is hard to properly do a voiceover in a script because the voiceover needs to carry dialogue throughout the script and not just in the opening. Since we are living the experience with the main character we do not get to see or hear what other characters, including the antagonist, are feeling unless they are speaking to our main character or a supporting character that is near the main character.
Some screenwriters have done a wonderful job in keeping with the author’s storyline. One thing to remember when you are comparing the movie to the script is that the author has no say whatsoever in how their story is delivered to the silver screen. When an author wants their novel to become a screenplay they will option the novel out to the screenwriter. Optioning out means the screenwriter has bought the rights to the book in order to write the screenplay. The author is out of the picture after they have sold the rights unless the author is also the screenwriter. But there are very few authors who can do this. VERY FEW! If an author manages to cross both the literary and media realms successfully then they are highly honored by writers in both their fields.
After the screenwriter had bought the film they will rip the author’s book apart deleting some scenes, adding new ones and polishing up original ones in order for the internal story to become an external story. This is where some screenwriters have changed the plotlines of some books when placing it on the screen. One example of this is Eragon. If you read the book then see the movie they are completely two different plots. Go ahead. Try it. You’ll be amazed. Another adaptation I can think of where the screenwriters really messed up is with the movie The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a book that is told in 1st person narrative and is highly internally driven. The problem with converting the book to film was that when the film came out it did not explain Katniss Everdeen’s motives or the emotions she was feeling during her entire ordeal. It only focused on the action, which without the emotional experience explained left me greatly lacking. So much so I’m not certain I want to see the next movie.
As a reader I was very appreciative of learning why my most beloved stories were changed in the process of bringing them to the screen. I hope this article has opened your eyes as to why your favorite book may have sucked on screen. Not all adaptations have failed on screen. Some of the best adaptations I have seen so far have been the Harry Potter and Twilight series. I’ll never stop reading books and watching them onscreen. If anything the lessons I have learned here will make my movie experience a more interesting one.
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