We have all gone to the movies to see a favorite book-turned-film, only to utter the phrase “the book was better.” I’m guilty of it, I will admit that. But I took a class on adaptation a couple of years ago which has changed my view of adaptations, from the screenwriter’s point of view.
As a screenwriter when you are given a book to adapt for film, you are taking control of the story. You are literally free to do whatever you want with those characters – for better or for worse. In my adaptation class, our semester long project was to adapt the book Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore. The assignment required that we add 25% original content. Now, that is certainly not some movie studio standard that screenwriters live by, it was just a class in the comfy confines of the university. Our professor was forcing us to let go of the idea that word for word what was in the book needed to be on-screen, and I have to say I rather enjoyed the assignment.
The rule of thumb for scripts is that 1 page of your script will equal 1 minute of film. That makes it pretty impossible to have every single solitary word from the book in your script. I know as book lovers we find it hard to let go of our favorite scenes (or characters), but sometimes it’s necessary to omit things to keep the story going. Books are a different medium than films are after all. We read books at leisure curled up on the couch on cold winter nights, but the movie has to successfully get through the story in two hours, give or take.
For example, let’s talk about a little love of mine. You might have heard of a story called Harry Potter. There is a house elf in the books named Dobby, who shows up off and on through books 2-7. In the films, though, he was only in the 2nd and 7th. In the middle, all of his important scenes and lines were given to the character Neville Longbottom.
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry needs to find a way to breathe underwater. In the book, Dobby overhears Professor Moody talking about an herb called gillyweed which allows people to breathe underwater, and he then in turn gives Harry the gillyweed. In the movie, however, Neville learns about gillyweed from a book that Professor Moody gave him, and when he hears that Harry needs to breathe underwater he gives Harry the herb. This makes sense as far as the story goes, because Neville is a friend of Harry’s and wants to help him, and as a student he is really proficient in Herbology.
I did always miss Dobby in the movies. Why couldn’t they just put Dobby in? They would just need to make him for a minute or two after all. But did it hurt the story to have Neville doing these things rather than Dobby? No. Does it pain me to admit that the movies were fine without Dobby in them? Yes, very much so, don’t make me do that again, OK? Not cool. The point is, I’m not sure why they decided to leave Dobby out of most of the movies – maybe it would have cost too much to do the CGI to create Dobby, maybe it would have taken longer to explain why Dobby was there and what Dobby was doing. Whatever the reason was, the story didn’t hurt from the Dobby-Neville switch-up.
I know it’s hard to let go of a favorite book when it feels they are butchering the story on-screen. But next time you find yourself mourning the loss of a favorite line or a favorite scene try not to take it too badly and ask yourself if the movie is bad because it’s not like the book, or is it just a bad movie overall?
What are some of your favorite adaptations?