You’ve read the novel over and over, creating a fictional world in your mind. You even have the characters mentally cast according to personal preference. Then, to your excitement (or absolute dismay) Hollywood announces the filming and production of a bestseller, and more importantly, your favourite novel.

The book operates in the imaginative realm, bringing compelling characters, a captivating story and unique style together. Some of the worst failures and greatest successes in filmmaking are often adaptations of such novels. What is it that makes or breaks the film?

Turning fiction into film is a popular trend and has been a Hollywood and cinematic tradition for decades. The film industry realised early on that it could gain legitimacy among middle-class viewers by producing replicas of more well-respected art. Adaptation became popular as soon as film did. Most adaptations these days concede that reconceptualisation and reworking the source material is essential when creating a successful transition from shelf to screen. One of the earliest literal adaptations resulted in the film being over sixteen hours long, which was finally cut down to two hours. The result: the film was completely incomprehensible. Since then, very few directors have tried to cram every detail of a novel into the film.

A more successful film adaptation is Gone with the Wind, based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel and released in the 1930s. The film won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1939 – a great triumph, since many previous film adaptations had failed miserably. In the 1970s, Gone with the Wind’s success was surpassed by the legendary film The Godfather as well as The Godfather Part II based on Mario Puzo’s novel. This made way for future adaptations.

Renowned American film critic Keith Cohen suggests that the reason film adaptation has been and will remain a popular trend is because cinema is at its most convincing when it lessens its dramatic approach and rather leans on its antecedents – novels. Another reason for its popularity is the fact that an average of 30 film adaptations is produced each year.

Throughout the decades, directors have both succeeded and failed in their attempts to convert a bestselling novel into a blockbuster film. But this remains a risk for writers and directors. The film is often in danger of acquiring a lower artistic status in comparison to its culturally treasured original. A novel caters for a more select and elite audience than a film, but the film must satisfy the masses and general public to make profit. A bestselling book is read by a million readers, with this figure reaching four to eight million if it is one of the bigger sellers. However, if only five million people see the film, it is considered a failure.

The age-old debate remains prominent: which is better, the novel or the film? Often the answer to this question depends on the viewer: if they’ve read the book first, they won’t find the film fulfilling. On the other hand, if they see the movie before reading the book, the book can seem less exciting than it otherwise would have been.

Whether you’re an avid reader or passionate about blockbuster motion pictures, literature and film will constantly benefit from one another, appeasing either book lovers or movie buffs and, in rare cases, both. Each medium has its own advantages as well as its downfalls, and perhaps the creative combination of these two worlds is where the success of the book-to-film adaptation lies.


Image: Eleanor Harding

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