What makes a good book-to-film adaptation?: an investigation
The Literary Club

What makes a good book-to-film adaptation?: an investigation

A book-to-film adaptation is not an easy process. In a time where no one is afraid to scream on the internet about what is wrong with any given media project (myself included), being a writer trying to please hardcore readers and newcomers to the story must be a pretty scary situation.

The ratio of success to failure is wide. Within the same company, for example, Netflix, you can encounter a disaster such as the 2022 adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion (you can read me ranting about it here). But sometimes, when screenwriters and filmmakers get it right, beauties such as Netflix’s version of The Sandman (2022) show up on our screens.

I am not here to talk about the films above, although they powerfully illustrate the broad spectrum that book-to-film adaptations might take.

By now, you are probably scratching your head and thinking, “How can one adaptation work so well and the other not? If you adopt one book, you can surely adapt to any other, right?” I wish I had a direct answer for that, but no one knows precisely what makes one great and the other a stinker. Adapting something is a subjective process that can be applied in as many different ways as there are different writers.

However, I will discuss three constants in all the adaptations I have researched to understand how this process works.

#1 Was the story read correctly?

I have started with controversy, I know! But let me explain what I mean by reading correctly. First, I’d like to make a disclaimer that I don’t think most people make the mistake of incorrectly reading a text. What happens most frequently is a misreading of the source material. This misreading can happen on many different levels.

The first is the most basic: does the adapter understand the plot? It sounds simple, but this can be a big challenge in some books. If you don’t fully grasp the situations unfolding across the pages, it might get very complicated when you’re trying to bring them to the screen.

The other type of misreading might arise due to a lack of understanding of character and subtext. This is by far the most common misreading. Many adaptations follow the book’s plot, beat by beat, but completely miss the point when it comes to what exactly the story is about. This is, personally, the biggest problem with adaptations. When you get characters acting in ways alien to how they were initially developed, plot points don’t make sense because they no longer matter to the characters.

But this is only the beginning. After you read a book, you must start thinking about how you will portray the story visually.

#2 Faithfulness to the source material

Any fiction is a time product: people’s thoughts about social issues, technology, and media references. All of that and more can and will seep into the narrative and into the way characters behave with each other. The thing about this intertwining of ideals and morals is that it changes.

This might be a massive change, like the difference in morals and behaviours between Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) and its film adaptation Clueless (1995). But it could also be something smaller, like internet slang, which has become obsolete in only a few months.

These changes are often a point of heated debate. Some believe that extreme faithfulness to the source material is the way to go, claiming that any significant changes disrespect the author and their book. Others are a little more liberal in their approach, understanding and sometimes even expecting changes to be implemented.

As someone on both sides of this debate, with time and experience, I have realised that adaptations with some changes are usually more successful in truly capturing the spirit of a book. If I wanted to experience the book, following the plot beat by beat, I would have reread it!

The truth is that there is no one correct way. Every story will dictate what needs to be depicted on the screen. In adapting Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), Greta Gerwig explained this process. In a Writers Panel for the 2020 Santa Barbara Film Festival, Gerwig explained that her approach was to first learn everything she could about the book: the time it was set, the plot and characters, even the author’s life and context at the time of writing.

Adaptation - Little Women (Greta Gerwig)

Then, she would take a detour into past adaptations of the same story—what she called the “urtext”. This is the idea that it is not only the art itself but whatever has been said about it or adapted from it that will influence our perception of the original text. After familiarising herself with all of the urtext, which gave her perspective, Gerwig could hold on to the essence of the original without repeating the same beats of previous readings of the novel.

Greta Gerwig was able to blend two different approaches. She maintained faithfulness to the characters and the book’s truth without being too attached to superficial details that are only a tiny part of a time and moment of history.

#3 Translation

Finally, after reading the novel and thinking about all the elements that connect to create the story, the time comes to begin writing the screenplay. This is not simply writing but a process of translation.

Besides telling a story, a book and film work entirely differently. A piece of prose is allowed more time and space to develop its plot and characters, while a movie is usually confined to two hours (maybe eight for a TV series) to do the same work. Not only that, but a book can also navigate characters’ minds, allowing readers to understand their motives and actions better.

An audiovisual story does not have that luxury unless you make the feelings stop what they are doing and start explaining why they do what they do. That exposition is sometimes necessary, but to create a believable human on screen, screenwriters often create a situation or rearrange a moment from the book in which the character is forced to take an action that presents the audience with their beliefs.

The film adopts the philosophy that words mean nothing if you don’t act on them.

A great example of this thought-to-action switch is the 2020 TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018). The book is an excellent example of diving into characters’ minds. With a writing style that follows a stream of consciousness, we get to know these characters’ most intimate, embarrassing, and powerful thoughts. How do you translate that into images?

The answer is a mix of getting the characters to talk about their feelings, but mostly, making them act on them. Actions always speak louder than words. It is also essential to add that the process of casting your actors will be of extreme importance to this aspect of adaptation. Finding the people who best understand the characters will take your screenplay a long way.

There are countless book-to-film adaptations out there. Classics like The Exorcist and The Shining (you know I had to bring horror into it) are examples of two completely different approaches that somehow work. But there are also countless that don’t.

The truth is that writing an adaptation is a highly complicated process that will generate debate and propel people to look for new ways of telling stories.

What about you—do you have a favourite adaptation or one you hate?

Some of the reading I did on the subject.