Features and Columns

Talking Heads: How Do You Successfully Turn a Book Into a Movie?

By  · Published on April 22nd, 2011

Every week, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius log on to their favorite chat client of 1996 as OhDaeSu2039 and CatsandDogsLvng2Gether in order to discuss some topical topic of interest.

This week, the duo try to avoid the pitfalls of bad novel adaptations by exploring some of the best. How do you take a work by one and turn it into a work by thousands? How do you appease fans while introducing a new audience to the story? Does it always involve whale genitalia?

What are the rules of making a great film adaptation of a book?

Landon: ? ?So last week we saw one of the most notorious American novels turned into not one film, but the first part of a planned trilogy. It’s clear from examples like this that one can accomplish a lot in a book that one can’t necessarily in a single film. So I was wondering, Dr. Print to Projector, what you think makes a good adaptation of a book??

?Cole: ? ?Including Tom Bombadil.?

I guess we can look at some successful adaptations to get a few rules, keeping in mind that there’s no formula for success, that every book is different. The first step is choosing cinematic source material. Like, say, The Silence of the Lambs.

?Landon: ? ?True, but with books like that, the screenplay is almost cataloged already. Dan Brown’s books, for instance, seemed that they needed to be only reformatted to make a screenplay?.

Cole: ? ?Which is a great time saver.?

Landon: ? ?Yeah, except for Tom Hanks’s haircut.

That’s right, I try to keep my jokes within at least a half-decade of relevancy?.

And I agree – there are as many different types of successful or unsuccessful adaptations as there are types of books, but what about tougher adaptations, or classic novels that are venerated in the literary form?

Cole: ? ?Alright, so say you’re not starting with the most cinematic of material.? The most important thing is to figure out what really matters in the story. If you want to include a scene from the book in the script, you have to make sure that it means something, because there’s no room for flowery prose in filmmaking.

Take Moby Dick for example. John Huston directed a version in 1956 that I think is the best possible adaptation of that novel. It takes what’s active and interesting about a whaling adventure (and character study), and cuts out the less-than-crucial elements. Like, say, the 300 pages on How To Be A Whaler, How To Make a Rain Coat From A Whale Penis and How To Drop Bibles of Whale Fat Into Boiling Whale Fat.

Landon: ? ?To be fair, 2 out of 3 of those things are very cinematic?.

Cole: ? ?Especially the penis stuff.?

The result is that sweet spot: nailing down the uniquness of the novel’s story without having to photocopy all of the pages onto the film print.

Landon: ? ?True. I think John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath vs. John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” is a good case study. Here you havde one of the most economic, no bullshit directors adaptating a novel by a guy who would spend a page describing the door.?

Ultimately, it’s not the “same thing” as the book, but it’s good in its own right. Both the film and novel are great, but they are not the same “Grapes of Wrath” by any means.

Cole: ? ?And Ford’s personality would have been stamped on it no matter what, but the credit for meeting Ford and Steinbeck in the middle goes to writer Nunnally Johnson? who distilled the most important components of the novel into a story that could be told visually and in a shorter time.

So step one is to have cinematic material. If you don’t, step two is to get a writer who intimately, deeply understands what’s most crucial to the novel’s identity. One of the key problems is just the sheer mechanical bias of taking something hundreds (or thousands) of pages long and converting it to a 120-page-long document.

Landon: ? ?So step three is to sever loyalty to the source material in the interest of making a good movie?.

Cole: ? ?In the Kill Your Babies sense, yes. Except it’s someone else’s baby you’re killing.? Step 3B is to remember why you’re adapting in the first place – because the novel’s elements are compelling – so you can’t just chunk them indiscriminately.

Landon: ? ?This doesn’t mean take the liberty to change everything, but make sure that a good cinematic story is ultimately the goal?. This isn’t always the case, but so many movies I see that try to directly “adapt” the source material are loyal to a fault. Watchmen or Love in the Time of Cholera for instance.

Cole: ? ?Loyalty can only take you so far.? In the case of Watchmen, it was a loyalty to swinging blue penises. The same situation Moby Dick (ironically) avoided.

Landon: ? ?Well, then making a Gregory Peck joke would have just been too easy?.

Cole: ? ?Your class and restraint are always appreciated.?

?Landon: ? ?But this is why adaptations of recent novels are so much easier than adapting great or classic literature. Audiences don’t typically think of movies like Forrest Gump or Up in the Air as adaptations. But on the other hand many people are worried about the upcoming On the Road movie.?


Cole: ? ?That was going to be my last step, but we can skip right to it.? When in doubt, follow the rules, but pick an obscure book. Up In the Air isn’t exactly obscure, but it’s far less popularly enshrined than On the Road. For a classic novel, there’s something at stake that fanboys are familiar with. When a book is worshiped, “getting it right” becomes a case of walking on egg shells instead of blazing a trail.

So let’s say you have a modern book – to go from good to great, the key is to find the tone and style of the book and bring it to the screen. The best example I could think of was the minimalism, darkness, and absurdity of Fight Club.

Getting the story and characters right is one thing, but Fight Club feels like “Fight Club.”

Landon: ? ?True, and what’s great about that example is it successfully violates one of the other “rules” of adaptation, and that’s using literary narration?. Jim Uhls found a way to make an unreliable narrator in a novel work as an unreliable narrator in a film.

Cole: ? ?Exactly. Jim Uhls was smart enough to recognize that the narration is a crucial part of the book’s feel. Removing it might have worked, but it would have told the story from a different angle.? Uhls and Fincher found a way to take not only the story, but the spirit of the novel, and place it on screen. That’s crucial.

?Landon: ? ?And there are indeed cases where loyalty works in the film’s favor. I think splitting the last Harry Potter book into two films, for instance, really allowed for moments that are typically glossed over to be developed?. Adaptations can be cinematic even if one acknowledges the limitations of cinema.

Cole: ? ?There’s a level of commitment, too.? In a way, it was brave of them to split the films up. Sure, they’re going to make an extra $500 million, but putting the quiet character study before the storm out there on its own took brass buttons. Sometimes, you have to accept the insanity and long-form nature of the writing. Like, Lolita.

For me, the question of how they ever made a film of “Lolita” has less to do with the shocking subject matter and more to do with the insane nature of that book. Hiring the author to write the screenplay helped in that instance, but it doesn’t always.

?Landon: ? ?Timing takes a big role in that too. There were things in Nabakov’s “Lolita” that one simply couldn’t get away with in cinema in 1962. Same with the ending of Ford’s Grapes of Wrath in 1940. So once again, it becomes a different object altogether.?

?But Kubrick’s The Shining provides a great example of audiences being forced to decide their own loyalty to a novelist or to a filmmaker. I love the film, but it’s so divisive amongst Stephen King fans?. Even if you make a movie that is its own autonomous thing, you can’t get away from the text and the relationship audiences have with it.

Cole: ? ?That’s because it doesn’t stay as true to the novel as it should. It leans too heavily to one side, and because Jack Nicholson has crazy eyes. even when he’s sane.

??With a novel adaptation, you have to somehow please fans of the work and make something that works for people who’ve never even heard of the book.? You alluded to Atlas Shrugged at the beginning, and for the most part, the critical and popular response has been that it’s a film that only works for those that have read the book (if it works for them at all).

But it violated almost all of the rules. It stems from a classic novel, the screenwriters didn’t grasp what drove the story forward, and it’s decidedly un-cinematic material. On that last note, business deals aren’t exciting unless you have Mamet writing them or people are killing/selling other people to make them happen.

And, holy hell. A vision of Mamet’s Atlas Shrugged just popped into my mind, and I love it.

Landon: ? ?So what you’re saying is we need Soylet Green made by the guy who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross?.

Cole: ? ?Bingo.?

Landon: ? ?I guess what one has to understand ultimately is that, even if audiences are showing up to see their favorite book realized onscreen, they always ultimately want more than just an adaptation.?

A good movie always forgives creative liberty.

Cole: ? ?It’s not enough to hear the character’s names and see the places described in the book. You want to recapture the surge of endorphins you got when you read it for the first time?

At least when it comes to the classics.

That seems like a solid list of rules, but it all else fails, just cut out anything involved whale dongs, and you should be in the clear.

Landon: ? ?Well there goes the entire plot of The Sound and the Fury?.

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