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How to Ruin a Great Book by Making it into a Movie

By Edited Jan 18, 2016 5 16

Books to Movies
‘The film is no way near as good as the book’. It has been said so many times, about so many different stories, that it seems clichéd to extol the virtues of a book over a film. But clichés become clichés for a reason; they usually hold an element of truth.

Of course film and literature are very different mediums and to compare the two objectively is nearly impossible. Books clearly have an unfair advantage.

Why Books are always better than films

  1. It is often the case that a book is our first experience of a story. The movie is merely an add-on. How could the film even form a tiny dent in the original mammoth imprint the book made on our minds?
  2. Reading a book requires commitment. We invest time and energy. Films don’t make the same demands on us; we chomp on our popcorn, passively staring at the big screen for a couple of hours at most. So it follows, the harder you work at something, the greater the reward. Human beings enjoy being challenged. Books force us to use our imaginations, question our morality and engage emotionally in a way that films don’t, thus the satisfaction is far greater.
  3. When reading a book, we are responsible for the images that are created. The words on the page provide a stimulus for the images in our head, but the images themselves are our own. No two people will picture the same Heathcliffe and Kathy as they read Wuthering Heights. The actors in the film will never look exactly like the characters we have formed for ourselves. They won’t sound or move like them, or live in the house we have imagined. In short, they won’t be them.
  4. Films will always be abridged versions of books. The director has two hours to tell the same story that has unfolded over several hundred pages. Details, some times entire chapters, will be lost. This leaves us feeling cheated and deprived. If we’ve read the book, we feel the film is only telling us half the truth.
  5. Finally, books can surprise and shock us. If we are fully invested, they take us on a roller coaster ride of emotions. Novelists do this by only revealing little bits of detail at a time; it’s the difference between showing and telling. It may be that an entire scene takes place at a character’s death-bed in a hospital, but the author chooses not to reveal this detail until halfway through a scene. The characters are chatting normally and then BAM! we discover that one of them only has moments to live. The same surprise element is not achievable in a film; we see from the off that the scene is taking place in a hospital.

Films are Films, Books are Books

So what does all of this teach us? It is better to take the film adaptation of a book at face value, on its own merits. But doing this may prove difficult if a book has spoken to you so deeply that it feels like it was written especially for you. You can’t help but hold the highest of hopes for the movie. Most of the time we can sense the looming disappointment even as we are ordering our hotdog/popcorn/cola combo deal. We accept that in about two hours time we’ll be left feeling disheartened. We long for the emotional engagement we felt as we avidly thumbed the well-worn pages of the book into the early hours of the morning, only to be left with a feeling of emptiness and anti-climax. All of this is to be expected.

When Good Stories Go Bad

But there are occasions when a movie adaptation of a book can have an even more devastating impact. The occasions when you are left feeling angry as the credits roll. The occasions when you find yourself silently screaming, ‘How could they take such a beautifully written, deeply insightful story and turn it into a piece of trite, corny trash?’ Now I would say that I’m usually pretty easy to please, but the film adaptation of One Day left me asking just that.

One Day

One Day by David Nicholls(102826)
The premise is simple; we meet two characters (Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew) on 15 July 1988, and revisit them on that day every year for the next twenty.

The trouble with the film is that the story is so compacted we lose many vital elements of Emma and Dexter’s journey. Their relationship and the world they live in feels unreal and unrecognisable. Each chapter in the book accounts for one day, allowing for real insight into what has happened in the intervening year and how this has shaped our protagonists’ lives. Each year in the film accounts for 8 minutes of screen time at best and in some cases is shoe-horned into a snapshot of no more than a few seconds; there is no way we can really get to grips with the developments of the previous year, let alone glean how this may have effected the characters.

Ann Hathaway as Emma Morley

Anne Hatahwy
My other major problem with the movie of One Day is the casting of Ann Hathaway in the role of Emma. This relates to the point I made earlier; each reader creates their very own version of a character. Don’t get me wrong, I think Ann Hathaway is a wonderful actress when cast in the right role, but she is simply not my Emma Morley.

At the time of the film’s release, many critics chose to focus on Hathaway’s inability to do a convincing English accent. Well, as someone who hales from up North, I can say with confidence that there were bigger problems than Hathaway’s take on a generic dialect; the character is from Leeds. Unfortunately, Ann Hathaway leaps from delivering Oscar Wilde in one sentence to a full-on Pigeon fancying, flat-cap wearing, Eeh by gummer in the next.

But even this didn’t really bother me. Emma is written as a slightly frumpy, slightly over-weight wannabe intellectual from a working class family; she's clumsy, funny and self-conscious. No matter how many pairs of NHS prescription spectacles you place on Ann Hathaway’s nose, she is a Hollywood movie star through and through. She can’t help but be glamorous. I understand commercially why the producers wanted her to play the role, but I don’t understand pulling people into the cinema with a big name, only to disappoint them with a half-cocked version of what is otherwise a beautiful story.


On reflection, I think the film adaptation of One Day was doomed from the off. How could you possibly capture a twenty year story in just over 90 minutes?

Of course, all of this is highly subjective. Chances are that if you’ve never read the David Nicholls novel and you want to absorb yourself in an unchallenging 90 minutes of cinema, you’ll find the film of One Day a perfectly acceptable Rom-Com/light weight drama. But it doesn’t pack the punch of the novel. The big moment in the climax of the story had me practically jumping out of my seat in shock and, seconds later, in floods of tears as I sat reading on my daily tube journey. The same moment in the movie barely evoked an intake of breath.



Jun 19, 2012 9:37am
I couldn't agree more, not just about movies never living up to the book, but about "One Day" as well. Great book, lousy movie. I wanted my $10 back!

Jun 19, 2012 3:55pm
Glad you agree. You obviously have great taste!
Jun 19, 2012 2:33pm
As a person who has been in the business of plays and movies, I have to reluctantly agree with you but, as you point out,the medias are not the same. And, along my way, I have even seen extremely good movie scripts turned into junk mail by the producers and directors. One major problem is that so many producers/directors believe that we (the audience) have the brains just slightly higher than a five year old. Indeed, years ago when I worked at a studio, I was told to write for a 5th grade education. Somehow, however, a few good movies are made and yet, when they are not--people still flock to them creating today's ouitlandish box office hits anyway. As for those few exceptions to your rule of thumb--I believe both The Wizard of Oz and Grapes of Wrath were ever as great as the books were. Nevertheless, there are not enough exceptions for me to disagree with you so--great article and you can bet I'll be back for a visit to read more of your work.
Jun 19, 2012 3:57pm
Marlando. I agree - Wizard of Oz and Grapes of Wrath are both great movies. I also love the film adaptation of Notes on a Scandal.
I also agree with you about being treated like a five year old. Movies too often treat us like idiots - audiences like to be challenged - it;s more fulfilling.
Thanks for the in-depth response.
Jul 31, 2012 5:58pm
Maeve Binchy, who sadly passed away yesterday, had two of her books turned into bad movies - Circle of Friends and Tara Road. There are a few times when I first catch the movie, enjoy it and then go get the book. Congrats on the feature!
Aug 1, 2012 1:24pm
I love Maeve Binchy - what a tragic loss. I like to read the book after I've seen a great film too. Thanks for the comment.
Aug 1, 2012 6:30am
Sometimes I read the book because of the movie. I always find it more interesting to read the book after all because I can put my own thoughts, emotions and fantasy to it.

Thumbs Up!
Aug 1, 2012 1:23pm
I often read books after I've seen the movies too - I think that is the better way round. Thanks for the comment.
Aug 1, 2012 3:19pm
Couldn't agree with you more. I wish they would just leave most of those books alone and create their own. They probably would make better films. I find that so many of these books turned movies are not believable. Another interesting feature.
Aug 2, 2012 12:14pm
I think you're right - better to be original than try to recreate something in a form that it was not intended for. Thanks for the comment.
Aug 1, 2012 11:28pm
I read books on technologies, but making a movie needs experience. Movie making is not a easy work.
Aug 2, 2012 12:15pm
Absolutely - movie making is tricky to get right, particularly if the story has been developed from an existing piece of work. Thanks for the comment.
Aug 2, 2012 8:06pm
True. My interpretation of books I read is often different from a movie version. It's less dramatic or explosive as needed in a film. Also, it's not limited by 90 minutes of rolling film or so.
Aug 3, 2012 2:31am
Exactly - trying to shoe-horn a full-length novel into a film is often unsuccessful. Thanks for the comment.
Aug 3, 2012 6:49pm
I neither read the book, nor saw the movie, but I agree with your premise of movies and books not being in the same media and that usually, when they make a movie from a book, the book is usually better for the reasons you stated.

I must say there has been several occasions when I actually thought the movie was better or at least as good as the book. Gone With the Wind (I know, I'll get a lot of flack on this one), but really, the book takes forever to get off the ground - it took 3 times for me until I finally read it all the way through and when I finished it, I thought I had just finished living three weeks on a set of "Days of our Lives."

Another movie I liked better than the book was "The Horse Whisperer." I liked Robert Redford's ending of the movie a lot better than the ending of the book.

Aug 4, 2012 12:41pm
Interesting take on it Ann1Az2. I'm afraid I can't comment because I've never read Gone With the Wind (but of course I've seen the movie). I've never read or seen The Horse Whisperer. I think that some books are well adapted - I just felt particularly passionate about the book of One Day and held high hopes for the film! Thanks for the comment.
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