“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.