"The Book Was Better” Part 2May 26, 2015, 02:16 PM Adaptation, Screen vs. Page, Writing
Regarding the prevailing attitude toward movie adaptations of books, I will contend that books are not gospel. (In the non-religious definition of the word.)
Many choose to, or unwittingly, take the stance that a story in novel form is the absolute embodiment of an author’s ideas, and therefore anything else imparting that story, which differs in the slightest, is inherently wrong. I believe this is at the root of criticism for novel adaptations. I also believe this is mistaken and I assert the book is not gospel.
As a screenwriter, one quickly learns your writing is anything but absolute. Directors will ignore and change details, actors will change lines, intentionally and accidentally, and that’s just the start of the compromises between your vision and the resulting movie. A screenwriter’s material is not gospel; it’s one interpretation of many. However, if it has a compelling story and a deep emotional draw, all those people’s changes will be made in the interest of telling the story well, even if they aren’t telling it the way you did. This is the best for which a screenwriter can hope – that all the compromises and changes made to your original work are done so in order to tell the story well. This is a notion everyone needs to bring to books.
Having also written a novel, I can see the book is not the 100% embodiment of my story either. In my mind, the settings are so vivid I could spend pages and pages describing each one, but that wouldn’t make for a good read, so I cut it down to only what you need to know to get the feel, or what elements of the setting will interact with characters, then I move on. In my mind, I have elaborate back-stories for every character, even those with only brief appearances. Again, interesting to me, I could write pages and pages on them, but again not interesting if it doesn’t affect the core story, so alas they’re largely omitted from the novel.
In my mind, I have lengths of story before the point in time at which my plot begins as well as after the novel’s plot concludes. Again, the book must have limitation in order to be a tight, moving, and engaging story, so those elements get trimmed, though many writers may save them for sequels and prequels. I suspect we’ve all begun books, which insufficiently trimmed such excess and tangents, though fewer of us have finished said books.
To me, all this is what makes it exciting to talk with, and ask questions to writers we love. If everything they possibly imagined was in their book, there would be no need or interest in asking them about their work, it would all be in the book. But the author cuts their internal story down to only the richest element. When you love a detail or character, you ask the author about it and they have much more information from the story in their mind to share, and it’s wonderful.
Thus, I maintain that the book, in itself is a derivative of a story. The only 100% accurate version of the story exits is the author’s mind, and will only ever exist there. The book is a derivative of that story, a trimmed, edited, and compromised output meant to streamline the story, to make a derived version which is the most enjoyable for reading.
Many movies adapted from books are accused of doing the same - trimming, adjusting, streamlining, and leaving out plot and details in order to tailor the story into one, compact, and well-flowing movie. I pose this is just another version of what has already taken place between the author’s mind and the book, and is no more or less valid. The format of a book being enjoyable to read requires this shaping, and the format of a movie being enjoyable to watch also requires it.
I’ll go a step further. If the author’s story only exits in its entirety within the authors mind, and that which reaches the pages of a book is a derivative of that story, what reaches the readers mind is not even that derivative. For much of what an author omits, be it back story or descriptive details, we the readers fill back in from our own imaginations and experiences. If an author chooses not to elaborately describe a mundane waiting room, because it doesn’t serve the story, we readers impose a vision comprised of all the mundane waiting rooms we’ve sat in.
Even the author cannot account for all the details we readers create for the story. The author can only hope to generally guide them. Thus, the story that reaches the readers mind is in turn a derivative of the story in the book, or (for those also versed in mathematics as I am) a second derivative of the author’s story. This is why it is also enjoyable to discuss books with fellow readers, to compare how the story is perceived given each individual’s unique profile of added details and inherently differing second derivative versions of the story.
This however poses another impossibility for adapted movies, for we cannot compare a movie to an author’s internal story, nor can we actually compare the movie to the story in a book. We can only compare a movie to the second derivative story in our minds, which is unique to only us, yet we expect the movie to live up to our vision.
The movie is also a second derivative. Derived from the book, derived from the story in the author’s mind. Besides being tailored to fit the medium of movies the best, the story’s ambiguous details now get filled in by the actors, director, wardrobe designer, set builders, computer artists, and any number of people involved with a movie’s production. Wherever these details come from, they are certain not to match the details in any given reader’s mind.
These might even come from the original author. The movie could go back to the author, ask him/her questions about all the details the author left out, or consult interviews or other writings the author composed referring to their original ideas, and then build the movie’s version of the story with those details. In such a case, one could argue the movie’s version of certain aspects of the story might be more closely accurate to the author’s story than is any given reader’s version.
Whatever the case, between the author’s internal version of the story, the book’s version, each reader’s version, and the movie version, one certainty is that no two versions will be the same. Rather than dwell on how different those differences are we should embrace those differences and relish comparing them, just like we might relish comparing thoughts with a fellow reader. Most importantly, I ask you to consider that the book is in no way necessarily more or less correct than any other version.
The book is not gospel; it’s one interpretation of many. Once you’ve accepted it, the enjoyment comes from understanding what has created the differences…