Let me start with a list of titles:
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- The Great Gatsby
- Moby Dick
- The Old Man and the Sea
- The Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man
And now, another list:
- The African Queen
- Ben Hur
- The Godfather
- The Graduate
At a casual glance, the first list appears to be great novels that have stood the test of time. The second, similarly great films. But, in fact, both list novels that have been turned into films. In the first case, the films have been forgotten. In the second, the novels are now regarded like the sources of Shakespeare’s plays–interesting only in that they inspired something worth remembering.
Of course, there are great novels that have been turned into great films, but that’s a decidedly shorter list:
- Grapes of Wrath
- To Kill a Mockingbird
My point? What makes a great novel seldom makes a great motion picture. A novel can handle exposition by simply telling you the back story. It can juggle scores of characters, locations and subplots. It can go on for a very long time.
On the other hand, while a novel can give you a long and detailed description of a setting, a film can show it to you in an instant, offering subliminal details that a book couldn’t include without being obvious and risking boredom. The character’s emotions become your emotions, because you’re seeing them on a human face. The experience is much more intense.
Let me put it another way: What’s the best praise you’re likely to hear about a humorous book: “I laughed out loud.” What’s the worst you’re likely to hear about a film comedy: “I barely laughed, at all.” We don’t expect the same visceral reaction from a book as a film.
I purposely avoided recent books and recent films in the above lists–I have no way of knowing, for instance, if Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings will stand the test of time as well as J.R.R. Tolkien’s original. But for textbook examples of what to do, and not to do, with book-to-film adaptations, you couldn’t do better than examine the Harry Potter franchise. The first two films followed the books as closely as possible, resulting in mediocre movies with a few good scenes.
But as the books get longer and more complex, close adaptations become impossible. The most recent film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, contains just a fraction of the nearly-900-page novel. There’s no embarrassing first date, McGonagall doesn’t ignore and insult Umbridge while discussing Harry’s career plans, and you could miss Percy if you blink. But screenwriter Michael Goldenberg and director David Yates (both new to the franchise) keep the story’s essential themes of courage, friendship, adolescent disillusionment and alienation, sexual awakening, and totalitarianism in a supposed democracy. They’ve also made one hell of a tight, dark, and scary supernatural thriller. It’s not as good as the book (the best of the lot, in my opinion), but their willingness to play fast and loose with the story resulted in a film that stands up very well on its own.