Source Material and the Film Adaptation

6 Aug

As I’ve said before, I am not against adapting books/novels/comics/delete-as-appropriate into movies. I recognise that a lot of amazing films have been created from other sources. However, when a film is made out of a previous intellectual property, filmmakers have to tread a very careful line: to stay faithful to the source material whilst creating a story that works. And believe it or not, this is much harder than it looks.

What people fail to realise is that books and movies are very different media, and as such require very different structures and writing styles. Just because a novel has a brilliant plot, it will not necessarily transfer over into cinema. There are methods novels can employ that films cannot: use of descriptive text, use of internal monologues for characters, and a less stilted conveyance of emotion without resorting to dialogue for instance.

Excessive dialogue does not cover up other flaws in a screenplay.

Meanwhile, movies are an inherently visual medium, and must also successfully utilize the use of sound. Plots need to be more concise. Characters need to be more concrete and defined. The world of the film must be more structured, and, as it were, more real – or at least have a set of rules that must be adhered to for the audience to buy into the situations shown. Cinema is at the same time both simpler and more complex than fiction.

Having said all this, I can suggest a few main reasons why certain adaptations fall flat. First up is pacing. Fiction can have more meandering sections, where characters can be developed without it being detrimental to the overall plot. Even the most action-packed of novels can have chapters where the tension can drop and the reader can really get to know the characters. In film? Not so much. There is a bit of leeway, but characters really need to be defined by their actions, by how they look, and by what they say.

Next up, there’s the problem of back story. How exactly do you get a huge back story into a film? With a Star Wars-style opening crawl? Clichéd, but it can work sometimes. Expositional dialogue? Definitely not. The most successful back stories are created without the audience even realising: a look or an in-joke between characters, mise-en-scène to portray the world of the film – or in the case of specific props, a bit of a character’s history.  There are some examples otherwise but in general these subvert the tropes of dialogue.

One of the reasons The Joker is great is because of his two back stories. Which is real? Is either?

Then, there’s the length. Novels, in general, have quite a lot going on – a complex plot, lots of characters, back story, even large jumps through time. When the subject of an adaptation is a long text, then sacrifices need to be made. But where should these sacrifices fall? Successful adaptations take the core plot, keep other plot elements that are thematically important, and cut around that: characters that add little vibrancy or have nothing to do with the story, back story that doesn’t develop the plot of the film, and character-developing scenes. It’s incredibly hard, though, to work out what should be cut, and the director and scriptwriter are bound to upset fans of the original work. Perhaps this is why it seems that short stories often work out as better adaptations.

Finally, there’s the audience. Many adaptations fail because they ignore one simple rule: the audience is a blank slate. Lots of them, or even most of them, will not have read the original text, and they shouldn’t have to. It doesn’t matter if fans of the novel understand what is going on; if Average Joe the cinema-goer doesn’t understand it, your film doesn’t work. If a viewer has to have done homework in order to decipher a big-budget adaption, then the filmmaker has, unfortunately, done something wrong somewhere during the production. This is the one criticism I have of Edgar Wright’s fantastic Scott Pilgrim – it looked great, the correct elements were cut from the plot and cast, the art style reflected the comic perfectly, but some viewers came out of the movie not quite understanding what they had just seen. This one mistake in an otherwise wonderful film could be one of the reasons why it didn’t do that well at the box office.

Those are the major reasons that adaptations fail. So, let’s do a case study, shall we? Let’s pick David Lynch’s Dune: one of the biggest box office bombs of all time. Lynch was so unhappy with it that in certain pressings his name in the credit is replaced by Alan Smithee. Let’s not get on Lynch’s back, though – Frank Herbert’s original novel has many traps that any movie-maker could all into. It has time lapses, meandering character-developing sections, a massive back story, it’s absolutely massive, has a huge number of characters, its own vocabulary, a high-concept plot, and it’s absolutely insane. This book is potentially unfilmable – at least, as a single movie.

Lynch’s Dune fails at each and every one of these problems. Time-lapses are explained by an omniscient narrator, character developments are either explained by the same narrator or by the characters themselves – through both dialogue and internal thought. Back story? That’s the first fifteen minutes. The complete version of the film clocks in at just under three hours, and cuts still had to be made for the theatrical release that chopped up the story even further. Hardly any characters were cut, even those who, due to plot streamlining, had no point anymore. The vocabulary remains, some of it explained, some of it not. It’s still insane, and difficult to follow even if you’ve read the original text.

Worst of all though, are the additions made by Lynch himself. Obviously, additions need to be made, in terms of art style and dialogue. Sometimes even plot points and characters need to be added to make an adaptation work. Lynch, though, made some very strange choices. The evil Baron Harkonnen was given sores across his face (not mentioned in the novel), and due to the Baron being gay there were allegations of homophobia – with the sores representing the AIDS epidemic.

Then there’s this scene:

Why is a cat being milked for an antidote? Who knows. It wasn’t in the novel, that’s for sure, and doesn’t add anything to the film other than making Sting look even more mental.

How about the giant eyebrows of the Mentats? Or the seductive Bene Gesserit being made bald?

Eyebrows mean logic and baldness is sexy.

Lynch seemed to choose these additions over other points that were vital. The Mentats were included despite the Mentat/Bene Gesserit rivalry being practically removed from the film. Hawat (he who needs the cat-antidote) was kept in the film in spite of his role in the novel – helping the Harkonnens after believing that Paul Atreides’ mother betrayed him – being taken out of the movie. Gone was any feeling that Arrakis was a hard planet to live on, and indeed the value of water is not really present. And the point of the novel – that Paul Atreides is not truly a god, but has made himself seem one, is taken out. Unfortunately, Dune is far removed from the source material in all the wrong ways. It is also similar to the source material in all the wrong ways.

Film adaptations, for me, fall into one of three categories. There are the great adaptations – the films that are respectful of the source, build upon it, and adapt it into a working movie. The films that make you want to go back and read the original work, regardless of whether you’ve read it before. Then there are the films that were heavily criticized for their deviation from their source material, but are still good films in their own right. Finally, there are those that just don’t work – nonsensical plots, poor scripts, changes to the source that make no sense, and that are just bad movies.

Join me next time and I’ll take you on a whirlwind tour of the three categories of adaptations – the good, the bad, and the it-got-ugly-with-the-original-fans.


67 Responses to “Source Material and the Film Adaptation”

  1. odiousghost August 6, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    Agreed! I loved Dune the book, but cannot watch more than 5 minutes of the film without wanting to throw a cushion at the screen. If I catch the cat milking scene though, it’s more likely to make me want to throw myself out of the window. (well, that’s a bit extreme, but you know what I mean!)

    • Rob Gordon August 6, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

      Definitely agree! The cat-milking is one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen onscreen. Dune is a difficult read on its own (although definitely worth it), so I genuinely cannot understand why Lynch decided to add more crazy to the mix.

      • odiousghost August 6, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

        It is truly odd – then again I guess Lynch never knowingly shies away from crazy…

    • August 8, 2012 at 3:36 am #

      I really like the movie Dune. I didn’t realize it was a flop.

      I did not read the book though. I did read National Lampoon’s Doon, which is a parody of the Dune book, but it’s all about beer instead of spice. It is hilarious. I highly recommend it.
      Here’s a wiki link about it ->

  2. Mikalee Byerman August 7, 2012 at 11:08 pm #

    You know, I thought I had seen Dune before…but I don’t remember the cat milking. And I DEFINITELY would have remembered the cat milking…

    • Rob Gordon August 7, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

      It’s something that will certainly stay with me for the rest of my life, I’ll put it that way!

  3. dysfunctional literacy August 7, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

    All I remember is Sting and some other guy (probably the protagonist) kicking each other and Sting screaming, “I will kill you!,” and I kept thinking he should have screamed, “I will kick you!” But that was 30 years ago, and my memory might be wrong.

    • Rob Gordon August 7, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

      To be honest, I couldn’t really concentrate on Sting’s dialogue as I was too enthralled by his amazing pointy costumes and massive hair. But that sounds familiar – I think he did a lot of screaming.

  4. laflowreviews August 7, 2012 at 11:21 pm #

    Fantastic post. Nice to see someone else realize that there needs to be a difference between book and movie at times. That’s a particular reason why I hate fan backlash in say Harry Potter. Both are great in their own ways but just because the movie took a different approach than the books shouldn’t bring down the value.

    • Rob Gordon August 7, 2012 at 11:26 pm #

      Thank you! I agree completely about Harry Potter as well. There was a lot of criticism from fans over missed characters and minor plot elements, but in reality movies and books are different beasts, and I think (personally) that the movie plots were streamlined very effectively.

      • ramiungarthewriter August 7, 2012 at 11:30 pm #

        Sounds like my perception of Harry Potter, almost.

    • Ryan August 8, 2012 at 12:36 am #

      That’s interesting. I while I usually am more critical of on “untrue” film adaptations than most people are (, one of the reasons I hate the Harry Potter movies is because of how slavish they are the books.

      Granted, there are things they take out — how can there not be? — but the overall effect to me is an attempt to keep as much as possible the same, without any sort of thought as to how it will play as a film. If I hadn’t read the books before seeing the movies, I would have been lost.

      Small example: for time, the series cuts Percy’s transition to the dark side and promotion to a ministry job, yet when the time comes to arrest Dumbledore in Order of the Phoenix, he is inexplicably in the room. Of course, if you have read the books, you understand his presence, but it’s offered without explanation in the film.

  5. ramiungarthewriter August 7, 2012 at 11:29 pm #

    The first category makes me think of “The Help”, the second category makes me think of “1408”, and the third category makes me think of “Eragon”.

  6. Bionic Sisters Productions August 7, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

    Great Article! I see Harry Potter in a totally different light now. Come and check out my similar perspective through webdesign and Facebook!

    • Rob Gordon August 7, 2012 at 11:42 pm #

      Thank you! Will be sure to read your thoughts – I have a lot of interest in the web and particularly in social media!

  7. Bionic Sisters Productions August 7, 2012 at 11:39 pm #

    Reblogged this on Bionic Sisters Productions and commented:
    Very Interesting article, gives the average movie go’er a new perspective.

  8. righterskramp August 8, 2012 at 12:13 am #

    Rarely does a film actually do a service to a novel. The Horse Whisperer, I’ve heard, made a better film than novel.

    I’d like to read your thoughts on unsuccessful novels to marvelous films. I’m sure there have to be some – and you likely have an opinion on it. If you didn’t before, maybe you will now?

    • Rob Gordon August 8, 2012 at 12:36 am #

      I agree with you – you don’t often get great films out of unsuccessful books. I think there are a few, though. On personal preference I prefer Blade Runner to the original book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and The Thing (the 80s John Carpenter version) to the original story Who Goes There. Then again, it all comes down to opinion!

      Perhaps one of the reasons that there aren’t many is that often, mediocre novels don’t make it onto the big screen, and those that do have problems relating to parts of the plot that would effect the quality of both novels and films alike. Just a theory though! I’ll give it some more thought.

  9. Leah August 8, 2012 at 12:32 am #

    One of my favorite manga, Ooku: The Inner Chambers, is receiving second movie and a TV series of the second and third story arcs, so I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. The first manga -> film adaptation was amazing, and I thought the choices they made to cut a couple scenes and add a couple others were excellent in regards to maintaining excitement and tension, as you said.

    Looking forward to the next installment!

    • Rob Gordon August 8, 2012 at 12:47 am #

      I’ll need to read that and give the film(s) a watch! Unfortunately I don’t know it myself – my manga knowledge is limited to the likes of Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Uzumaki etc. I was thinking of mentioning Akira in my next post though, as a good original-to-film adaptation that maybe suffers a little if you don’t know the original.

  10. alleyandthemovies August 8, 2012 at 12:51 am #

    It’s an elusive study source materials and film adaptations provide. But it’s rarely the book is always better than the movie, or always the movie fully expresses the imaginary world a novelist creates. I take certain books and their film adaptations and review them side by side, to find out which one is truly the best. You can check it out here:

    • Rob Gordon August 8, 2012 at 1:04 am #

      Hi! Thanks for the comment and for the link, very interesting (although personally I loved both the original novel and film of Never Let Me Go)! You’re right, the book is not always better than the movie and you do get cases when the adaptation doesn’t represent the vision of the novel. I’m always reminded of The Shining – Stephen King was very disappointed in Stanley Kubrick’s version, but it’s gone on to be thought of as one of the best horror movies of all time. I noticed you reviewed the Total Recall remake. Have you read the original short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale? It’s very different from the Schwarzenegger movie, and apparently from the remake as well.

      • alleyandthemovies August 8, 2012 at 1:08 am #

        Hey, thanks for checking it out! I actually haven’t reviewed the short story for Total Recall; if you scroll down to the bottom of the post, I announce that I’m reviewing Silence of the Lambs next. 🙂

  11. willshakespeare August 8, 2012 at 1:25 am #

    Interesting post! But what do you think of the Watchmen movie? The director was true to the work, and took text from there verbatim. I read the comic, and he incorporated every element of the comic/graphic novel into the text. Yet it was heavily criticized. Do you think this was another example of a failed adaptation? What of his attempts to expand it in the Director’s Cut?

    Will Reblog.

    • Rob Gordon August 8, 2012 at 10:29 am #

      Hi there! See, I disagree with you on how much the director incorporated. Although he kept the core story very well, a lot of characters were taken out and because of that the ending had to be changed. Alongside that a couple of side-stories were missing (although a pair of short films were made to show them). Personally I think Watchmen is a fantastic movie though, and is successful in all the ways that Dune isn’t – the changes had to be made to make it work as a film. Unfortunately fans of Alan Moore’s work in general aren’t very receptive to changes being made. I’ll be writing about it in my next post, in fact!

  12. willshakespeare August 8, 2012 at 1:26 am #

    Reblogged this on Writer's Block.

  13. projectedthoughts August 8, 2012 at 2:21 am #

    Great article!

  14. Easy Lifestyles August 8, 2012 at 3:30 am #

    Excellent post. Thanks for sharing. You have a wonderful blog here. Can’t wait to see what’s next.

    Have a very nice day – Easy Lifestyles

  15. Laurence of Persia August 8, 2012 at 3:52 am #

    I believe television is a more suited media for adaptation. I have in mind miniseries such as The Pillars of The Earth. As a person who studied cinema, if I wanted to adapt a novel, I would definitely choose television. You can more respect the source because instead of 2 hours you have 8 or more.

    • Rob Gordon August 8, 2012 at 10:34 am #

      There’s definitely a case to be made about TV adaptations, as you’re right, they can often include a lot more of the story. Unless they’re handled well, though, they can still contain pitfalls such as how to handle character development correctly. I love the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand for instance, and am dubious of how successful a feature film would be, given how long it is and how many characters are integral to the plot.

      • laurenceofpersia August 8, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

        So it’s ALL about the talent of the person(s) who adapt(s) the original material to the screen, if he/she/they make(s) the right choices…!

      • Rob Gordon August 8, 2012 at 11:26 pm #

        Essentially, yes – a lot of what makes a great adaptation rests on the actions of those who produce, direct, and adapt the plot into a screenplay/series. Obviously it’s more unlikely that a poor quality novel will make a great film/TV show but miracles can be worked!

  16. Liz August 8, 2012 at 7:26 am #

    Great post! I LOVE Scott Pilgrim, it’s one of my all time favorites. Going into the movie all I knew was that it was a movie with Michael Cera and that I wasn’t (and still am not) a huge fan; but I came out loving it. I think once the movie gets going, it’s easy enough to follow. As far as adaptations go it’s one of best I’ve come across. After seeing the movie I went out and bought the comics and was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the dialogue in the movie was taken straight from the books (part of reason I love the movie so much). I think the reason it didn’t do well in the box office was because it was up against block busters The Expendables and Eat Pray Love.

    • Rob Gordon August 8, 2012 at 10:39 am #

      Thanks! I’m a big fan of Scott Pilgrim myself (both the comics and the film). There were definitely other reasons for Scott Pilgrim, unfortunately, not doing that well in theatres. I think the marketing side of it was a little mismanaged as well, it was up against some big films, and unfortunately the huge support the film had in the online community just didn’t turn up to see it for some reason. It’s done a lot better in the home video department though, thankfully!

      • drewpan August 8, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

        I was sooooo psyched for Scott Pilgrim, but I have to say, the movie flopped for me because it just didn’t have a coherent plot. I’m sure this is probably due to the missing plot elements from the comics, but either way it just didn’t really have much emotion or meaning to it.

        Of course, you could easily pin that on Michael Cera too.

  17. Fillipoh August 8, 2012 at 10:10 am #

    Good Job!

  18. Jack mike August 8, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    Oman Hotels !!

  19. Lisa Scullard August 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

    Different genre, but I read the book of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ before seeing the film – and found the book self-centred, self-referential, and humourless – couldn’t see the point of it, except it might have gone on some shelf with books about manifesting and Cosmic Ordering while the author went off spending her publisher’s money in an effort to escape a nasty divorce. But then I saw the film and found it much more lighthearted and accessible than the book. I don’t know how much of that was deliberate re-structuring, or just the loss of the ‘internal monologue’ that made the character more comfortable to watch than to read about, but it was well done. I think casting movies has a lot to do with whether book adaptations work as well – I know a lot of readers don’t want their inner images spoiled that they’ve built up, if a book is a particular favourite.

    • Rob Gordon August 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

      I’ve actually yet to see Eat, Pray, Love, or read the original book! Will need to check it out though. Definitely agree about casting as well – characters are incredibly important and even a slightly wrong casting choice can lead to disenchantment.

  20. jumeirajames August 8, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

    Do you think the old adage ‘great books make poor films, poor books make great films, is true? I know there are many exceptions but as an adage it holds some truth.
    ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ is practically unreadable but Blade Runner is divine. Dune was a great book but the movie (and I love Lynch’s work) was passable. It’s actually better than good if you’ve never read the book.

    • Rob Gordon August 8, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

      Personally, I don’t think it’s true. There are number of fantastic books that have been turned into fantastic movies – Fight Club, The Shawshank Redemption, Never Let Me Go, Sleepers, and American Psycho for instance. That said, there are many flawed novels that have become great movies – but I don’t think there is any rule, simply because movies and prose fiction are such different forms of storytelling. Great novels can become great movies, it just needs a particular way of adapting it to suit the new medium.

  21. windbent August 8, 2012 at 9:04 pm #

    Even though I agree with everything you said about the Dune movie by David Lynch…I still have to admit it is one of my all time guilty pleasures. It’s SO bad, it’s hysterical. I’m kinda obsessed with it. My friends tease me. My husband begs to never have to watch it again. It can’t be just me because a client quoted it to me the other day, which gave me great joy. LOL

    • Rob Gordon August 8, 2012 at 10:58 pm #

      Haha! That’s fair enough, I did notice there were a lot of quotable lines in it! I’m a big fan of so-bad-it’s-good movies – I’m always up for watching The Room or Super Mario Bros for instance!

  22. kodiax1 August 8, 2012 at 9:04 pm #

    Finally! Many people *shudder* believe that movies and books are basically the same thing, and an ‘minor’ changes are no big deal. Could you even understand the movie Dune? Even after you read the book, you wanted to just slap Lynch. Huge eyebrows = what exactly?!

    • Rob Gordon August 8, 2012 at 10:59 pm #

      As someone who read (and loved) the book, I still found it difficult to understand – I dread to think what someone who didn’t know the universe would have thought!

  23. supashmo August 8, 2012 at 10:42 pm #

    I agree. Film adaptations are very tricky, but can be done if you’re clever and careful. And yeah, cater to a broad audience, or else you’ve failed. Oddly, though, I have never seen Scott Pilgrim as a comic book besides picking it up, flipping through like a flip-book, and putting it down. Yet the movie is now one of my favorites and I see it as a very clever, over-the-top way of telling a simple story about a guy proving his the best man and literally fighting for his girl.

    • Rob Gordon August 8, 2012 at 11:00 pm #

      Glad to hear you’re a Scott Pilgrim fan! Since watching the film, have you gone back to read the comics more in-depth? Or have you wanted to? I’m a big fan of both the film and the comics, agree about how it tells such an archetypal story so well.

      • supashmo August 9, 2012 at 1:00 am #

        I never read them, but I really want to. I just have to find the money to afford them! 😀 But yeah, I’m very curious since it’s a couple books long, so I KNOW there are some differences. But yeah, the movie was awesome and I laughed my butt off the whole time. Love Wallace.

      • Rob Gordon August 9, 2012 at 9:18 am #

        If you love Wallace, then I think you’ll like the comics – he appears plenty in them! My favourite character is Kim Pine, though. One of my bands has a song about her!

      • supashmo August 9, 2012 at 10:41 pm #

        Kim made me laugh, and I hope there’s more in the comics about her relationship with Scott because that made me curious. One of your bands? What song?

      • Rob Gordon August 9, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

        There is a lot more of her history and her character in general in the comics. Here’s a link to a live version of the song:

        No quality recorded version yet, but hopefully going into the studio soon!

      • supashmo August 11, 2012 at 4:04 pm #

        I listened to it. Yeah, the quality made the lyrics a little hard to hear, but I think I got the gist of it and the music was actually quite enjoyable!

      • Rob Gordon August 11, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

        Thanks! We should be going into the studio to record it soon, will be sure to link you when we’re done 🙂

  24. gemgemgoesglobal August 8, 2012 at 11:52 pm #

    you should try out Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. That was a really good adaptation 🙂 it will restore your belief that it can be done well it did for me 🙂

    • Rob Gordon August 9, 2012 at 12:13 am #

      LOVE Battle Royale! Definitely the way to do an adaptation right.

      • gemgemgoesglobal August 10, 2012 at 10:32 pm #

        i know i absolutely loved it! the book was like nothing i’d ever read and the film was so well styled! have you seen the second one?? i was told it was crap, but i got it really cheap online, just for the sake of seeing it, and i thought it was actually so good!! a bit long but a really good follow up considering it wasn’t based on a book 🙂

      • Rob Gordon August 10, 2012 at 11:01 pm #

        I haven’t seen it yet, unfortunately. Will have to check it out though! There’s a similar plot to Battle Royale in Series 7: The Contenders, which I strongly recommend. Great film with satirizing reality TV and celebrity.

      • gemgemgoesglobal August 10, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

        oh my god i thought i was the only one left who had as much love for this series 😀 definately check it out if you get the chance, though i recommend you take the time to watch it all, uninterrupted in one go – it’s 2 and 1/2 hours long, but worth every minute! 😀

      • Rob Gordon August 11, 2012 at 11:05 am #

        Will definitely give it a watch 🙂

  25. L. Palmer August 9, 2012 at 12:11 am #

    I actually took a film adaptation class in college. I went through a series of projects before settling on an adaptation of the Prodigal Son story from the bible. I felt it was simple enough, and had a lot of leeway to build my own narrative and story onto. Adapting a novel, graphic novel, or comic book series is far more complex and tricky. After taking that class, I have a lot more respect for filmmakers who are able to make successful film adaptations.

    • Rob Gordon August 9, 2012 at 12:23 am #

      A similar exercise at university did the same for me, actually! We had to adapt a novella into a short film, and it really helped to break down exactly how difficult it is to change one form into the other.

  26. candelacouture August 9, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

    amazing article! i love looking at things from a different viewpoint, makes it 100% more interesting!

    Do you mind checking out my site, its new and im posting about everything and would love your opinion
    Thanks so much!

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