What Makes a Good Book-to-Film Adaptation?

Among all the things that could increase a bookworm’s blood pressure there is one that beats them all: a book-to-film adaptation.

While original directorial films are even rarer than those dreaded reboots of classic movies nowadays, the movie industry continues to bloom in the world of book-to-film adaptations. Readers around the world hence continue to suffer with conflictual emotions regarding these projects as they dread the next adaptation of their favourite stories, while also being excited to finally see it on the big screen.

It’s one thing to read the story using the limitless powers of our imagination, and another to see it unfold with vivid colours, movement and sound.

While most of us all know that these adaptations are bound to disappoint us more often than not, I, as a cinephile, find them refreshing and fascinating in their own rights. The great adaptations might be rare, but when they happen, they sweep you off your feet and guide you through your favourite books in a beautiful and cinematic form.

But what exactly makes a good book-to-film adaptation?


The Script

The idea is not to take every word from the book and integrate them into a screenplay. I don’t necessarily need the movie to throw up the same lines found in the book. I need it to adapt it to the movie’s flow and to each particular scene. The movie’s script should however be respectful of the source material by acknowledging the author’s intention. Does that mean that the movie can change the ending? It definitely can as long as it’s logical in the narrative!

The Actors

Have you ever realized how different a character we read about turns out to be on the big screen? What we imagine them to be, as vague and contorted as they might be, is often never what they turn out to be. But what I really need from the adaptation is a solid cast filled with talented actors. There’s nothing more unnerving than to see your favourite character being played by an actor who can’t act to save his life. Their performance is one of the most important element that I pay attention to. 

The Visuals

After all, this is one of the biggest differences between a book and a film. With today’s technology, computer-generated imagery (CGI) has become almost impossible to not make use of. The number of movies that rely heavily on it instead of actual actors is also staggering. But the most important thing about visuals is the cinematography. A director’s visionary take on a story to breath life into a setting that only your mind has knowledge of is a difficult task and it’s how it’s done that makes adaptations so magical.

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The Film Score

This is the second biggest difference between a book and a film, and sometimes it is something we give the least credit to. The music written just for a movie makes all the difference between a good movie and a great movie. The attention to detail in every little note can sometimes be surreal, and even more impressive is the timing. The epic war scene timed with the epic music for the epic moment? It wouldn’t have been the same if you didn’t find yourself with a heart beat matching those very warriors in their big life-threatening moment. The score really helps to dictate the mood and sometimes it is the sole factor that turns a movie into a classic.

John Williams’ score for Harry Potter. Do I need to say more? 🙂

The Themes

I’ve seen some book-to-film adaptations that completely neglected the themes conveyed in their respective books. This is absolutely blasphemous to me as it just reflects a studio’s inability to do their homework before diving into the production. It really is a strict minimum that should be accomplished in an adaptation as the themes are what even makes the book as great as it is. To find out that the movie decided to do something else just means that they should have just created their own thing instead of basing it on a book.

Image result for blade runner ridley scott gif

The Special Something

Do you know what that is? I’ll tell you. It’s innovation. If there’s one thing that stands out from each of the previous elements, it’s that. As I’m convinced that most book-to-film adaptations won’t ever be perfectly accurate, I’ve also come to the conclusion that the best ones are those that not only does it right in all the previous categories, but also gives each of those categories a personal creative touch. A little something that makes the movie its own thing. There will inevitably be some directors who will overdo it, but striking that perfect balance is how I believe you’ll have a great book-to-film adaptation.

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I can’t blame Hollywood for looking towards books for inspiration as some of the best ideas are thoroughly thought out in that medium.

There are so many great adaptations to come out soon and I’ll probably continue to get excited for their release, but here’s my secret:

I don’t look at the movie as a literal adaptation of a novel. I look at it as an extension of a creation that lives and dies by the vision of a director. I allow myself to let those behind the movies guide me through a cinematic experience and I judge the movie for what it is rather than what it’s not.

What do you require from your book-to-film adaptations? 😀

Until next time,

lashaansignature

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59 comments

  • Great post. One thing I find with book to film conversions is that, for the favourites, I watch them so often that the movie becomes the story and it seems a shock when I re-read the book again.

    LOTR is a great example of that – proof that you can love both mediums. 🙂 There are so many that you just wish they’d left it alone though.

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    • Thank you sir! That is a nice observation. In fact, a lot of my favourite adaptations are movies that I initially didn’t really know that they were based on books too hahahh They really do stand for themselves and that really makes them so beautiful!

      Ah man, you’re definitely right there. Some things really should be left alone. In fact, LOTR is planned to be turned into a TV series soon too… #sadness

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      • A TV series of LOTR? Oh no! I assume it must be for more minor Tolkien tales. I wasn’t very keen on what they did with the Hobbit, so hopefully it isn’t a downward spiral…

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        • Last I heard, they are committed to make 5 seasons and the first one would focus on a young Aragorn. No clue if there was any other news after that and if they’d ever retell the movies. Clearly they’re going to try and fill the void that Game of Thrones is going to leave pretty sooon hahah

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  • Book to movie adaptations are always tricky no matter which way you look at them. With reading books, your mind forms a certain image when you read, with settings, characters etc. And that experience will always be different for everyone 😊 But I would have to say that a script is one of the most important things for me. With a good script one usually get’s a good movie (and I don’t mind if it diverges a little bit from the original book, as long as it still captures what made the book good in the first place). Second of course are good actors to bring that script alive.
    That said, it’s pretty rare to have a movie that is just as good, or even better than the book. Great post Lashaan! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Definitely true. To please everyone becomes an incredible task, but at least we know that they are still possible. Script and actors are definitely key no matter what. I mean… without one or the other, I’m pretty sure the movie will struggle to stay on two feet, or will prove that the impossible is possible hahaha Thanks for reading, sir! 😀

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  • This is such a fantastic post, Lashaan, I love it so much! I am always a little nervous about book-to-movie adaptations, because I am scared that the movie wouldn’t quite retranscribe the way the book felt, its feelings, its intricate world-building and so on. I definitely agree that it’s important to find this atmosphere and these characters in the movie – even if they don’t look like exactly how they were imagined in the pages, at least the actors have to manage to convey the right spirit and emotions for them, definitely 🙂
    Wonderful post! ❤

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    • Thank you so much Marie! It really is the subliminal parts of the story that the movie need to convey for sure. Atmosphere, mood, feelings, all those juicy stuff! If they can make us connect with the world and characters through that, it will surely be successful! 😀

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    • Palahniuk’s Fight Club movie adaptation was indeed phenomenal! It’s a masterpiece on its own.

      I don’t think Dunkirk was based on a book though, I think it’s just based on real-life events. 😮

      Excellent examples nonetheless!

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  • Yes, these are all so important! I totally agree about the casting and the script, they’re both so important. I think Fight Club is one of the best adaptations, largely because of the casting, script, and just general make of it.

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    • I know, right? I do care a lot about the casting as well. If a book I loved has actors I love on it, I’m sure to be more excited than anything, even if the movie turns out to be trash haahh And YAAASS Fight Club is a beautiful masterpiece!! ❤

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  • Since you included a ‘Jungle Book’ giffy, I will throw in another comment.
    I was partially disappointed in the last Disney take of Jungle Book. I liked everything about the film except the voice acting/singing. They had an extensive list of stars set to do the voice acting. That was one reason why I was so excited to see the film, but I thought that every one of them was uninspired. They seemed to just phone in the voices. They probably did. The old sixties animated version starred the voice talents of Sebastian Cabot as Bahgheera, and George Sanders as Sher-kan. They were awesome! George Sanders is the MAN! Here is a link to his autobiography. Please read the cover blurb, skip the introduction, and read the first few paragraphs of Chapter One: https://www.amazon.com/Memoirs-Professional-Cad-George-Sanders-ebook/dp/B01G3S78E8
    Have you seen the old 1942 version of Jungle Book? It was made during wartime. The special effects are all live action. There is no animation.
    Netflix has a new version that I am excited to see, though I know I will be bawling my eyes out. :-/

    You have the word, of Bahgheerabod. 😉

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    • I will not lie that the only Jungle Book movies I’ve seen is the 1967 animated one and the 2016 live-action one. I put the gif for the latter one because of how important the CGI was, and how well it was done. I haven’t seen the 1942 one, but I’ve heard of it. I even think you were the one who mentioned it in my review of the 2016 movie a while back hahhaa As for the Netflix one to come… I don’t know if it’ll turn out good or not… And it’s honestly a bit too soon for another Jungle Book movie too…

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  • It is so hard to define: seamless. And nearly impossible to meet everyone’s vision. So many times I’ll read a book and think, this should be turned into a movie! And then I step back and think about the logistics and details of actors, special effects (bc I mostly read SF/F), etc… And I come to the conclusion that it wouldn’t work. Are my expectations too high? Do I want to just close my eyes and roll the film in my mind? Probably.

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    • Seamless is definitely what is needed for any good story! And you’re definitely right there. Some movies are sometimes just too huge or wild to bring to the big screen for the next couple of years. But having a failed attempt now to later get a successful one is always welcome. Some might find themselves inspired by the attempt and end up creating the movie we all wanted later one! 😀

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  • Great post, Lashaan! This is such a tricky thing. Oftentimes much really does need to change to suit the different format but I think the most important aspect of a movie adaptation for me is that it stays true to the themes in the book. After that criteria is met, I try to judge the movie on its own regarding the acting, visuals, etc.

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    • Thank you so much Nicole! 😛 And yes! If you nail the themes from the book, the odds the movie will succeed are definitely higher. And usually to even convey the themes properly, you’ll need the right actors, the right visuals, the right score! 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  • Amazing post Lashaan! 😀 Book-to-movie adaptations are a tricky thing. There is so much that could go wrong with them. Personally I always try to separate the book from the movie (and vice-versa) and see them as their own medium. I also don’t read a book and then immediately watch the movie, I just need some time in between those or else I would notice all the differences.

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    • Thank you so, so much Anna! I appreciate it a lot! 😀 And yes, I think the best way to approach the adaptation is to separate it from its book. Ohhhh, I do that too as often as I can hahaahh How easily we spot the differences, what has been included/excluded is amazing and sometimes too much to handle hahaha 😛

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  • I agree that the adaptation doesn’t need to be word for word, but I think it should be close to/very similar to the original material in some way. My all-time fav film adaptation is the Princess Bride and I think the reason why it’s so good is because the author worked on the film. (I forgot in what way.)
    I think Hollywood should bear in mind that not all books adapt well to film. For me, the Harry Potter books didn’t adapt well. I hated the movies and thought they would have been better as animated movies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I have to admit that I love when authors work on the movie adaptation too, but of course that luxury isn’t always possible since some authors, especially of classics, are not with us anymore…

      Wahhh, I think you’re the first person to straight up hate the HP movies! 😮 Hahahaah I am curious about the idea of an animated movie though. I also think it could’ve also turned out to be an awesome TV series. 😛

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      • A TV series is another good option, like Game of Thrones. I think series, especially fantasy series, would work better as TV series than movie series. It’s too much to pack into just over an hour at the movies.

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  • I agree with you. I think that the film adaptation needs to strive to bring the book to life visually and stay loyal to it and also insert a creative touch to the adaptation but it’s a very risky zone. It’s better to have less of the personal touch than too much.

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  • I usually don’t like films based on books… maybe i’m picking the wrong ones to watch 😀 But i always find it annoying when they change so much of the plot that it’s almost a new story and they just use the title and the name of the characters.
    The new IT movie was pretty good tho. I liked that one 🙂

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  • Great post Lashaan. 🙂 When it comes to book to film adaptations I’m always really hyped for them (I tend to forget all the ones in the past that have really let me down) and even if they do end up being disappointing there’s always something I enjoyed somewhat. I think when it comes to adaptations there are always going to be differences – what makes a book successful isn’t going to be the same thing that makes a film successful, and directors can never cast actors to look exactly 100% the same as everyone imagined – but as long as the film stays true to the story I’m happy. One of my favourite adaptations so far this year has been Love, Simon, it wasn’t the same as the book but it was a great film nonetheless. 🙂 ❤️

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    • Thank you so much Beth! 😛 Oh yes, you are quite good at seeing the positive in all the negative hahah It’s what I often noticed from your book reviews too. 😀 And absolutely! If directors stay true to the story then we’ll definitely be happy! 😀

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  • Your opening line for this post is so spot on. Lol. For me I’ve decided to approach the movie with low expectations with the hope of being pleasantly surprised…. doesn’t always work though…. but still. I think the music is definitely one of the best ways the movie can try to evoke some of the emotions of the book though. There’s magic in music…. 😉

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  • When I think of a successful film adaptation, I always think of Lord of the Rings. Those books are a childhood favourite of my dad and myself, but we love the films just as much. It’s tradition in our house to watch the films (extended edition) at least once a year and each time I fangirl. The pieces just all work so well together, which is why The Hobbit slightly disappointed me cause I felt like it got too caught up in the visual effects.

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    • Awwn, that’s definitely a nice habit to have! 😀 Those movies have become cult classics so quick. I do wonder how you’ll feel about the soon-to-be LOTR TV series though. 😛 Let’s just hope it won’t taint our love for the movies. 😮 Thanks for reading, Lois!

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  • Many times, if you have not read a particular book, then the movie is untainted. It is when we have read the book, that the film experience is affected. I read the book, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, by Stieg Larsen. In 2009, a movie version was released. Many elements were changed, especially the main character. I loved the book, and did not care for the film, but my friend that had not read the book, really liked the movie. In 2011, another version of the book to film came out that is astoundingly accurate to the book. I liked that version much better, but I bet non-readers did not.

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    • That is true indeed! But I find it a bit odd to not consider the whole “is it loyal to the source material” in our analysis of what’s a “good” book-to-film adaptation too. But you’re right, if we forget about the book it might be based on, the movie becomes so much more than what it is.

      I actually loved Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara’s version of the movie! And… I have yet to read the book myself. I really need to make it my 2019 goal.

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  • I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about book to film adaptions, honestly. I like the idea of them. But I never really pay attention. I don’t think it’s fair to compare the book to the film. I like the idea of the “inspired by” film, rather than the adaption. It’s NEVER possible to tie everything in a film I want from the book. Ever. They are always separate forms of media, though they might tell the same story. I like to think of this more like fairy tale retellings. Different medium, same story, totally separate experiences. I know I’m in the minority, but this perspective ensures I always enjoy my filmgoing experiences.

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    • Fair enough! That’s true and honestly a great way to enjoy the movies you watch! It’s why I’m often stunned and fascinated by how much people will hate an adaptation because of how inaccurate it might be, yet the movie in itself would be excellent otherwise.

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  • I totally agree with you!! 😁 If you expect the movie to be identical to the book it’ll only lead to disappointments. When I was younger and I watched Harry Potter after reading the books, I remember being so upset about all the tiny differences between the book and the movie. Now, I understand that some dissimilarities are inevitable, haha. It’s actually interesting to see what the director decides to include or not in his movie, it’s more like a work of interpretation than a strict adaptation. You can see how some details of the book that were insignificant to you, can be important when emphasized by pictures in the movie, and maybe grasp a little bit of the director’s reading experience haha. 😛
    I also read LOTR after watching the movies and I loved discovering the scenes that weren’t included in the movie. Being able to find them only in the book after so many hours spent reading, made them so precious to me! 😂😍
    Great post!! 😊

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    • Ahhh I totally agree with you too! 😉 Book-to-film adaptations should be seen more like interpretations and everyone should enjoy the movie for what it is rather than what it should’ve been. I too have always been amazed by all the things that are excluded from the movie but was in the book, when reading the book it’s almost impossible to tell what could’ve been cut out, yet once you watch a “good” adaptation, you understand that some things don’t need to be in the movie to make it “good”.

      I have to say that it’s a bit scary that it’ll sometimes all come down to the director’s reading experience. It’s sort of how some teacher’s want you to see what they see when they make you read a certain book. As if there weren’t many ways to understand a same thing… As if the author himself didn’t already want the world to interpret it for themselves rather than be forced with one single interpretation (although there are some books that only want to deliver one single message).

      Ohhhh you’re sooooo right about that too hahahah People should totally realize how precious the book becomes when you know that it has “exclusive” content that people who only watch the movie won’t experience! 😛 And it definitely makes us readers feel better knowing that we have that, that they don’t. 😀 😀

      Thanks for reading, Carooo! 😉

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      • Hahaha yes exactly! They are two different things and you can’t use the same criteria to judge and appreciate them! 😄

        That being said, I haven’t watched a lot of book-to-movie adaptations… Whenever I see that a movie is adapted from a book, I decide I won’t watch it before reading the book, but I end up never reading the book so I never watch the film either… 😂

        My pleasure, Lashaan 😁

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        • I found myself in a similar position too, and upon realizing how many movies I’ve had to skip on just because I didn’t read the book, I’ve sort of decided that from here on out, if I can’t read the book soon, I’ll just watch the movie and read it some day and then return to the movie if I’ve forgotten about it or am just curious to see how different it really is from the book. There’s just too many books to be read before movies, and too many books in general, for me to abide by that rule anymore. It’s too innocent for me to believe I can read everything before the movie hahahah 😛

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  • Such a great post! It’s definitely dependent on the script! I totally agree about needing to be respectful of the source material. And so right about actors (love that you included a picture of the godfather- there’s no better example of a role done right). And I absolutely love movie scores- John Williams is one of my favourite film composers as well 🙂 And so so true about the themes- I’ve seen things where that’s neglected and regardless of anything else being done well, it can make it feel like the original story’s been butchered if that’s changed. I do like innovation in adaptations though- I guess it’s about getting the balance right. Love this post!

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    • Yay, thank you! Your approval/appreciation means the world to me! 😛 Ohhh yes, All three/four actors were phenomenal in there respective role, but the Godfather is unbeatable! Hooray for the score! It’s sooo crucial, yet people don’t always realize how important it really is! Music is life! 😀 And yes, yes, yes for themes and innovation! It really is a question of balance, and hopefully directors understand that when they dare to adapt a beloved novel! 😛

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  • I really enjoyed this post! I, as a fellow cinephile, tend to enjoy book-to-movie (or TV) adaptations quite a lot. I am always baffled when the cast doesn’t fit my imagination AT ALL, but that is something I can get used to as long as their performance is convincing. However, something I can’t stand at all is when the producers etc. of the show or movie forget who they are making the final product for. They don’t JUST want the readers, but at the same time they also need to please those to some extent. I have found quite a couple movies and shows where they failed to explain vital parts of the story, which is only fully understandable with the addition of reading of the book. That doesn’t make any sense to me at all. How are new viewers supposed to understand what’s going on? But at the same time, I hate those scenes where they just give all the information in a stupid monologue. Be more creative than that, because as a person who might know the source material, it’s boring, and even if you don’t know the material before, info dumps aren’t great.
    Hope my comment made sense haha

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    • Awwn yay! Thanks Kat! It’s definitely their performance that really changes the game. Like Charlie Cox’s Daredevil vs. Ben Affleck’s Daredevil. Loads of examples prove that the actor can become the character and overrule our imagination and its casting. 😛

      Ah yes, I totally understand what you mean. How some directors expand the intended target audience and really miss the mark with how the story should be told to truly capture the ideas/themes.

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      • Now that you mentioned Charlie Cox, I am sad they cancelled Daredevil again … if I wasn’t so sure that Karen will be in the next season of Punisher, I am not sure what I would have done.

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  • I definitely require faithfulness to the original source otherwise it is not an adaptation. I mean “Blade Runner” can be defined as only very loosely based on the book. The best book-to-film adaptations in the world have been faithful to their source material (that is if their source material is good enough too). The examples are “Gone with the Wind”, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, “Pride & Prejudice” (2005) and “The Virgin Suicides”. The director should get the “spirit”/atmosphere of the novel, as well as the content. The worst adaptations in recent years have been “Anna Karenina” (2012) and “The Beguiled” (2017) – and these films did not “get” their respective books at all.

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