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Why is it So Hard to Adapt a Book?


by Tom Ashford

I went to the Design Museum in London the other day, not because I have a particular interest in the way design has evolved over the past two hundred and fifty years (as interesting as that turned out to be) but because they currently have a wonderful exhibit on the works of Stanley Kubrick.

I’ve only seen three Kubrick movies (terrible, I know) – A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. My father is the bigger fan, but then again I was only ten when Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, was released. So it wasn’t until I attended the exhibit that I discovered that all but one of Kubrick’s films (possibly excluding his earlier work) were adaptations of books. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey’s screenplay was written concurrently alongside novelist Arthur C. Clarke’s novel.

And that got me thinking. How come Kubrick, considered one of the greatest directors to have ever lived, could adapt books so well, when so many book-to-movie or book-to-television adaptations are maligned by those who loved the original work?

Sure, you could say that his take on The Shining isn’t a brilliant adaptation. Don’t get me wrong – I love the film. It’s an adaptation, and it’s brilliant. But it deviates from the novel in a number of ways, enough that Stephen King himself didn’t think much of it. It’s quite a different take. But I think that’s why it works when other ‘loose’ adaptations don’t – Kubrick understood what made the novel so successful, and replicated that within a different medium. The story changes, but what made that story special crosses over without loss.

Amazon Studios, in my opinion, seem to struggle with this. There’s been a bit of a trend recently, what with them purchasing the television rights for popular and/or critically acclaimed books and then, well, changing the stories. And not for the better. The Man in the High Castle is a brilliant and somewhat experimental novel, but the showrunners seemingly decided that in order to make the show run for more than a single season (or what could have been a two-hour film), they needed to throw aside any sort of subtlety and instead fully throw themselves into an alternate reality narrative. Not a metaphorical or even theoretical alternate history, but an actual one. Having read the book, the show seems to miss the point… given that the best character development is given to a Nazi officer, it seems to miss quite a few.

The same can be said of their adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Sure, the book is fairly chunky. But can you guess why people enjoyed the book? Because of the story. That’s what books are. Stories. So why bloat it just to make sure it runs for three seasons instead of one? Why throw the trajectory of the original plot out of the window and hope that the show continues to work just on the strength of its themes (which aren’t nearly as effective as the story itself, in my opinion).

All that being said, those who haven’t read either novel seem to really enjoy the show, so perhaps my opinion has been skewed. I am enjoying their adaptation of Good Omens, after all – it was based on a Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read. Maybe it was the BBC keeping them reined in. Maybe it was having Neil Gaiman as the actual showrunner, somebody who knows how to tell a story because, guess what – he told it in the first place.

But perhaps the problem arises from the difference between the two mediums. Books are longer than films, and as such carry more detail and greater number of storylines. These inevitably have to be cut from the movie in order to save it from being a bloated, boring mess (notice how the Harry Potter films didn’t include the Hogwarts House Elf storyline). The different mediums allow for different paces – you want to be drawn into the fictional world when reading a book, but a film can show you that world without needing to slow down the pace. Equally, children’s films sometimes need extra padding in order to make the story long enough to warrant a film in the first place.

And even if you somehow manage to capture whatever essence made the book so great (whether that’s the exact story – something video game-to-movie adaptations consistently fail to do – or the theme), you still run the risk of disappointing fans of the novel. That because a book is effectively a conversation between the writer and the reader – the person reading the novel puts (almost) as much work into imagining the fictional world of the story as the author does. They fill in the blanks and colour in the white spaces. Everybody ends up with their own unique take on the story, no matter how descriptive or iconic the original work might be. Films, on the other hand, require little or no imagination from the viewer. The world is explicitly shown to them, flaws and all. It’s not the viewer’s world, it’s the filmmaker’s… and unless it’s very good, the film won’t match the world the reader once had in their head.

With all that in mind, perhaps it’s no wonder that it took one of the greatest filmmakers of all time to get book-to-movie adaptations so consistently right.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.