Books into Films

I saw The Golden Compass over the weekend, and mostly I enjoyed it. As many of you know, it’s a film rendering of the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Lyra Belaqua, the poster child for Victorian naughtiness, is at the center of the battle between those who wish conformity at all costs and those who fight against it. At stake is not just their world, but the entire universe.

What made Pullman’s books so compelling were the Big Ideas about religion and humanity tucked into an entertaining story told in stripped and simplified prose. Daemons–animal manifestations of the human soul–talking bears, and semi-immortal witches weren’t cool ideas the author trotted out to keep the kids reading, they were linchpins in the plot.

Unfortunately, in the movie, they were rendered as set pieces. Don’t get me wrong, the film looked gorgeous, the acting was top-notch, and the pace clipped nicely. The writing was good, too. The Golden Compass is a far better film than the first Harry Potter movie or Narnia. The $9 ticket and the afternoon were well spent.

And yet . . .

As I sat watching one Great Actor after another mouth plot points: “The prophecy speaks about such a child,” or “There’s a battle coming,” I kept thinking, this is why people complain that movies don’t do books any favors. In a book, good writing can disguise a plot point so that the reader doesn’t see the mechanisms moving the story ahead. In a film, the plot points have to be spelled out so the viewer knows what’s going on.

Some film makers are better at this than others, I concede (since I cited fantasy books into films in the examples, I’ll stick to them for the purposes of this post). Peter Jackson and crew did a fantastic job moving the story along in the Lord of the Rings trilogies. The plot unfolded organically, and it didn’t feel like we were being pushed to see the story. Their industry awards were well-deserved.

Still, it’s a rare thing when a film does justice to a book, rarer still for a film to improve upon one. For me, the thing that makes a book special and can never be replicated in film is the author’s voice. Pullman’s spare simplicity was swept aside in a CGI extravaganza.

But I’m still excited to know that good books are being turned into films, even though part of me knows they can never be as good as the experience of reading the book in the first place.


About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.


  1. says

    Hmm, this is why I didn’t jump to see the film this weekend; the reviews at Rotten Tomato weren’t too favorable.

    The book-to-movie translation I both can’t wait for and fear over is Time Traveler’s Wife, but word has it that the release date has been pushed again. Now it’ll be 2009 before it hits theatres.

  2. says

    Kathleen, I’m glad you posted this. I was debating going to see it, as the commercials looked gorgeous, but I kept wondering how they were going to fit everything in. My siblings saw the movie and they liked it, but they never read the books. One of their friends read the book, and said the movie cut out 150+ pages, which is sad.

    Therese, they’re making a movie out of Time Traveler’s Wife? Now that frightens me, haha. I kept thinking while I read the book how they would make it into a movie for some reason, but the idea that they’re actually going to try it worries me.

  3. says

    Belinda, if you’re a fan of the book, you should know that they stopped the movie before the penultimate scene. So that jarred me, even though the filmmaker’s fidelity to the book was pretty astonishing, imo. Visually it was exciting, and Nicole Kidman is perfect at Mrs. Coulter. Let’s put it this way–films have messed up other books far worse.

    There was a trailer for Inkheart, and though I was excited that Paul Bettany will be playing Dustfinger, the rest seemed meh.

    TTW is going to take some masterful filmwork to pull off. Fingers crossed!

  4. says

    Yay re: Paul Bettany! I LOVE that guy. He’s got incredible scope as an actor. What a perfect character for him to play!

    I’ve read that there were major script issues with TTW, but that they finally settled on something. Hopefully it works and does the story justice.

  5. says

    As a screenwriter who once adapted a book (okay, it was “The Little Engine that Could,” but my screenplay is a WHOLE lot different than the book and for good reasons), I am repeatedly frustrated when people compare a film to the source book and talk about how it “messed up” the novel.

    C’mon. They’re different mediums, use different tools, have different possibilities. True, films rarely capture the nuance of books. Maybe because, as a medium, film just can’t do that as well. That’s why the films are adaptations, not replicas.

    More than that, you need to consider who produces a book versus a film. A book is, essentially the product of one human being, the author, with, perhaps, influence by another, an editor.

    A film is the product of a collaboration between a director, writer, art director, actors, cameraman, editor, sound editor, music score person, and many more. More than that, because so many millions must be invested to produce a film, “political” and market considerations that were probably not a factor in producing the book can weigh heavily on a film, precisely because of the humongous amounts of money involved.

    Case in point, “The Golden Compass” which, I understand, has had some thematic underpinnings removed or diminished to invisibility.

    I, too, saw it this weekend. I haven’t read the books, but am ordering them this week. I enjoyed the story of this girl and her daemon in a wonderfully imagined and executed world a great deal. It was a pleasure to watch, and an excellent production–acting, CGI, all of that stuff was super.

    For me, it was a fine movie, an entertaining story about people, and I ended up wanting more. And buying the books.

    Please, don’t expect a movie to be the book. In fact, don’t compare them. It’s not fair. Just look at the movie and, if you must critique it, do so on what’s there, not what’s not.

    I’ve done screenwriting and am fully aware of the limitations of the form–and its strengths. I’ve written novels, and am fully aware of fiction’s strengths–and weaknesses.

    So be fair. Don’t prejudge. Don’t postjudge. Just go for STORY. While many novels enrich us with strong themes and unique approaches to the world, don’t forget what those novels start out to be and are initially bought for–the STORY.



  6. says

    I can understand Ray’s point, and, in fact, keep telling myself that every time I see another book adaptation. I’m afraid it’s not working very well. I haven’t even seen the 5th Harry Potter- I’m terrified!

    While Ray is, of course, right to state that novels are all about the *story*, I also agree with Kathleen about Philip Pullman’s voice. His voice was completely different from anything I’d ever read. In the beginning I didn’t like it, but the story kept me reading. Soon I began to notice small things- his skill with characterization (showing without telling), the unabashed imperfection of his characters. By the time I finished the first book I was so entranced that I barely even protested at the calamitous ending, and I am very much a happily-ever-after person. I would even say that by the end, the story had taken second place to his voice and his obvious skill.

    I do plan to go see the movie,. I will do my best not to expect it to be exactly like the book, but I do think that book adaptation movies are doomed to be a pale imitation of the book-reading experience. I’m afraid, Ray, that I can’t help but compare them. But instead of finding the movie lacking, maybe I will choose to take the vivid imagery from the movie and apply it in my imagination the next time I read the books. The best of both worlds.

  7. says

    I think it’s entertaining to see books being turned into reality… but I’d really rather stick with reading the book than watching a movie where a lot of interesting details couldn’t fit in.

    There are horrible movie adaptations, it’s the truth. But what actually makes a good adaptation? Gather all the best actors, the best crew, the best director and whoever… but the end result may not be good. Though I think the most important factor is that the script stays as true to the novel as possible.

    And I think that some books really shouldn’t be turned into film. They’re just too complex and shouldn’t be ruined like that. (right now I’m thinking of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

    Then again… there are some excellent adaptations. My favourite movie of all time is “The Constant Gardener”. The book was written by John Le Carré and the movie was directed by Fernando Meirelles. I can think of at least 5 other great examples.

    Right now they’re shooting the film adaptation of “The Lovely Bones” – a book by Alice Sebold, which I adored. I have big expectations about it, though I’ll have to wait another year to see the final result.

  8. says

    I agree, Ray, that we should judge a film by its merits as a film, and try not to make comparisons. But in the real world, how can we divorce the source material from the end product? Probably a good percentage of the audience choosing to see the film were fans of the books. And it’s exciting to know the film has drawn people to reading the books. Synergy between the mediums at its best!

    Then again, there’s source material that probably should never be made into a movie. Case in point: Beowulf.

  9. says

    Aren’t we forgetting that the books and the film are aimed at 10-12 year olds, not adults?

    I loved the books, I enjoyed the film, though felt it was lacking something, because I was watching as an adult, not a 12 year old.

    My 12 year old son? Absolutely adored the film, because it was aimed at his age group. Judging it from that benchmark vastly improves the film.

    We should remember that when judging.

  10. says

    My main concern when I’m going to see a movie adaptation isn’t necessarily how close the script is to the book, although that is a factor, but more…have they captured the essence of the story. Example: The 2005 Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly. They took liberties with that version, tweaking things to make the story more dramatic and emotional than it already is. But it worked, because it still captured the essence of the story.

    I do think it’s a shame the movie version of Golden Compass stops before the scene that completely ripped me apart as a reader, making it impossible for me not to read the rest of the series. But then, as others have mentioned before me, the movie is for a different audience, and I doubt ending the movie on that note would have brought the masses back for a sequel.