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Thursday 13 Jun 2024

Book versus Movie
AJ Robinson

The book was so much better. How many times have you heard or even said that yourself? I have, several times.

Which is best, book or movie?

Why is the book or the movie much better? Well, one reason is that a movie version of a book is limited to about two hours. It is remarkable how quickly those minutes move along.

Some years back, I decided to adapt my murder mystery, Murder on Gosnold Island, to a screenplay. I left everything in the book in the movie version. I ended up with a five-hour script.

Five hours is not a movie, it’s a mini-series. Truth is I wouldn’t mind making a mini-series. Still, I was aiming for a feature film, which meant I had to trim a great deal of material from the script.

I started cutting my five-hour screenplay. The first to go were the secondary elements, the scenes and action not directly related to the main story. When I was done, the script was still about three hours.

I also noticed a couple of things. First, there were now scenes that put pressure on a possible movie. Why build a set or find a location for a single scene?

Next, I saw I had characters that were in only one scene and that didn’t make sense. For one thing, why hire an actor to play such a minimal role? Second, why confuse the audience by trotting out a character for one scene, and then never have them appear again?

It was easier to cut the characters and give their lines to another person, an established character. Then I cut still more scenes to finally get the script down to two hours. I practically wept as I read it, so much good stuff from the book gone. Yet, I finally understood why so many movies cut so deeply into the book; time, money and confusion.

Yet, time is not the only factor. Of all things, likability and certain aspects of storytelling are important, too, as well as believability. That’s what Aristotle wrote in Poetics, twenty-four hundred years ago; not much has changed.

The novel Jaws was a bestseller, but underwent changes when translated to the screen. A subplot about the mafia not wanting reports of the shark attacks getting out because they had invested in real estate, in Amity, was cut. It wasn’t important to the overall story.

Next, the hunt, for the shark, using the boat owned by Quint was changed. In the book, Quint and company returned to land each night; for the movie, they stayed out. Staying out built tension and created a sense of foreboding at the idea of them isolated on the high seas.

Movie audiences must identify with at least one character.

Then there were the characters. In the book, frankly, no character is particularly likeable. Quint is only after money. Hooper has an affair with the wife of Brody. Brody isn’t nice at all. The characters had to change, for the movie; the audience had to care about the characters, well, at least one.

Finally, there’s the finale of Jaws. In the book, the shark dies of its wounds and slowly sinks into the ocean, which isn’t especially exciting; not much of a thrilling climax. In the movie, there’s an epic battle, human versus fish.

In the case of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, both movie versions point out the differences that result when a studio makes an adaptation and then an artist does it. The studio has to think about what’s marketable and potentially profitable. Thus, Willy was more likeable, in the movie, which gave the story a bit of a moral lesson: Willy testing the children to see who was the most honest, as opposed to just giving his factory to whichever child was the least nasty.

Sometimes a change takes place because some aspects of a story won’t work in a movie. In the novel Goldfinger, Goldfinger plots to rob Fort Knox. The reader can suspend his or her belief to enjoy the story.

In the movie version, the audience is not going to suspend belief that easily. They’ll talk to each other, examine the idea and realise it doesn’t make sense. The filmmakers, quite wisely, turned that negative into a positive. Bond not only points out the fallacy of trying to steal the gold, he gives details and then Goldfinger blows him and the audience out of the water by simply saying, “Who mentioned anything about removing it?” Yeah, they made a good change to the story.

Movies and novels are different media.

That’s usually what it comes down to, modifying a book to make it workable as a movie. What works in a book usually doesn’t work for a movie. Movies and novels are different modes of storytelling. As a writer, keep that in mind when you’re deciding if you want to write a novel or a screenplay.

Combining the gimlet-eye of Philip Roth with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Working, again, as an engineeer, after years out of the field due to 2009 recession and slow recovery, Robinson finds time to write. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true. His teen vampire adventure novel, "Vampire Vendetta," will publish in 2020. Robinson continues to write books, screenplays and teleplays and keeps hoping for that big break.

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