'The Book Was Better:' Learning To Accept Hollywood Film Adaptions

Recent years have been a hot bed for Hollywood film adaptions: Hidden FiguresFifty Shades Darker, the recent release of It and even The Jungle Book got a pretty makeover last year. Adapting a film is risky territory for filmmakers, who must constantly balance being too faithful and straying too far from the original source material. It's rare to find a book whose film is just as universally loved – as author Jon Lewis put it: "There's an adage in Hollywood...that bad novels make for good films and good novels for bad films." 

Whether it be a first-time adaption or an adaption of an adaption, many directors in the film industry thrive off reimagining literature now more than ever. Simply put: film adaptions are super popular, and their increasing popularity has stuck around for good reason.

The Birth Of Film Adaptations 

Reimagining art was not first created with the birth of cinema. The practice of adapting one form of art into another has been happening for ages, and the idea of making it more visual is not a new one — "page to stage" adaptations were done by Shakespeare in the 16th and 17th centuries, for instance. 

As it pertains to the world of film, we can credit George Méliés as the founding father of cinematic adaptation. Méliés was the first to take literature and adapt it for film, his most notable being A Trip to the Moon (1902), loosely adapted from Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon. Early cinematic adaptations did not come from filmmakers without imagination, but instead it stemmed from utilizing film as an art form.

'A Trip to the Moon' (1902) [Credit: Kino Video]

'A Trip to the Moon' (1902) [Credit: Kino Video]

And the trend took off indeed. Just about every film up for an Academy Award in 1939 was an adaption (Of Mice and Men, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights)and by 1977, three fourths of awards for Best Picture at the Oscars went to adaptations. 

When Films Rely On Novels 

A studio argument in favor of film adaptations is, unsurprisingly, rooted strongly in economics. By finding a bestselling novel with a strong fanbase and then recreating it for the big screen, a studio is nearly guaranteed a solid box-office turnout. Even people who are not necessarily "film buffs" will venture to theaters to experience their favorite books comes to life.

Thus, the movie is able to piggyback on the existing success of the novel, giving it a strong foundation before it even finishes production. The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series are prime examples of film's huge successes that stem from popular titles in literature. If you've ever been a fan who's waited in line for a cinematic premiere, you understand the desire to watch the film, no matter how high or low your expectations may be for it.

[Credit: Summit; Little, Brown and Company]

[Credit: Summit; Little, Brown and Company]

An Argument Against Film Adaptations 

While Méliés may have argued that cinema is an art form in favor of film adaptions, others use the same argument against it. The invention of the moving picture was the creation of art as society had never seen before: the ability to capture a long moment in time just as it would be experienced in real life. One could argue the uniqueness of film means it should only produce art that is equally as unique — an adaptation would merely stifle creation. 

Some say certain adaptations are simply too much to tackle. Novels averaging 800 pages and over can be difficult to squeeze into film's 90-minute average runtime. The Harry Potter movies, despite being lengthier in time and having split the last book into two separate films, still received criticism for missing major plot points. Put simply, words on a page don't necessarily have a limit, but cinema has a time restraint.

On another note, some believe film is not 'high art,' and therefore pieces of classic literary work, such as Romeo and Juliet, should be reserved for 'higher' forms of creation, like ballet or opera. Take Baz Luhrmann's 1996 modern-day adaptation Romeo + Juliet, for example: it has been very well-received by some people and completely despised by others. In another case, Winston Groom absolutely hated Zemeckis's 1994 adaption of his novel Forrest Gump, so much so that the sequel of his second novel opened with, “Don’t never let nobody make a movie of your life’s story.”

Tom Hanks and Mykelti Williamson in 'Forrest Gump' (1994). [Credit: Paramount Pictures]

Tom Hanks and Mykelti Williamson in 'Forrest Gump' (1994). [Credit: Paramount Pictures]

Adapting To A Different World?

The difference between novels and film should be clear – novels rely on words, while films rely on images – but both forms of art are equally complex. They also are not completely cut and dry. For example, novels can have visual representation and films can be entirely dialogue-driven. The fact remains that these forms of art are, in fact, different, but that does not mean there should never be overlap between the two. 

The act of reading has long been a status of intelligence, and literature (especially fiction) has proven to boost empathy, improving the ability to see from others' perspectives. So what happens when we lose it? A 2014 survey showed the number of non-book-readers had tripled since 1978; 'non-book-readers' meaning people who had not picked up a physical book, downloaded an ebook or even listened to an audiobook within the past year. 

Is film or TV, then, the answer? If times are changing and people's attentions are no longer on books, the obsession with film adaptation to bring these stories mainstream makes sense. That's not to say an original screenplay cannot create the same effect on its own, but film adaption gives literary classics and literary ideas a chance to come to life for the masses

The empathetic symbolism in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance, is very present in the film adaption. So it's possible that Robert Mulligan's film can be deemed a success in terms of cinematic adaptation—and an important success.

Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1962) [Credit: Universal Pictures]

Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1962) [Credit: Universal Pictures]

The Balancing Act

Perhaps the rise of film adaptions correlates with the decline of time spent reading, but it is possible one is compensating for the other. Film, like most art, sets out to produce empathy — even if that means riding the coattails of a New York Times bestseller. This is not to say literature shouldn't be valued, but it may be valuable to accept film adaptions as its own unique niche, and a niche that has a monstrous influence over the masses. Facing the reality that a film is much more likely to be consumed than a novel may be disheartening, but it shouldn't be ignored. 

What do you think the trend of adaptations means for the future of film and literature? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below.