The Problem with Book to Film Adaptations


Whilst every reader is aware of the risk that having their favourite book turned into a film truly is, there are a variety of reasons readers are so apprehensive to see stories taken to the big screen.

For one, casting becomes a major point of contention. Everyone who reads a book has a slightly different picture of the characters, no matter how thoroughly they have been described by the author. The casting director could find actors they believe perfectly fill a role, but that doesn’t mean fans will agree.

Then there’s the fear that the world won’t look right. This is especially true of fantasy or sci-fi films, where whole worlds are being created by set- and costume-designers. Even when an author is involved in production, there are limits to what is possible, to what can be created by designers. With all the goodwill in the world, it isn’t always possible to recreate what is described in the book.

However, I think I’ve narrowed down the reason so many film adaptions flop amongst those who love the books: the small moments get ignored.

Whilst people can love worlds and characters, they can enjoy a plotline and appreciate the narrative, the reason people fall in love with fiction is the small moments. Connections are created through emotion: the displays of friendship and love, of tragedy and loss. It’s the emotion expressed in the smallest gesture. That’s what truly breaks (and comforts) your heart.

So when a film recreates the story of a beloved book, it isn’t always enough. Bringing characters to life with talented actors isn’t always enough (however attractive said actors are). Unless you dedicate as much effort to the small moments as to the big ones, fans aren’t going to experience the same love that the book inspired in them.

Take, for example, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. People often bemoan the fact that the films are so long, but their length is due to the accuracy with which they recreate Tolkein’s original books. The thing Lord of the Rings got right was using small details that were mentioned in the (admittedly rather long) books and portraying them accurate in the films, knowing that it’s the small things that will keep fans on their side.

In the cast commentary for The Fellowship of the Ring, Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee) explains that Ian McKellen (Gandalf) “direct[ed] me to the passage in the book where Sam comes to the bedside of Frodo and holds his hand. He [McKellen] said, ‘audiences will want to be seeing that!’”.

McKellen was correct. The friendship that exists between Sam and Frodo is at the heart of Lord of the Rings and for readers to see their favourite moments recreated accurately on screen completely changes the experience of watching a film.

Rather than apprehensively waiting for the moment that is going to break their suspension of disbelief, they will be utterly absorbed in the way the world they love has been brought to life. What more can a creator ask for?