June 9th, 2013 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Authors

Movies based on popular books are always kind of a gamble in more ways than one. One of the first questions that usually come up is, how will the story translate to the screen? There are a variety of technical and artistic considerations that can affect the answer.

From a technical view, the story may have elaborate imagery that will require a lot of special effects work. These days, they can do just about anything with special effects, given a big enough budget, but what if the movie has a smaller budget? And what about the artistic side of special effects creation? The book’s elaborate imagery will probably depend greatly on the reader’s imagination, so what if the movie maker’s imagination doesn’t line up with that of those people who read the book?

There are a lot of things that are both technical and artistic that can play a big role in the success or failure of a book to movie translation. Things like set design, costume design, or make-up can either enhance the feel of the original story and make it a richer experience, or they can contradict the original story and create a dissonance in people who read the book before seeing the movie.

The second part of the answer to how the story will translate to the screen is wrapped around the screenwriter, the director, and anybody else in the creative process who has input into deciding what gets filmed and what makes it into the final cut of the movie. This is where failure usually occurs.

The Screenwriter

The screenwriter is usually one of the first people involved in the creative process. You can’t do too much to make a movie until you have a script in hand. Translating a book into a screenplay is a unique blend of artistry and craftsmanship that few people can really master. The screenwriter must take the original story and filter it through a long list of considerations, such as:

  • Length and pacing.  An action sequence in a book might be 30 pages and only translate into 15 seconds of screen time.  But 30 pages consisting mostly of dialogue could easily translate into an hour of screen time, or more.
  • Details.  An elaborate description of a location in a book will usually translate into directions for set designers, prop masters, and other craftsmen who will be responsible for turning them into some sort of virtual movie reality.  However, as a general rule that says nothing about how much screen time results from the description in the story.  Maybe two characters walk through a room which is described in great detail in the book, but in the movie, the camera simply pans or zooms back to show the room while tracking the characters as they walk through.
  • Internal dialogue is always one of the biggest question marks.  The original book may have a lot of places which describe a character’s thoughts, but there’s no vocalization.  Sometimes these thoughts can be translated visually but not always.  Suppose a character walks into an ice cream store and has to decide which flavor to have?  The book may have a paragraph or two about the decision making process, but the movie is likely to have nothing more than the character looking back and forth between the different flavors for a moment before selecting one.Many of these moments are every bit as trivial to figure out as the example of the ice cream.  But many other times, such internal dialogue is critical to the story. It might reveal the reason why the story’s psycho serial killer likes only brown-haired girls between 5′ 4″ and 5’6″ who wear red shoes and eat Rocky Road ice cream on Tuesday evenings.  It might reveal how the grizzled veteran cop who is on the killer’s trail is driven by the loss of a partner years earlier.  The story may require these details to make sense, so the screenwriter has to figure out a way to take that internal dialogue and externalize it.  Sometimes we get a flashback. Sometimes we get a new scene with expositional dialogue.
  • Important detail versus non-important detail.  Books are often packed with lots of extra detail that help to draw the user into the story and the world the author is creating, but which do not ultimately affect the basic storyline.  Sometimes these extra details can be included in the movie with little effort, but sometimes they would require sets, props, actors, and other things that cost time and money.

Making Your Mark

Unfortunately, the creation of the screenplay is one of the main places where the translation fails.  Sometimes it’s because the screenwriter simply did not manage to succeed at the various tasks mentioned earlier, but at least as often as not, it’s because the screenwriter decided to put his own mark on the story.  This could be something like introducing new characters.

Sometimes, the process of simplifying a story for a screenplay involves the creation of composite characters that fulfill the role of multiple separate characters from the original book.  For example, you might have the same cops or CSI techs at different crime scenes in the screenplay while the book has a unique set of cops and techs each time.

Unfortunately, other times new characters are added because someone thought they could “improve” the original story. As in “the grizzled cop would seem more human and relatable if he had a love interest. Let’s add a couple of scenes where he flirts with the cute waitress at the diner where he and his partner have lunch.” or maybe “let’s add a plucky sidekick who can inject some humor”.

A Prime Example

The inspiration for this post was a movie I saw last night, Alex Cross, based on the book by James Patterson.  My first exposure to this author and this character was about 13-14 years ago when they made the movie Along Came A Spider based on Patterson’s first book with the Alex Cross character.  I enjoyed the movie a lot, and the follow-up Kiss The Girls as well.  Both were engaging and detailed, and when I later read the books I was pleased to discover that they had kept most of the original stories intact.  (Although there was a reasonable amount of needless “making your mark” as well.

I have not yet read the book this newest Alex Cross movie was based on, but when I rented the movie last night, I expected it to be in a similar vein to the previous Alex Cross movies.  Sure, having Tyler Perry in the lead role instead of Morgan Freeman would make a difference, but I was still expecting an interesting, detailed story with some depth.

No, not so much.

I can tell from reading the reviews of the book on Amazon that the movie took quite a few liberties with the original story.  I won’t list them here, but there are some major differences to both details and the overall plot. Ultimately, they turned a moderately cerebral crime story into a Bruce Willis-style yippee-ki-yay action movie.  The detailed psychological profiling that Alex Cross is known for gets reduced to his showing up at crime scenes, looking around, and then doing his own version of “here’s what I see” like the guy from TV’s Mentalist, except without the actual observation or interaction with witnesses or suspects you see on the TV show.

Taken just on its merits as an action movie, Alex Cross is so-so.  Matthew Fox was interesting as the bad guy, but his motivations were never made clear. I don’t really have any specific complaints about Tyler Perry, but I have to admit that it’s hard for me to separate his performance from my disappointment about how his character was changed around for the movie.  Bottom line is I liked Morgan Freeman’s version better. Ed Burns as Alex’s partner seemed kind of out of place here, but Rachel Nichols, from SyFi’s new TV show Continuum, was a pleasant surprise as another member of the team, if underused.

But while the movie was so-so taken stand-alone, anybody who reads James Patterson’s books wasn’t even given the chance of getting what they were expecting from this movie.  I know I didn’t.

Why Does Hollywood Keep Failing?

Sadly, the failure of Alex Cross to live up to the source material is more the rule than the exception.  Some movies turn out to be OK on their own, if you don’t compare them too closely to the original story but plenty aren’t especially good movies at all.

I blame ego. First, there are way too many people involved in the movie making process who confuse having money to bankroll things with being qualified to make creative decisions.  For every executive producer who is a Steven Spielberg, there’s another 10 who are just business guys without any real creative juices.  Second, even among those people who do have genuine talent and skill, they still sometimes suffer from the hubris of thinking they can improve on the original material when they should be concentrating foremost on translating it.

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