Books Leonardo DiCaprio The Great Gatsby

Why the movie adaptations of books don’t always stick the landing.


It’s inevitable: whenever you go out and see the movie, there’s always that one friend that says “eh, the book was better.” For me, it was always inevitable because I used to be that friend, but I digress.

It has become a running gag to denounce any movie adaptation of a book as inferior to the original. Even people who have never read the source material usually assume it’s better based on principle. But did you ever stop to ask why that is? After all, for the books to be considered superior so consistently, there has to be some kinks in the creative process, right? Are we just dealing with a lot of bad filmmakers here, or is it something else entirely?

The truth is, film adaptations of books are a lot more complicated than they appear at a glance. And even if a movie gets everything right about the book, audiences still might not like it for a number of reasons.

Sweeney Todd

1: Film adaptations are just that: adaptations.


Look, I’m no filmmaker, but you don’t need Steven Spielberg to tell you that a lot goes into making movies. And I’m not just talking about the hours of work and the billion dollar budgets: film making is a unique visual medium that needs to be fully harnessed to tell a good story. This is why Tim Burton didn’t just aim a camera at a stage production of Sweeney Todd when making his movie adaptation. Instead, he had to recreate the story shot-by-shot while utilizing all the tools film allows to engross an audience.

Books and movies can set out to tell the same story, but the execution will be inherently different. This is true of all adaptations, but it’s especially true when transitioning from a non-visual medium to a visual one. As a result, many movies will opt to create a dramatically different experience than the source material. Not out of disrespect to the original, but because you can’t beat the original at its own game. Whether movies succeed in this respect or not varies, but either way, it’s not a simple process.

Lord of the Rings

2: Movies have to limit their scope.


Movies are designed to be experienced in a single sitting. Even with 1960s style intermissions, film makers have maybe three and a half hours max of screen time before they test an audience’s patience. Books, on the other hand, can be enjoyed freely in as many sessions as the reader wants. So how do you fit a 500+ page novel’s story into an average length movie? Answer: You don’t.

Let’s put it this way: the extended edition of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring borders on four hours long. Even then, as many Tolkien fans will tell you, they completely omitted Tom Bombadil from the story. It’s not like he was a throwaway character either, he encompassed a major chunk of the plot! It’s just impossible to fit all the details and nuances of a novel into a movie. Even if you could, it can still hurt the pacing of a movie despite being fine in the source material.

Harry Potter

3: It’s a different artist’s interpretation.


In a novel, you’re given exactly as many details as the author wants to give you. That could be a lot or a little depending on the book, but everything outside of that is up to your imagination. This is why J.K. Rowling said she approved of a black actress to play Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Her skin color was never specified in the book, so any interpretation of her ethnicity is fair game.

Film doesn’t allow for that level of ambiguity. Directors need to stipulate details that the original authors never intended. Even worse, those unspoken details can’t possibly line up with how every reader imagined them. Perhaps you imagined the main character looked like Tom Cruise, but Nicholas Cage gets cast for the role instead. Now imagine every possible object you could have pictured in your mind in every major scene of a book, because the movie director might also replace all of those with Nicholas Cage. Hey, if the text didn’t say the refrigerator was best known for its role in National Treasure, then it’s still technically adhering to canon.

The Princess Bride

4: Audiences want the movie to be just like the book, even though that’s impossible.


Despite all of the above, audiences inevitably want movies to perfectly recreate the source material. In a way, you can’t really blame them. If you’re already a huge fan of a book, why wouldn’t you want the movie to capture all your favorite moments? Yet the truth is… well, perhaps movies shouldn’t aim to faithfully recreate the book.

A story explicitly designed for one form of media will always excel in that format. Once you start to consider movies as complimentary, yet different interpretations of their respective sources, then it becomes easier to swallow their imperfections. Take Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, for example. The movie is radically different than the original comics, but both are still wildly entertaining. In many ways, this makes both iterations of the same story better in the long run. No matter which format you experience first, the other will still hold plenty of surprises in store.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

In the end, is the book really always better than the movie? Most of the time, yeah. But perhaps it’s not about which is better or worse than the other. If we can learn to accept movie adaptations as transformative works, then we’ll be a lot happier with them regardless of our preexisting fandoms. It’s like having your cake and eating it too, without feeling sick to your stomach afterwards.

Except of course if you’re dealing with Eragon-quality movie adaptations, cause… um, yeah, those are just bad on their own terms.


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Written by TimM
Tim is a video game aficionado who is fascinated by pop culture. He built his first collection in 1999 by catching all 151 monsters in Pokemon Red, and he hasn't stopped collecting since. His work has been featured multiple times on Destructoid.com.