Every year dozens of books are made into successful movies. As popular as these movies are, there are always fans of the book who proclaim that, ‘the book was better.’ Is the book really better, or is this claim merely the opinion of enthusiastic fans who would rally behind their book under any circumstance?
What is it that makes novels better than their movie adaptations? Books are longer, which allows the plot to be more intricate and the characters to have greater depth. Novels do not have a special effects budget, and so the story can develop without the constraints of a movie production. Reading is also a form of active entertainment, and the reader must engage in the story in order to gain anything from the experience.
Movie adaptations are notorious for cutting and merging characters or storylines to keep things less confusing for movie audiences. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was approximately 198 thousand words long, which should take an average reader about 13 hours to read. Even after splitting the book into two movies, the adaptation only hits 4 and a half hours of screen time. The book would have to be made into five or six movies in order to match the same complexity of the novel.
Movies very rarely allow audiences to hear the thoughts of the characters for fear they will appear insane to the audience. This is a primary tactic in novels for creating character development as well as giving the reader a glimpse into what makes the character tick, what makes them more than a hired thug or vanquishing hero. Character development becomes flatter and one dimensional when adapted to the screen. Instead of looking at the world from the eyes of another person, movies are limited to watching the characters and stories unfold as a mere spectator.
A popular trick in movies and television is to keep a character off-screen in order to let the viewers use their imagination, which can create something more grotesque or beautiful than any CG or makeup artist can replicate. Novels do the same, but with every character and in every scene. For example, in The Family Tree by Sheri Tepper, the true natures of the main characters are not revealed until halfway through the book. In a movie version, this would be impossible! Scene one, and the surprise would be spoiled.
The written word can control story exposition with precision, telling only exactly what is needed and when it should be told. Movies are severely limited in this regard. In a book, each reader creates an experience that is unique to themselves and their personal experiences. In a movie viewers are limited to one version of the story, that of the producers and directors. Even the most faithful adaptation falls short because it can only reproduce one interpretation of the words on the page.
George R. R. Martin began writing his popular fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire after becoming discouraged by the limitations placed on his stories in order to show them on screen. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have the budget to do something that cool,’ isn’t a recipe for an amazing entertainment experience. When writing, special effects are free. Dragons, massive armies, exploding planets, all are free of charge for the author. The same cannot be said of movies, and it shows. The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende features a stunning array of fantasy worlds which is hardly even touched on by the movie version.
There are some exceptions, notably short stories where the movie can match the length of the original; children’s picture books on which the movie can expand and the visual interpretations are already in place; and finally, books that were less than stellar. It’s entirely possible to make a movie out of a terrible book and have it turn out better than the original. Of course, what makes a book or movie terrible is subjective and depends on personal taste.
It all comes down to the fact that novels have greater potential than movies to spin a mesmerizing story. All the special effects and good acting of even a great movie can’t compete with what is possible through the written word and the human imagination. If you read the original novel that one of your favorite movies was adapted from, chances are you’ll agree, the book is better.