How Harshly Can I Judge Book-to-Film Adaptations When I Have No Background in Film?

“The book is so much better than the movie!”

It’s a common frustration for readers that film adaptations never live up to the magic of the novel, whether it’s because the movie cut content or changed content or added content. Or maybe things just aren’t the way readers imagined. The setting doesn’t look right or the characters aren’t cast right. Or, worse, maybe the movie is just bad with poor quality CGI or cheesy dialogue or poor acting. Any number of things can make a book’s fans think the movie is disappointing and they would never have done it that way.

I’ve been critical of any number of book-to-movie adaptations myself, but as I was recently reading yet another post online from a reader about “how they would have made the movie,” I found myself asking myself some surprising questions: Am I actually capable of adapting a film “correctly?” Why do I think I would do it “better than the professionals?

The reality is: I don’t actually know much about film. I have never taken a film studies course. I have never written a screenplay, much less one specifically based on a book. I have never acted or been in so much as a high school play. When I took a Spanish course in college that involved writing papers about Spanish films, I was somewhat at a loss and relied heavily on the list of “film terms” the professor provided. If the list included “mise en scène,” I figured I should probably look that up and say something about it. I probably passed mainly because I had some skill at “interpreting things” from being an English major. In short, I have close to zero expertise in the art of film.

And expertise is something I generally value. If I can trust a scientist knows more about, say, how climate change is progressing and why than I do, than I think it’s worth acknowledging that the professionals who work on book-to-movie adaptations have skills and experience I don’t. And it’s easy for me to say I would make a better adaptation–but maybe I wouldn’t. I’ve never tried.

That said, I don’t think one has to be an expert in any type of art to have an opinion on it. I can watch American Idol and know whether someone’s a good singer or not–and I am certainly not a good singer myself. I can tell whether a book is badly paced or has illogical world building even if I’ve never written a book. So of course I can watch a movie and have valid thoughts about how well (or not!) it was adapted from the novel.

The key to a good adaptation, for me, is keeping the spirit of the novel. I don’t think it’s possible to include every scene or character or witty piece of dialogue. Some things have to be cut or changed or added to move from a textual medium to a visual one. So the number one “qualification” for adapting a book might actually be understanding the book–having an expertise in literature more so than in film-making.

That said, I still don’t think I could actually adapt a novel and do it “better.” Watching something that’s already been made and analyzing it or criticizing it is one skill. Starting completely from scratch, with just the book in front of you, and then writing a film script and casting actors and creating a whole movie involves different skills entirely, and half of those skills are ones I don’t have. I do think I can judge movies; I don’t think I can claim I would be able to make a good movie.

Briana

27 thoughts on “How Harshly Can I Judge Book-to-Film Adaptations When I Have No Background in Film?

  1. Davida Chazan says:

    It isn’t so much HOW they adapt a book for film, but rather the fact that when we read and love a book, many people have ideas in their heads as to what characters sound like or look like that can disappoint when we see someone else’s version of those characters on screen. Also, we each take something a bit different from a book, and if things are left out or added in, we feel that we’ve been cheated or that the screenwriters are trying to be overly obvious.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lesserknowngems says:

    One person who I think had an interesting take on this was youtuber Dominic Nobel’s take on the 50 shades of Grey series. (Warning for fans of the series, Dominc is not a fan of the books nor most of the films.) He talks about how the movie process changed between film 1 and 2-3, and how film 1 is more true to the book, but that the author liked film 2-3 better because they were better at telling the story she wanted to tell (even if that meant they changed a lot of the book). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nxAAu79oGk&list=PL4QtKjJdB8FT6I0Wwe_ueQPCKv1lejXO3

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      That’s what I always think, that capturing the feel and spirit of a book is most important, rather than getting all the details correct, and that is exactly what I would find difficult to do. I can look at a book and say I think x actor looks like the character or would play them well. I can’t look at a book and figure out how to completely transform it to work on screen.

      Liked by 1 person

      • lesserknowngems says:

        I agree with you. It’s important to tell the author’s story, even if the details have to change. But then again… Have you seen The Never ending Story? Have you read the book? Would you say the film is bad even if it’s not the author’s story at all?

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        • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

          I’ve read/watched it, but it’s been such a long time I don’t necessarily remember much about them! I do remember liking both. It might be a bit like Ella Enchanted. The movie is fun if very cheesy and a lot of people like it, but I think it has very little in common with the book. So I guess it’s a good movie if you like that kind of thing (I sort of don’t like the movie, to be honest), but it’s not a great adaptation.

          Liked by 1 person

          • lesserknowngems says:

            I’ve also heard that the book is very different from the film. I’ve seen the film, and I’m wondering if the book should go on my TBR since I’ve met several people who praise the book.

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  3. Diana says:

    Oh, I think you are right when you say you can pass a valuable judgement on a film without knowing film terms or being an expert. I mean, you don’t even need any film studies background to be a film critic. I mean, there are so many professional critics out there with zero degrees in film studies – a film is an art form – it may be useful to know all sorts of interesting things about the genre, history and directors and styles, but, really, as any form of art you just view it and say to others what are your feelings and impressions about it – it is not like clear-cut science – there is no correct or incorrect opinion on this or that and your opinion is as valuable as that of a person next to you.

    And I don’t think any person without qualifications can claim they can make a movie adaptation – everyone agrees that passing opinions is not the same as making movies. However, making decisions about the cast and what scenes from a book to include or not are matters of judgement, and why not say that this or that scriptwriter or director got it wrong? They are not Gods and critiquing a creative process can even be beneficial and eye-opening – it develops your critical judgement and analytical skills and informs others.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yeah, I think it’s interesting because I can definitely watch something and think, “X thing isn’t working” or “They could have added Y,” but I also admit that…I would be really bad at it if I had to make a film from the ground up instead of just getting to critique the finished product!

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  4. Lois says:

    For me, I find it easier to tackle book adaptations as a separate entity to the novel. It’s a difficult task translating a 400+ page book into a 2-hour film and sometimes the key moments we love in novels don’t translate as well on screen, especially if it’s in the first person. Naturally, some choices they make in the adaptation can be frustrating, but as you said the biggest priority is in keeping the spirit of the book in the film. At the end of the day, movie adaptations are just another interpretation.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I agree that’s the difficulty with fitting in everything readers might love from the book. It might not translate well or it might slow down the movie. Or if something is important but presented as the character’s inner thoughts or something, you have to figure out how to make that visual.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. marydrover says:

    I really appreciate this discussion! It frustrates me a lot when people harp on how bad a film is and how they would have done things differently or “better” when they have absolutely no qualifications to back that up. To be fair, I’ve kind of just done away with expectations when it comes to movies, and if it’s even mildly enjoyable, I’ll probably end up liking it. And, I don’t know, it bothers me when others say that about books. “Oh, I could’ve written this better.” Having written several books myself, I’m always thinking, “But could you really?” And it’s the same kind of thing. Yes, we’re totally capable of having opinions and expressing those, but to say that we can do it better, unless we have the knowledge and expertise to back that up, is just a blatant disregard for how hard the filmmakers already worked. And there’s so much that goes into making a film, even beyond the actual filmmaking part, that many of those judging adaptations have no idea about, that it’s impossible to say that we could do better simply by saying “well, I’d just make it a four hour movie, then, and we’d all love it.” Anyway, I’m rambling, I really enjoyed this post!

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I guess it’s somewhat the difference between editing and creating. It’s easier (and still valid, of course!) to critique something that already exists and say you’d change a scene or add a scene or change an actor. Creating the whole story from the ground up is different entirely!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Anna says:

    Some of the greatest movies of all time were adapted from books. Jurassic Park is a good example of making the movie different from the book. The book goes into tons of detail of genetic coding while the movie focuses more on the action and dinosaurs. I know some people prefer the movie over the book and I understand why. I personally like both the movie and the book.

    Its best to watch the movie first then read the book, that way you can appreciate the movie and the book as stearate art forms.

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  7. Jenna @ Falling Letters says:

    Great points. I’m not one to hesitate from saying “The book is better than the movie” (which might be more accurately phrased as “The book is a better /experience for me/ than the movie”). They are such different mediums, though, it can be unfair to compare them. It’s easy to watch a movie and think “I would change X and Y” to make that movie more appealing to my own tastes. As a book lover first, it’s difficult for me to fairly critique a film when I’m constantly comparing it to the book version. But as you noted – what do I know about film making? It would be impossible for me to make a better movie if I started from ‘scratch’.

    One thing that I’m happy to see more of recently is books being adapted into TV series rather than movies. (Thank-you streaming services for making this possible.) I think a TV show rather than movie has more chance of ‘success’ in adapting a book because it can portray a fuller story.

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  8. Michael J. Miller says:

    What I love so much about this post is your acknowledgement that there is a difference between having an opinion on an adaptation and how well it captures the spirit of the text and critiquing the use of film techniques. More and more in our culture (or maybe just on social media) it feels like people equate their opinion with “good” and anything else with “bad.” And they so often act like it’s an objective truth. It’s so disconcerting. So to see you a) clearly express value for and the importance of expertise and b) draw the line between the skills and knowledge of an expert and our own opinion, which also has its own value, felt so refreshing. I second it all and I love that this exists in the internet for people to find.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I’m glad you found it interesting because I was working out my thoughts a bit as I was writing the post! I started out thinking, “Realistically, I would be terrible at making a book-to-film adaptation,” but then I realized that’s just because I have no background in the technical stuff or the hands-on parts of exactly how one *makes* the adaptation. It ultimately occurred to me I think I would be decent at knowing what the main themes of the film should be and what ideas and such should be presented in the movie (partially because I have a literature background, but obviously one could just be an avid reader and be good at figuring out the heart/spirit of a story). But having an idea in my head of what should be in the film and, you know, writing a script that conveys that uses film techniques and not novel techniques is not something I have experience in. I always think it must be particularly difficult to adapt a book that deals a lot with the interiority of a character. If the main focus of the book is a character’s thoughts and not any particular action, how do you get that on screen?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        I remember that with Joe Walsh’s adaptation of ‘Atonement.’ Despite the action of the plot, it was a novel so grounded in the the characters’ thoughts I didn’t know that it’d translate. But the cast was perfect and so many of the scenes looked just as they did in my head. Yet in the third act it was just impossible to translate that – or the emotional experience of reading it at least – with any sort of accuracy.

        Though not a book-to-movie adaptation specifically (unless I write a memoir first), when they inevitably make a big screen biopic about my life I would trust you to shape the adaptation. I’d make sure you had the people with the technical knowledge of film around you, but you could feel free to guide the main themes, the heart and soul of the film.

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  9. Gayathri Lakshminarayanan says:

    I totally agree with you. I feel annoyed when people try to just compare the movie and the book, scene by scene and then complain about it (looking good movies like HP). As long as the essence is captured it is good with me. That being said, there are some adaptations that do no justice to the book/story at all.

    Great discussion post.

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  10. Malka @ Paper Procrastinators says:

    I think this is such a fantastic post! I really appreciated the distinction you made between judging something based on enjoyment, and judging something based on experience. There are so many movies that I think have been adapted really well, and some that I thought were adapted rather poorly. I think for me the difference is that while I can tell you what I liked/disliked, I don’t have the necessary skills to create or change anything that’s in the movie.

    In a weird way I think I have this with book reviews as well. I’m not an English/Literature major, and I’m not a writer myself. So it feels a bit weird discussing what I think could have been done better, when there’s no way I could have done even half as good a job as the author did if I attempted to write the same story!

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I actually think your point about reviews is a distinction between reviewing and editing! I guess there’s sometimes a similar mindset I see, where people seem to think they’d be a fabulous book editor because they like reading and discussing books. But I think it’s one thing to have a reader/reviewer reaction and be able to say something like, “The pacing is too slow” or “There’s no chemistry with the love interest.” An editor would be able to say why that is/how the author might be able to fix it–and that’s a different skill.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Malka @ Paper Procrastinators says:

        That makes a lot of sense! I think I’d be a good copy-editor, because I’m good with grammar and finding inconsistencies, but I wouldn’t make a good editor in terms of the story-line itself! I guess I’ll just stick to reviewing then. 😊

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