Taking 'different steps': Experts explain the challenges, advantages of adapting novels into films
Posted July 2, 2016
Tarzan was introduced to the world through the imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs in “Tarzan of the Apes,” which was first published over a century ago in All-Story magazine in 1912, according to tarzan.org.
The legend of Tarzan continued on through additional novels and with the first film adaptation of the story in 1918, tarzan.org reports. At least 48 Tarzan films have been produced through the years, according to IMDB, with "The Legend of Tarzan" hitting theaters Friday, July 1, set years after Tarzan left the jungles of Africa.
And "Tarzan" isn't the only recent novel-turned-film hitting theaters. According to Popsugar, at least 30 films based on novels have already been released or will be released in 2016, including "The BFG," which also opens Friday.
It's a process that comes with its own challenges and triumphs, as multiple film experts and authors explained.
Adapting novels to film is a process that, according to director and screenwriter Vance Mellen, has been around for a while.
“If the book was successful, it is almost always turned into a film,” Mellen said. “It just seems like it has always been the way things have been done.”
Director and screenwriter Charles Oliver, who is currently working an a film adaptation of Camron Wright's novel "The Rent Collector," said the trend goes beyond the popularity of a book's story.
“It is not really just about the books, but it is about using something that has already been proven as a success and that has already been received in the public's consciences,” Oliver said.
Richard Walter, associate dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, believes studios and filmmakers view the approach as a safety net.
“The studios are afraid to take a chance on anything that is original,” Walter said. “If it was a successful novel, if that movie bombs and loses a lot of money and people wonder why they made that movie, the executives that invested in it … can say that it was a best-selling novel and that it was already approved and tested in the market.”
But, from an author's perspective, adapting to film has its benefits. Buzz Bissinger, author of "Friday Night Lights," which was adapted into a film in 2004, said in a panel at the 2012 Boston Book Festival that he has a "pragmatic" view about it.
"(The authors) want the money, and (the authors) deserve the money," Bissinger said, as reported by Filmmaker Magazine. "We do also hope that (the film) has some reflection of the book we wrote."
James Dashner, author of the Maze Runner series and its upcoming prequel "The Fever Code," said he had a positive experience when his books were made into films.
"I saw my book come to life on the big screen," Dashner said in an interview with the Deseret News. "For me personally, a movie is just a gigantic boost to your book sales so 'Maze Runner' just exploded worldwide."
Regardless of the motives for adapting films, experts acknowledge natural challenges that come along with the method.
Howard Suber, professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, explained that it could be more challenging than producing an original story because those who are familiar with the novel often complain that the film is not as good as the novel.
“What they overlook is that a novel uses somewhere between four to eight times as many words as screenplays,” Suber said. “(The screenwriter’s) job is to decide what to leave out because there is never enough time to use all the stuff that is said in a novel in a film.”
Oliver said the audience will always have preconceived expectations that "no movie is ever going to meet for everybody."
"(The film) has to be something different, but then readers or potential viewers will expect the same and so there is sort of a mismatch in the audience's expectations to adaptations," said Eli Løfaldli, associate professor in the Department of Language and Literature at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
According to Løfaldli, novels and films are two different languages. She said the two mediums are different out of necessity as it is impossible to "fit the camera to the pages of the book."
"If writers were in charge of the film, the scripts would be better but the movies probably would be worse," said Daniel Handler, author of the A Series of Unfortunate Events books, according to Filmmaker Magazine, which also indicated that the author tried his hand at writing a screenplay for the series' film adaptation that filmmakers didn't end up using.
Dashner, who didn't have decision-making power over the Maze Runner films but was consulted on several aspects, explained that although some of his fans were upset about the changes between the books and the movies, he didn't share their view.
"I feel like (the film) is sort of a way to experience the story again for the first time, and I understand it is a different way of telling the story, so it didn't bother me," Dashner said. "It was definitely the thrill of my career so far."
According to UCLA's Walter, the only way to overcome the expectations is to forget about the novel. Although he discourages his students from writing adaptations, if a student decides to pursue that route, Walter reminds them that they owe the original material nothing, but they do owe the audience "a really good movie."
"You can’t hurt the novel," Walter said. "If you mess up and write a terrible screenplay and make a terrible movie, you won’t mess up the novel. Words won’t rearrange themselves on the page.”
Oliver explained that an adaptation should never be an exact translation, stating that the minute you just try to force-fit a novel into a movie, trouble will follow. He said that as he has been adapting "The Rent Collector," he read the book once and won't read it again.
"I will look at some of my notes from time to time, but I will never go back to the original book," Oliver said. "I am very vigilant about that because I think that if you try to be too true to the exact nature of the book, you are going to have a problem. You will never make it.”
Mellen, who recently adapted the biography "Let It Go," based on the experience Chris Williams, whose wife and several children died in a car accident with a drunken driver, into the film "Just Let Go," said he finds the process exciting.
“You take the author’s material and try to keep them happy, but you also fight for your vision," Mellen said. "There is this sort of interesting compromise and struggle that goes on as you try to be true to the material, yet also taking another step in a direction where you want it to go as a screenwriter."
Oliver said that although adapting books into films and plays is a challenge, it's one he enjoys.
“(Film) is its own art form and it deserves its own treatment,” Oliver said. “You can be true to the theme of the book, you can be true to the tone of the book, and you can be true to the characters, but you can’t be true to every single plot point. You kind of have to redefine your own map. You can go through the same journey as the book, but you have to take different steps.”