Film Adaptations of Books — What Is Lost?

Film adaptations of books tend to perform better than original screenplays. According to a Forbes article, films based on books make 53 percent more than films made from original screenplays. While films tend to offer easier-to-understand narratives, aspects of the book are inevitably lost. Some people insist that the book is always better than the movie version, but this depends on the reader’s (or viewer’s) preferences and goals.

Reading a novel requires active thinking: readers must use their imagination, visualizing scenes and understanding language and characterization. Depending on the era and the language used in the text, reading can transport the participant to distant lands and open up new experiences.

Upon hearing of a film adaptation, many avid readers rush to see the story in motion-picture form. For readers, analyzing the director’s depiction of the text, making comparisons between the book and the film, and talking about the obvious omissions in the story are a part of the whole film-viewing, book-reading experience.

Alternatively, those who do not particularly like reading might find it easier to simply watch the film. In the case of particularly complex works, one could argue that a film adaptation makes it easier to understand the plot of the story, while the book might be more difficult and, thus, lose the reader’s interest.

In some cases, watching the film might lead the viewer to actually read the book because the film provides them with context. In a movie, the director lays out the narrative for viewers, who do not have to rely on their imaginations to bring it to life. If the story is interesting enough, the viewer will pick up the book, having some understanding of the story.

Having said all of this, film adaptations lack the nuance of language contained in the book. For example, literature from another era that contains earlier forms of English does not translate easily to the present-day screen. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and books by Jane Austen contain language that does not translate well to the screen. While viewers can easily understand the plot, other literary elements — such as alliteration, metaphor, and symbolism — present in language are not conveyed to viewers.

Viewers also may not understand the context of the events in the story, simply because certain scenes and major elements of characterization are kept out of the film. Filmmakers are typically limited by time and budget, and so, in the process of streamlining the story, major scenes are changed or left out.

Stephen King’s The Shining is an example of a movie in which much of the book’s content does not make it to the screen. For instance, the characterization of principal characters Jack and Danny Torrance was much more detailed in the book than in the film. Moreover, the author fills out more of the narrative’s setting than the director, Stanley Kubrick, did.

Readers and viewers will continue to argue the merits of the book over the film and vice versa. In the end, regardless of whether the book or the movie is better, one has to wonder how much of the story is lost in a film adaptation.

An experienced sales professional in New York, David Patrick Beston is an avid traveler who enjoys reading and studied literature at Hunter College.