Translating bestsellers to the screen

by Michelle Gagnon

I stumbled across this piece the other day in the LA Times, which dovetailed perfectly with a conversation a friend and I had recently about the pros and cons of getting your novel optioned. Several current NY Times bestselling writers were virtually undiscovered until their book was made into a film (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child with THE RELIC come to mind. On a side note: great book, terrible movie).

For many authors the possibility of having their work made into a film, whether the end result is a masterpiece or not, is the dream goal. Because if nothing else, the amount of free advertising garnered by a film release exponentially outpaces what most of us receive from our publisher’s marketing departments.

Yet paradoxically, all too frequently a book that was a runaway bestseller on its own flops at the box office.

I can give a few examples. Let’s start with THE LOVELY BONES, hands down one of my favorite reads of the past several years. I thought the adroit manner with which Alice Sebold handled such a difficult storyline was absolutely astonishing. Having a murdered young girl watch her family deal with what happened from the vantage point of heaven could have been unbelievably trite, cliched, and painful to witness. Yet she was so skilled and deft with the story that it worked. It remains one of the only books I’ve ever read that moved me to tears.
When I heard that it was being made into a film, I recoiled. Even though the director was someone whose other work I loved. Because for me, this was a story that I’d experienced so viscerally on the page, nothing onscreen could match it. And so much of what Sebold accomplished had little to do with the actual story, and everything to do with the way in which she wrote it.

THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE is another example. Constructing a linear narrative via a plot that jumped back and forth through time, frequently showcasing different decades on the same page–that was simply astonishing. I became invested in the characters despite the fact that from the opening pages, I knew something terrible was going to happen. But did I want to see Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams as those characters? Not really. Again, they’re two actors whose work I generally enjoy. But it felt as though watching someone else’s interpretation of the book would taint a reading experience that was extremely cathartic for me.

The flip side of the coin is books that actually worked better onscreen. As I wrote in an earlier post, I was underwhelmed by THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Interesting characters and one interesting plotline (out of two), but any positives for me were lost in what appeared to be an unedited manuscript.
The screenwriter did the smart thing by focusing on the main storyline, eliminating unnecessary details, characters, and red herrings, and condensing it all into something that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Granted, it’s rare, but those few times that a filmmaker manages to improve upon a book, the end result is remarkable (I still think that the cinematic ending of ABOUT A BOY was superior to Hornby’s original). One of the listservs I frequent is currently engaged in a heated debate about the casting for the film version of Evanovich’s ONE FOR THE MONEY. Is Katherine Heigl the right actor to portray Stephanie Plum? She’s not what I imagined for that character, but given her comedic flair, she might surprise me. And how about Angelina Jolie as Kay Scarpetta? Apparently so far Cromwell’s fans are voting 10-1 against the casting. But is the issue that they think she’s wrong for the role, or that they just can’t imagine any actor matching what their imagination conjured up for that character?

So which books would you never want to see on the big screen? And conversely, which movies do you think in the end produced a superior experience?

22 thoughts on “Translating bestsellers to the screen

  1. The first one that comes to mind for me is Puzo’s “The Godfather,” which was, in my opinion, a horribly written book and a tremendous film.

    On the other end, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” film was OK, but captured none of the magic of the book.

    If I had the power to buy the permanent film rights for one book so as to lock them in a vault, never to be opened by a grubby little film exec, those rights would be to China Mieville’s “The Scar.” Hollywood could build Armada between some fancy sound stage and Avatar-esque CGI, but it still wouldn’t match the image I have of it. And the long monologues that work so well in the book would be hacked to pieces on film.

  2. Nice post, Michelle. I read Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy twice in college and prayed no one would ever attempt to make it into a movie. A couple of people tried; one was a ridiculous cartoon. Absolutely awful. But I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Jackson’s interpretation. I considered his movies cinematic masterpieces that really did the books justice. I also felt really good about how THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and THE GODFATHER translated onto film. And in the case of THE GODFATHER, I agree with Joe Romel that the move was much better than the book. Going in the opposite direction, with the possible exceptions of DR. NO and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, I thought the movie versions of the original James Bond thrillers were a joke. And a couple of attempts to make movies out of Clive Cussler novels turned into disasters. And yet, in my opinion, the Bourne movies are in many ways better than the books. The most recent transfer from page to film that I really enjoyed was Roman Polanski’s THE GHOST WRITER. It was taken almost word for word from Robert Harris’ exceptional thriller THE GHOST. And we should not leave out HOT TUB TIME MACHINE loosely based on H.G. Wells 1895 novel for which I can’t remember the title.

  3. Definitely SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Great book, fabulous movie. Also JURASSIC PARK. I’m often introduced to a story through a movie, then I go back and read the book. I find that to be a better experience. The book becomes like the “writer’s cut”–deeper, richer, more fully fleshed out characters and story.

  4. One that translated well was Bridget Jones’ Diary. The book was fantastic but they kept a lot of the same elements from the book but cutting out a major part in my mind. But all in all, I did enjoy it.

  5. a blunder from the very beginning….and that includes the decision to even write a sequel, was ripley’s ‘scarlet’. i would have loved to have been in the board room of the movie exec’s when the question was asked….’ok, who will we have play clark gable and vivien leigh’s roles….there should have been laughter, promptly followed by an adjournment of the meeting. as that was never going to happen. the book was wretched and the movie even more wretched. imho. kathy d.

  6. I thought Bonfire of the Vanity was a great movie…until I read the book. After the book, I realized, not only did the movie leave out several major themes, but it missed the whole point of the story.

  7. JAWS was a much better film. The screenwriter ditched a subplot where Chief Brody’s wife has an affair with the marine biologist. The book stopped dead every time they got together. All the good stuff was on (and under) the water, which was where they kept the movie.

    As Joe said, THE GODFATHER is another good example of cutting extraneous subplots to keep the story lean.

  8. Robert B Parkers Jesse Stone Novels have been well done by Tom Selleck. Parker’s first book in his western series, “Brimstone”, was well done as a movie. I saw the movie first, then reading the book was like reading the screenplay.

    I saw Lawrence Block at a book signing once. Someone asked how he felt about the movie “Burglar”, in which Whoopie Goldberg played Bernie Rhodenbar, a white jewish character. Block asked, “Isn’t that how you picturedBernie?” After everyone laughed, he reminded us that his book remained just like it was and we could still read it.

  9. I tend to not like the majority of movies based on books if I read the book first. Because like Michelle said, I already have the image in my mind. On the other hand, if I see the movie first then read the books I feel almost like the movie is a trailer for the book. I do tend to prefer books turned into mini-series or long movies to get the elements as close as possible though. Therefore.

    Books that worked as movies:
    Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”
    Cornwell’s “Sharpe Series”
    “Remo William’s The Adventure Begins”

    Books that did not work as movies:
    “Master and Commander”
    “Sahara” (Cussler)
    “The Cat in the Hat”

    note on Cat in the Hat. The cartoon version simply did not do justice to the literary art Theodore Geisel exhibited in his original Cat in the Hat treatise. The Mike Myers movie left me feeling icky as if I had a nightmare of being inside a paedophile playhouse.

  10. On the comment regarding Angelina Jolie as Kay Scarpetta, I have to say I’m with the majority on not wanting to have her cast for the role. I am reading the whole Kay Scarpetta series from the beginning (being a latecomer to the author) and I’m currently on Blowfly, which I think is about 2002.I could imagine a Jolie, when she was a few years younger, as Lucy, but not as Scarpetta. I’m not sure I can put my finger on why. I accept that we build our own image of what the characters look like, but it’s not just about looks, it’s about the whole character, whom we become absorbed and invested in, within the pages of a book and Jolie just doesn’t fit the whole persona that is Kay Scarpetta.

    Books really do give a personal knowledge feel of people within and I think it is that which makes it difficult to translate to film.

  11. Katherine Heigl as Stephanie Plum? Really? I think of Stephanie as a short brunette.

    But I thought “The Town” was a terrific adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s Prince of Thieves. The movie makes some important changes to the book (especially to the ending), but captures the tone and spirit of the novel perfectly.

  12. I loved LOTR, both the books and the films (although the super slo-mo ending of the third film was laughable). I’m glad they cut out the Shire epilogue from the books, though.

    I never read The Godfather, but what a fantastic film.

    I did the same thing with SOTL, Kathryn- and what surprised me most was how terrifying the book remained, even though the film stayed larger true to the story, so I knew how it would turn out.

    I enjoyed both the film and book versions of Bridget Jones’ Diary, although some of the fight scenes were too silly for me.

    I had no idea that they even made a film out of Scarlet! But I’ll take pains to avoid it now.

    JAWS- a favorite in our house. And I agree, the affair that took place in the book was unnecessary, the screenwriter was wise to omit it. Much better ending, too, IMHO.

    Jane, I’m curious to see what you think of BLOWFLY. It was the last Scarpetta book I read, and frankly stands among my least favorite books ever.

  13. I thought all but one of the Tom Clancy movies were well done. Do I even need to mention the bad one? LOL. His novels were among the few that didn’t bother me with the major chances the movies made.

    Three Days of the Condor with Robert Redford was a classic. I believe the book was called Five Days of the Condor.

  14. Here’s my two cents worth, Michelle.

    Books that translated into much better movies:


    Books that should never have been filmed:


  15. I’ve always liked the ending in the film version of THE FIRM better than the ending in the book.

    Film versions of adventure stories like Clive Cussler’s are rarely good, with a success rate rivaling movies made from video games. I wonder why it’s so hard to adapt books from authors like James Rollins and Steve Berry and Doug Preston. As an example, I loved the book Congo by Michael Crichton, but the movie was abysmal. Jurassic Park, on the other hand, delivered exactly what we wanted: to see realistic dinosaurs munching on people.

  16. How about the perfect balance?

    THE MALTESE FALCON. Great book, great film. Partly because the script is almost exactly like the book, which is written cinematically. (One story is that director John Huston tossed the book to his secretary on Friday and told her to make it a script over the weekend. He then went out gambling).

  17. Mike- Bridges of Madison County was hands down one of the worst books I’ve ever read. The film was definitely an improvement.

    Jurassic Park was great in both versions, I thought.

    Now I’m trying to remember the different endings of The Firm- and I’m drawing a blank, too long ago for my feeble memory banks.

    The Maltese Falcon- that’s the way it should be done.

  18. Michelle, my reading of Blowfly has been slightly disjointed as I’ve been busy with some other things, but what has struck me as difficult to get my head around with the book is the change from first person to third. I mean, why do that? She had written approximately ten books previous to blowfly in one style and then just reversed everything. I will continue what I set out to do though, and that is, read the whole series.

  19. Movies 1 and 3 of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which followed the books closely, were great. IMO, movie 2 strayed too far from the novel to be thoroughly enjoyable. I know it was done to make it fit the modern 3-act structure, but I think it would have worked better as written. I am so glad Jackson left out Tom Bombadil.

    Most every movie based on a video game is wretched. Notable exceptions include the first two Resident Evil movies but not the third. If you like zombie flicks, I recommend them, and this comes from someone who doesn’t like horror at all.

    The Harry Potter movies 1-4 and 6 are all well done and follow their books. I actually prefer the movie ending for 3 to the book’s ending. However, movie 5 was a supreme disappointment. The book is far better. Since the main plot revolves around Harry’s introspection which doesn’t lend itself to the big screen very well they had to do something. Their changes were quite poor though and far too many for me to enjoy it. Movie 6 redeemed the series beautifully. Both 4 and 6, since they were based on longer novels, had to have their stories pared down which was done very well by the screenwriter. Props to him or her.

  20. Hi Jane-

    For me, the ending of BLOWFLY was a complete disaster- and from what I understand, a lot of people think she never really got her groove back. But that did it for me.

    Daniel- I loved all three LOTR films more or less without exception (and I agree completely re: Bombadil.

    I have a hard time keeping the Harry Potter books and films separate now. I know that by and large, I’ve enjoyed them. Curious to see how they’ll end the final one.

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