People have probably been discussing this ever since film adaptations were invented! From the early days of film to our present times, all films have in some way taken inspiration from books. Sometimes the influence is subtle, sometimes it extends to an adaptation.
Can the film of the book be better than the book itself? They are two different kinds of media. Even if you’re not a film fan at all, or not much of a reader, it’s not possible to say that books are generally better than films, or vice versa, as that won’t help us answer the question. Instead, we have to look at what film adaptations can do for books.
Firstly, film adaptations bring the books to a wider audience, encouraging more people to read them. Secondly, if done well, they can help us to understand the concept, plot and characters better, particularly if the original book was not written in an accessible way. Thirdly, they can enhance and improve upon the original or bring it up to date for today’s audience, giving the book a makeover, as it were. However, reading is a very personal experience and it’s likely that whoever adapts your favourite books for the big screen does not completely share your vision. When reading, your only limit is your imagination, based on the text on the page. A film has more limitations, such as budget, political climate, management, the skills of everyone working on the film, special effects, running time, classification and legal compliance.
I can think of some film adaptations which are nearly as good as – maybe even equally good as – the original books. 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird and A Monster Calls, for example. I’m sure I could list many more. But for a film to be better than the book is very rare. Only 4 of these spring to mind:
- Never Let Me Go magicked the settings and characters to life and had a smoother narrative.
- The Railway Children is an absolute classic by itself and is more charming than the book.
- Mary Poppins transformed the book into a heartwarming musical with fabulous characters.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey is a special case, as the book and film were developed at the same time, although they diverged towards the end. Kubrick’s vision is altogether grander, more suspenseful and more mysterious than Clarke’s.
All of the above have wonderful music. The music is a vitally important element of a film and affects our enjoyment of that adaptation.
If you don’t know the book, then it’s possible you’ll enjoy the film adaptation more, because it’s less likely that some aspect of the adaptation will annoy you. For example, The Shining is an iconic horror film in its own right but the story is so one-dimensional compared to the book, while the ending is very different. The Hobbit makes a great epic trilogy but there is a lot of extra material, which might upset devotees of the book. The Exorcist was very shocking for the time but the book is even more shocking and has lots of background that never made it into the film. The Black Cauldron is a cult Disney classic, yet as an adaptation it’s quite bad. Adaptation is so clever and out-there that it loses sight of the book’s interesting themes.
Of course, all of this applies to TV adaptations too. I’m never as interested in them, however, because I find they’re more likely to distort a story to fit in with the TV format (and the brand of the channel they were made for). They’re also not as widely available as films, usually being tied to particular channels or streaming services. Furthermore, TV adaptations have to work harder to keep my attention. I abandoned watching Noughts and Crosses, The One, The Haunting of Hill House and Behind Her Eyes because they were just too different from the original books, didn’t grip me, or both. Even series 2 of His Dark Materials wasn’t, in my opinion, as good as it should’ve been. The only reason I finished watching the BBC’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds was so that I could write a scathing review of it. I have seen some excellent TV adaptations of books but none of them are very recent. Ratched doesn’t count, as she is based on the book character but everything else is new.
Over to you – can a film adaptation ever be better than the book? Do you have any examples?