Every now and then you hear somebody whining about how awful such-and-such a movie adaptation was and how much better its book was and “oh my goodness, if you liked the movie at all or watched it before you read the book you are such a traitor and don’t deserve to be mentioned in the bookish roll of members, etc.” If this is you, or someone you know, please try and understand one very important thing–movies aren’t books. I know, right? Shocker.
At the risk of sounding cliche, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. They’re not in the same category as, say a McIntosh and a Granny Smith, and even those aren’t as justly comparable as two apples of the same variety would be (like comparing different genres in the fiction world). We have to admit that books and movies are not the same thing, never were, and never will be. They are two entirely different art forms. You can’t compare music to a painting and say, “The song was better than the painting.” (Except possibly in the case of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which was apparently based off of some paintings a friend of his did that weren’t actually that great.) Anyone will tell you, while certain general effects or emotions or colours may be similar throughout both a piece of music and a painting, the mediums are different and therefore not comparable to each other. You must judge a painting by another painting, a piece of music by another piece of music–and if you want to very sure you’re being fair, you will compare them within the same genre.
The question when watching a book-to-movie adaptation is not, “Is it like the book?” or “Is it as good as the book?” but “Is it a good movie?” On the whole, book-to-movie adaptations that absolutely and irretrievably flopped weren’t good movies by anyone’s standards, book totally aside. Example: Eragon. Big complaints about not following the book and all that type of stuff, I grant you. But the heart of the problem is that the movie format didn’t pan out; the adaptation failed. They couldn’t transform it successfully into the categorical art form that they were trying to put it into. They were so busy trying to fit the book on the screen that they didn’t stop to ask themselves how to make it good by movie standards, which led to a less-than-stellar, awkwardly-paced movie. One movie standard they might have benefited from using is not introducing important characters for the first time in the last twenty minutes of the movie if you expect viewers to care about them (and keep book readers, who care about that character already, happy). By then, the death knell has already tolled and the credits soon to be rolled. On the other end of the spectrum, some movies don’t follow the book they are based on even remotely and still manage to be good because the director knows how to make a movie, such as The Bourne Identity (2002). “But, wait,” you say. “Isn’t the point of the movie to recreate the book and bring it to life, etc?” Well, yes. There is a middle, optimal ground between Eragon and The Bourne Identity for book accuracy and film viability.
Like music and painting can share emotions and colour, books and films share some of the elements of story–plot, characterisation, action, and pacing–but they will be expressed differently. Going book-to-movie is a bit like a translation where you take information from one form and put it into another. It’s going to look and sound different, but ultimately be the same information, if done accurately and with proper familiarity with both forms.
Generally speaking, the plot will be the same with minor differences to allow for changes of pacing. The characterisation should be roughly the same, but delivery will be different; in books (depending on POV) you get what a character sees, thinks, feels, etc, but in a movie overall you’re going to get mostly actions, dialogue, and expressions that tell you what the character is like. You should get the same message as the book (“so-and-so has trust issues,” or what-have-you) but it will be delivered differently as portrayed by an actor on-screen.
Action, on the other hand, movies have a heyday with, depending on how detailed and action-y it was in the book. It is so much more fun when you can see, hear, and almost feel it. It’s all well and good to describe a sword fight or bare-knuckles brawl on paper (and some authors do this really well, I grant you), but there’s something visceral and exhilarating about being able to see it fleshed out on the screen. It take so much less work to watch it than to try and keep up with fencing steps in your mind as the characters dance around to a perfectly researched pattern described in detail on the printed page (looking at you, “S. Morgenstern”).
Pacing is like the holy-grail of suspense-crafting, plot-moving, and mystery-creating and its treatment can make or break a movie. There are different standards for books and movies. How would you like to wait twenty years in the theatre for Gandalf to make it back to Bag-End after Bilbo’s birthday party? That’s what happens in the book, but pacing in movies is generally much faster than in books. It can be generally attributed to: a) movies cannot go on for seven hours while love-interest A agonises for twenty chapters over whether or not to tell strong female lead B his deep, dark secret–we want to get on with our lives and would appreciate it if the characters would, too; b) it takes longer to say things aloud than it does to read them silently, which is why bits of conversations from the book can get scripted into the movie, but the majority gets cut.
(This also flows back into characterisation; minor characters or characters that only appear in one place or serve one purpose in the books often get cut or merged with other characters in the movie. With a limited amount of screen-time, they want maximum impact on the main and directly supporting characters’ personalities and actions. If we get thrown as few as five new people besides main characters and entourage to sort through in a two-hour flick, chances are they will melt into a nameless mob. Whereas in the 500 page book the author had time to sketch out those five characters for you to remember at least one distinctive characteristic or function of.)
Now that I’ve defined at (possibly unnecessary) length what I think are the key differences that must be allowed for when evaluating a book-to-movie adaptation, here are a few movies I think are as good on the movie plane as the book was on the book plane:
The Book Thief (2013); The Hunger Games (2012); The Scarlet Pimpernel (1986, based on both The Scarlet Pimpernel and El Dorado books); The Maze Runner (2014); Peter Pan (2003); The Lord of the Rings (2001-03); The Princess Bride (1987)