At a time when Hollywood is mining comic books, TV shows and even board games for movie ideas, adapting a novel seems quite ordinary and sensible. Books have been turned into movies for the longest time and with this week’s release of The Girl on the Train, it shows no sign of relenting.
Whenever a book is made into a movie there is always the standard criticism leveled at it – is it as good as the source material? It is a strange comparison to make, as what you are forced to do is judge two completely different mediums by the same standards. What seems even sillier is when people dismiss their enjoyment of a movie because it didn’t portray what they imagined from the book.
Could they ever though? A book is one of the most personal experiences you have. As amazing a job of describing a character, situation or event as an author can do, the reader is still the person who has created that scene in their imagination. It means that movies will already be on the back foot when characters don’t look, sound or fill the shoes of the same person the reader imagined.
The most recent example of this was the Jack Reacher film. Tom Cruise did not fill the prerequisite blonde, 6 foot soldier that was described in the source material so was instantly dismissed. It was only on a solid performance and a blessing of the novel’s writer, that people managed to overlook the difference between book and screen.
This comparison becomes more complicated when movies try to follow a book’s story. A book has the freedom to be as long, intricate, complicated and expansive as it wants, often including many different stories, inconsequential moments and red herrings for the reader to enjoy. A movie can’t. It has a definitive run-time and can’t afford to include anything but the essential narrative. To criticise a movie for dropping your favourite part of a book, although not essential to the main story, is ridiculous. If everything was included, the complaint would be the four hour running time.
Even when a movie does try to be faithful to the book, it can sometimes cause issues with the way the film flows. The new trend of taking the final, usually larger part of book trilogies and splitting it, like in both The Hunger Games and final Harry Potter movies, means that one film can often underwhelm. This is no surprise as audiences are treated to half of the story, the initial set-up, rather than a condensed, full-tale like the author originally intended.
That is just with books that have traditional narratives. Books have the luxury of using fluid narratives and being able to jump around, be conceptual and often use imagery almost impossible to capture on-screen. Some books are deemed “unfilmable” but this doesn’t stop the studios. It becomes further bizarre when people then criticise the writing or the structure of these movies, citing that it doesn’t do the book justice.
The main reason for not comparing the two is simple though – they are completely different. It becomes irrelevant as to whether the movie is as good as the book because it hasn’t replaced it. There is no reason for a movie to try to surpass it’s source material. The idea of these adaptations is that they support the original, make more people aware of the initial book or even get people to read the source material.
If audiences are so set on movies of their favourite novels meeting their high expectations, they are doomed to be disappointed. If they go in with an open-mind, intrigued and without prior judgement, they may find they like the film, regardless of whether it was done better in a completely different medium.
Overall, “the book was better” seems like a poor and often ridiculous statement. It is meaningless and bares no indication of a film’s quality. Instead, try not to compare two different mediums but appreciate what both of them are doing and if the film doesn’t match your expectations, at least you still have the beloved book.