Road Trip Wednesday: #153 Book-to-Film

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway’s contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. We ,the bloggers who love YA Highway, post our response and then link it in the comments of the YA Highway site. Pretty fun!

This weeks topic: It isn’t surprising that this month’s Bookmobile selection, Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bonehas sold film rights; the darkly magical world of the Shadow Fold begs for an on-screen translation! But that got us wondering. We’d like to know, in your opinion, what is it that makes some books seem ideal for a film translation?

I am inspired by this topic for a couple of reasons:

1) Like most readers, great world-building and character development are the food for my imagination. Envisioning the world, and “casting” a book I love is one of my favorite parts of reading.

2) With my screenwriting background, editing a book for movie translation is something I never seem to be able to avoid. Some books are easy (like when I read The Hunger Games, but Suzanne Collins used to be a screenwriter) some are hard (like Pure, with it’s multiple plot lines and sensory overload), all are fun.

I agree with the author of this topic, Shadow and Bone will lend itself well to film. It’s ripe with vivid images and told in a straight line by the narrator. Finding the visual narrative thread, and knowing what perspective to shoot in, should not prove too complicated for the writer tasked with adapting the screenplay. And that, in essence, is my answer. Book to film translation is so tricky for those very reasons: narrative voice and scope. When you read a book, the author has pages and pages of time to build and fill and maneuver the characters into the heart of the reader.

When writing a screenplay, every page (which is made up of minimally described scene, action and dialogue) has to do a lot of work. Each page of a screenplay is the equivalent to one minute of screen time. Most screenplays are 120 pages, (2 hour films) with some being much shorter and some being much longer. The Hunger Games screenplay, for instance, would have been roughly 142 pages for its 142 run-time. The book was 382 pages, a 140 page gap. This is not even taking into account the difference in word count per page.

My point? A book to screen adaptation is reliant largely on how easy the information given in the longer novel is to translate into action. Screen time is action driven, even if its a character piece. This is where the breakdown happens, I think, with a lot of books turned to film. For a book to work as a film there needs to be a strong action thread (By action I do not just mean running, fighting, or killing. Action is just anything that pushes the plot forward.) and one that is easy to show on film.

To drive this point home: the seventh Harry Potter book made a horrible movie. The last half of the book, as well as the second film, was easier to interpret because it was pretty purpose driven. The first part of the book, and the first film, was plodding and pushed forward by sheer will. We got through both because we were all fully vested in the characters. This will not happen for every book-to-film adaptation.

Divergent should make a pretty compelling film, as long as they remember Tris’ energy and don’t get too bound up in being overly-clever with storytelling. With first person POV translations, the trick is finding a new narrative voice (why I think Twilight was such a massive failure) to help the audience into the story.

All of this to say…book to film is always difficult because as a medium they are completely different. The best adaptations are ones with clear purpose, clean storytelling, and images that lend themselves well to screen.

One of the best book-to-film interpretations ever.

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13 thoughts on “Road Trip Wednesday: #153 Book-to-Film

  1. Great post. I agree, it’s so easy to mess it up. I know it’s hard to cut down the book to make a well presented, flowing film. I just hate to see such great scenes cut out! But hey, what can you do. What grinds me the most is when they keep some scenes in but totally change them. Like the last bit of Harry Potter. He should have fought Voldemort in front of everyone, so everyone can see Harry defeat him. Instead they moved it outside. That was silly.

    • I agree whole-heartedly about Harry Potter. I felt those weird changes started in a big way when they began to remove the Cloak of Invisibility from the films, culminating in the disaster that was the end of the 6th movie. When Harry sees Snape in the clock-tower, and he doesn’t kill him (which in the books worked because Harry was hidden and unable to do anything for Dumbledore). It messed up the climax of finding out Snape was truly good for me. Those were changes that just seemed unnecessary. I get changes, but they should be for cinematic purposes, and not take away from the already awesome story.

  2. You’ve put into words what I was unable to. YES! This is exactly it. So much has to be conveyed by character mannerisms, expressions, and so on when we don’t have inner monologue. This is also the case with setting and everything else that takes so many words in a book but a movie doesn’t have time for. I think this is why LOTR worked so well–Tolkien spelled it out in great detail. Not to mention artists have been bringing Middle Earth to life through their art for years now.

    “With first person POV translations, the trick is finding a new narrative voice.” I couldn’t agree more. I think this is where I struggled with THE HUNGER GAMES movie. I liked it, but I think it suffered a little from not having that first person POV that the book did.

    • Yay! I agree about LOTR, I pay huge complements to Peter Jackson for his unrelenting pursuit of Tolkien’s truth. Filmmakers, whether it be the director themselves, or the set and costume designers, have a very hard job when doing book-to-film adaptations. I think I would even say the problem comes from the fact that reading is subjective, so when a book is made into a movie, it manages to please some and disappoint others because it captures what some see, but not others.

      With The Hunger Games, I have to say I kind of enjoyed the perspective change. By taking us into the control room to watch the Games progress, he made it third person, which is the voice films are told in. A movie done solely from the Arena once the Games begin could have been amazing, but that is a BIG could for me. 🙂

      • I’m back! You’re so right about the control room in THE HUNGER GAMES movie. That was a whole side of the Games that we didn’t get to see in the books, but was awesome in the movie. I just want my cake and to eat it too, I guess. 🙂 Something’s got to give, and in this case (and most every other case) it had to be in third person. That’s why showing what the characters are thinking/feeling through their actions is so important. That’s also why they really shouldn’t have omitted the scene where Peeta is taken away from Katniss right after the Games. I think that would have a been a great way of showing that Katniss did feel for Peeta and it wasn’t all strategy. Ah well. I think they did a great job, all of these little beefs aside. 🙂

      • Hahaha, welcome back. 🙂 I understand the wanting cake and eating problem, (with life too, and with actual cake) because I think that’s why we all have such trouble with our books we love being adapted into movies we will inevitably tear apart. For me, casting is always a major issue.The Hunger Games casting still rakes my nerves. Wrong body types, problems with chemistry, Peeta’s eye color, etc. But that is me splitting hairs and being a big baby because my boyfriend Peeta didn’t look just so. I give you a hearty AMEN! to your comments about the end of The Hunger Games movie. It was lacking what the book so perfectly portrayed, and I don’t know why that choice was made. I would love to hear an in-depth answer to that. Oh well…

  3. Great thoughts on the POV transition into film. I think that’s why Twilight disappointed for viewers who hadn’t read the books; so much of it is Bella’s internal struggle (aka whining depending how you view it) and the few action scenes were so few and far between–badly-rendered CGI wolves–that it barely felt like a vampire movie. Having read it, I understood this was really a teen romance with a vampire back-drop, it’s not a thriller, I enjoyed it–particularly the first film directed by Catherine Hardwicke. I wish she’d have stayed on for the rest of the films. Supposedly she left on her own accord but there’s some interesting speculation on that.

    I’m curious about Cloud Atlas coming out this week. A friend lended me the book, which unfortunately I haven’t gotten to yet. The way he described it makes me think it will either be really cool on screen or totally tank. It might be one of those star-studded films that the cast is all it has going for it (a la Valentine’s Day–look pretty people!).

    • Getting the POV right may have helped Twilight, but getting an actress that can act would have made a big difference too. Love watching all the other actors in movies starring Kristen Stewart act around her.

      When I was first reading The Twilight Saga, I was consumed, couldn’t get enough. When I finished, and reentered myself, I felt like I needed a detox. Twilight is a little like junk food. Although, I confess, I like junk food. 🙂 I have seen every one of the movies in the theater though. Glutton for punishment?

      Haha, those are Machine Movies, (films put together largely to get as many stars as possible, others include What to Expect When Your Expecting, He’s Just Not That Into You, etc.) and I am also a sucker for them. I love pretty people. Especially pretty boys. Hopefully, Cloud Atlas will not be that way.

  4. Some interesting insights into the world of screenplay writing, Rebekah! And I think the weakness of Potter 7.1 you pointed out was perhaps due to the director staying a little too close to the book. They probably could have been as ruthless with the travel scenes in that movie as they were with the Grimauld Place scenes in Movie 5. For the most part, though, the Potter movies did the job well. 🙂

    • Thanks! Hmm, nice point comparing it to how they managed Grimauld Place. Something to think about. 🙂 As a whole the Harry Potter adaptations were wonderful, and filled with the same overall feel as the books, I agree.

  5. “We got through both because we were all fully vested in the characters.” This is a very good point, and the reason I make it through the middle books of some trilogies too.

    • Sometimes I think we work through a lot just because we love the characters, and if we didn’t, we would give up. I think this applies to our own writing as well.

  6. The only reason I’ve sat through Potter 7.1 so many times is because of what you mentioned – the characters. If I hadn’t been following them for 10+ years, it wouldn’t have happened for me. (As it was, I was like, really? I paid $10 and waited in line for four hours to watch them GO CAMPING?)

    This was a really interesting post, with your screenwriter’s perspective!

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