Have you ever read an exciting book, looked forward anxiously to the movie version, and then walked out of the theater, slightly disappointed, mumbling, “The book was better”?
Or have you watched a great movie, then rushed home to buy the book?
Why? Why would you want to spend days or weeks reading a book when you can digest the same plot in a two-hour cinematic version?
For many, the answer is, “I wouldn’t.” Movies and videos have become a staple of modern entertainment. They grab your attention quickly, hurl you into the action, and (hopefully) hold you transfixed for a short period. The value of developing a story as if it were a movie is now being promoted to novel writers. At almost every writer’s conference, a workshop is offered on screenwriting techniques.
But not every novel is a good candidate for a movie, nor does every movie have the makings for a good book.
What elements of fiction does a movie do well?
Action and suspense. Although a skilled novelist can use words to make her readers feel the tension as a character stands poised at the edge of a cliff, and horror as he tumbles over it, a movie can evoke the same emotional impact in seconds, and often more vividly. There are times indeed when a picture is worth a thousand words.
Setting. Again, it might take several richly worded paragraphs to set the mood in describing the Scottish moors, but a movie implants it effortlessly into the viewer’s consciousness, without taking away even a second of focus from the action or dialogue.
Dialogue. No need, in screenwriting, to worry over whether to insert dialogue tags, when we can see and hear who is speaking. Nor body language cues such as “He folded his arms over his barreled chest.” As with setting, these are noted by the viewer without taking focus off the dialogue, so the conversation seems rapid-fire and tight.
So why read a book? What advantages does a novel offer to rival, or even surpass, the allure of movies?
Words. Even though a movie can show us the Scottish moor instantly, a novelist can evoke a mood slowly, gently, even poetically. Words, to me, hold a charm in themselves. Alliteration. Varying sentence structure. Paragraphs that tease in the first sentence and lead up to a climactic end.
Thoughts. A movie can show you a character’s back story by quick cutaway flashbacks, but it can’t dwell on the thoughts a scene arouses in him without losing track of the action. It can’t show the evolution of those thoughts. And it doesn’t allow the viewer time to stop, contemplate, and analyze the process of the character’s growth. Slam, Bam, The End.
Emotions. Movies are great at showing fist-slamming anger. Some actors can adeptly show subtle nuances in facial expression that clue us in to angst or awkwardness. But only in novels can we experience the visceral emotions conveyed through a character’s deep point of view.
I believe plot and action oriented stories adapt best to the big screen. Character driven stories are best told in books.
What novels do you think have translated well into movies? Which have not? Consider Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice. The Harry Potter Books. Stephen King stories. What are your favorite movie adaptations? Which ones did you feel fell horribly flat?
And if you like to experience BOTH the book and the movie, do you prefer to watch the movie only after you’ve read the book? Or does the movie inspire you to read the book? Why?
Linda Steinberg is a fabulous writer and a fabulous Plotting Princess.