Attitudes Towards Adaptation

In my lifetime, I’ve often found that book-lovers look at the word Adaptation as if it’s a bit of a controversial one.

Ever since I was a child, the big thing that people always complain about with adaptation is that it isn’t as good as the book, or it isn’t like the book, or it changes something, or it somehow doesn’t fit the reader’s expectations. People absolutely hate most adaptations because it, to them, doesn’t represent the story they love from the source material. In fact, there are so many articles regarding the reasons that books are better than movies (almost ALWAYS, as some claim). As a kid, the biggest offender of the bunch to most people was Harry Potter and almost any other film based on a long novel that had to cut a lot of stuff out for the plot. People became enraged at these changes and, I must admit, I joined in sometimes when I was a kid.

Now, I utterly hate the phrase, “The book was better than the movie”. Let me tell you why!

Let’s start with the definition of the word adaptation.


a movie, television drama, or stage play that has been adapted from a written work, typically a novel.

There we go, our product, the adaptation. Very good, now let’s further examine the word adapt.

make (something) suitable for a new use or purpose; modify.

You may ask, “What was the point of that, Chelsea?” to which I say that it’s important to pay attention to what exactly an adaptation is in order to understand why I hate the phrase “The book was better than the movie.” The simplest way of putting it is that an adaptation is an entirely new work that is inspired by the source material. The word ‘adapt’ here means that something is made suitable or modified for a new use. The new use is an entirely different work of fiction and, therefore, comparing it to the source material is pointless and just plain illogical.

“The book is always better than the movie.”
This presumption is widespread, but it is less a critical determination than a personal bias. A movie based on a literary source is often seen as a secondary work and, consequently, of secondary value. Literature, generally, still occupies a more privileged position in the cultural hierarchy than movies do; and readers often have a proprietary attitude towards the book, an attitude that influences their reception of a film based upon it. They often are disappointed when a movie does not match their concept of what they have read, not realizing that reading, itself, is an act of translation. Readers translate words into images and form strong, private, often vivid impressions of what the book’s fictional world looks like and what it means; words become translated into emotional experiences. When a film does not square with the reader’s ideas, images, interpretation – even simple recall – of the book, the movie is deemed de facto deficient and disappointing, spawning the general impression that the movie is never as good.
-Linda Costanzo Cahir, Literature Into Film: Theory and Practical Approaches

What Cahir is pointing out here is exactly why film and literature are entirely different things and, to use a common phrase, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. What she is saying in this is not that book readers are snobs, but rather that reading a book is a highly personal matter. Reading a book is a matter of forming your own adaptation of the authors intention in your mind, more or less, in that you, the reader, are the ‘director’ of your own mental movie of what is going on. In film-making, a director takes a script written, usually, by someone else and their interpretation if that source material becomes the film we see. In reading a book, you are essentially taking a script someone else wrote and interpreting it into your own final version the same way a director interprets their script.

Because of this personal nature in reading a book, it’s entirely unfair to then say a movie adaptation is or isn’t good based on whether or not it matches your interpretation of the source material.

There are different types of film adaptations and, I have noticed that people only seem to get angry at direct adaptations that aren’t carbon-copies of the book it is based on. It makes me think that perhaps people aren’t looking at adaptations as they should be, which is to say that a direct adaptation is no more or less ‘valid’ than a radical adaptation. We the viewers/readers should no more compare Harry Potter to its source material than we would compare Clueless to Emma or O Brother Where Art Thou to The Odyssey.

(Yes, if you weren’t aware, those are both adaptations of those works of literature)

Another very important point is that the structure of film-making is vastly different than the structure of book-writing. The very nature of novels is that you have a greater introspection even in the most unreliable narrator-style 3rd-Limited POV. The nature of reading is that you’re given insights that cannot be explored in film, thus limiting the way a film has to adapt (there’s that word again) the story to be told through a different narrative style. Film adaptations often have to express something thematically that may be expressed literally in literature just because you can’t show thoughts and feelings without Word of God voice-overs or some odd-ball film technique. At the same time, disjointed agitation is far more effectively portrayed in film than in literature because one cannot write such a thing unless their writing is some 1st POV stream-of-conscience, and even that might be difficult.

The point is that there are things that cannot be well translated from page to screen and vice versa, and there are limitations to both literature and film that the other doesn’t have. Time is a major factor. Tone is a big difference. Intention is established through a vastly different method in each medium. The two art forms are both limited by the nature of their own existence, they both have strengths, they both have weaknesses, and to consider one inferior just because it isn’t the same is like saying a fish is inferior to a monkey because the former cannot climb a tree. To say that a book is better than the adaptation simply because the adaptation is different is just a ridiculous statement to make.

You can say that the adaptation doesn’t accurately tell a coherent story (or as coherent of a story) limited to its own form (since I mentioned Harry Potter a few times, a good example of this would be the way that, in trying to show enough of the books to remain accurate, Goblet of Fire leaves a lot of plot holes and makes it so that the viewer HAD to read the book to fill in the gaps themselves), but that isn’t comparing the book and the movie to say the story isn’t told coherently enough in the film to merit its existence. The movie may not be good on the basis of film-making, such as the film adaptation of the novel Eragon, that was just a lousy film. It didn’t matter that was an adaptation, because it was just a bad movie. But again, there is a difference in ‘this film or television series isn’t good’ and ‘this film or television series isn’t as good as the book’.

There’s also the matter of times in which adaptations are able to be superior to the book because its changes make the basic story make more sense or fit better. We all know cases where a book just doesn’t tell a story as effectively as it could be told, and it’s not uncommon for adaptations to take a good story premise and adapt the story premise into a film that more effectively gives a good narrative from the premise that wasn’t well represented in the novel. Though it isn’t a novel, a good example of this would be how the film V for Vendetta was adapted into a very coherent and narratively compelling story from a comic book that, while decent, lacked the central coherency to make the story all that compelling.

You notice I don’t say “The movie is better than the source material” because the styles are vastly different. I say that the film was able to make the story have a better central coherency, which makes the storytelling more effective and efficient at getting the themes across. An INCREDIBLE example of this would be the mini-series North & South that is an adaptation of a novel of the same title by Elizabeth Gaskell. That novel was published in a series of pieces and they lack any central coherency. There is no real central plot even to the beginning, and the end is painfully abrupt and unfulfilling, but the story is there, and with that interesting story that the novel fails to deliver in a satisfactory way, the BBC mini-series consolidates the story that is interesting and focuses in on that in order to deliver that compelling story premise the novel fails to deliver. The novel is not good. The mini-series is good. I am not saying the mini-series is better than the novel, because the mini-series would be just as good had it been an original idea and not an adaptation, and the novel would have still not been that good even if it were the only version of the story available.

I have a very strong opinion on the phrase “The book is better than the movie” because, as someone who has studied both literature and film extensively, I feel that is an entirely unfair statement to both art forms. A book can be good. An adaption can be good. A book can be bad. An adaption can be bad. These things are not only not reliant upon each other, but they are not related to each other. So in the future think about this and ask your self, “If there was no book, would this movie be a good film?” or, “If there was no film, would this be a good book?” rather than asking, “Is this movie as good as the book?”

As always, I welcome discussion and comments in the comment section, and I welcome you to share this discussion outside of this post. You can always find me on My Twitter, and since this relates to film and television, you can always find my Movie Blog and my TV Blog as well.

Author: J. Chelsea Williford

Movie addict, reader, writer, pop culture lover.

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