“The book is better than the movie”.
For decades, readers have reiterated the same phrase when new films are released, “the book is better than the film” the line became a critical reflex in reaction to one mediocre screen version after the other. Arguably movies such as the ‘The Hunger Games’ or the ‘Golden compass’ even the beloved ‘Harry Potter’ series are said to be better than the films, but the escapism and role as observer during films is much harder to achieve when reading.
Hollywood and directors kept making the same mistake, they trimmed locations to save money, cut characters to save time, and often misunderstood the emotional core of the source material.
So, what has changed? When did books become a foundation for successful movies and tv shows? How has the art of storytelling adapted in the last decade so that a greater cohesion of literature and screen has been achieved?
The recent progression might provide some answers, the shouting of the phrase ‘the book is better than the film’ has changed and has been replaced by positive and enthusiastic praise for many modern adaptations of books. Directors have been browsing the shelves for new ideas ‘based on books’ or ‘true events’ to fully bring the characters and events to life. Consequently, we now seem to be in a book-adaptation boom, where shows and films based on books are the sole source material for great watching. Only in the past year, there we have seen the ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood adapted on HBO, ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt featuring Nicole Kidman, Sarah Poulson and Ansel Elgort and ‘Little Women’ directed by Greta Gerwig in her retelling of the March sisters. Also the return of ‘Game of Thrones’, and the new series ‘His Dark Materials’ and many more.
There are many reasons that books make great material for films, established popular books are a comparably faster and data-supported way for studios to develop film and TV plots. As more studios compete to have the next Game of Thrones or Walking Dead, it’s easier to turn to a completed, successful work and fully envisioned world than to develop a whole new world from scratch and hope for its success.
“It’s all about managing risk for the studios,” Hawk Otsby, co-writer of Children of Men and producer on Syfy’s The Expanse, explained to The Verge. “It’s extremely difficult to sell a blockbuster original script today if isn’t based on some popular or recognizable material… Audiences know the story, so they’re sort of pre-sold on it. In other words, it has a recognizable [intellectual property] and can rise above the noise [and] competition from the internet, video games, and Netflix.”
The important decision is choosing the right book for the right medium, means certain books lend themselves to screen and others do not – but the fast-paced consumer society where binge watching is common, means constant new material is needed to form films and TV. Many directors and casts were frustrated with the constraints being put on screenplays- too big, too expensive and the limitations it places on storytelling and adopting a poetic licence is deterring. Yet as modern adaptations show, such as ‘Game of Thrones’, complex large stories are able to feature on the screen and don’t need much simplification. Novels provide a variety in a crowded television landscape, shows such as ‘The Man in the High Castle’ have introduced new types of stories to television. Working with the greater diversity of literary stories has allowed showrunners to differentiate themselves from an increasingly crowded field of prestige-television options, and appeal to various audiences.
The serialisation of shows creates lived-in worlds, where characters are more developed and plot lines more complex. The pre-imagined and detailed world of the novel comes from the art of the storytelling by the author; film allows the viewer to delve into this world at a faster pace and reach the end of the story. When they succeed, they have considerable running and staying power, developing a loyal following can be a force-multiplying effect for a studio. It in turn helps create spin-offs and follow on shows that can be equally successful.
All these factors – speed, risk-management, and fan appeal are appealing to subscription services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hollywood directors which hope the rich, detailed story will guarantee viewers. Ultimately there is a multiplier effect, as books provide good films and good films encourage viewers to explore new literature. Whilst moaning about bad film adaptations is still inevitable, there is more enthusiasm and excitement among readers and watchers alike in the progression of modern-day storytelling.