Writing Lessons from Books-turned-Movies

After finishing a great book, I like to think about what actors or actresses would star in the movie version. Books to movies are highly popular franchises and it’s every author’s dream to get their book optioned (well, everyone except JD Salinger.) Sadly, movies usually turn out to be disappointing adaptations and fail to capture the same magic of the book. Fans of the book end up fiercely arguing over the chosen actor’s wrong hair color or inadequate attractiveness or a missing key scene. I have a funny shirt from Threadless.com that says, “Movies: Ruining the Book since 1920.”

There are very rare books-turned-movies that gain critical and commercial success, like The Lord of the Rings series, Gone with the Wind, and the Harry Potter series.

Why is it so hard to get it right? Because a movie is a movie and a book is a book. The two have to be produced differently to harness the unique features of each medium. Movies can’t have lots of narration and internal monologues; they need action, suspense, lush imagery and a simple plotline in a short time frame. Books have time to develop characters, add multiple subplots and weird minor characters for hundreds of pages. Because of those differences, it’s impossible to perfectly adapt a book to a movie.

But wouldn’t it be great if you could think like a movie director and make your book cinematic before it hits the screen? There are actually lots of writing lessons you can learn from the changes made from books to movies.

I watched this classic movie with Judy Garland before I read L.Frank Baum’s books and was amazed at how different MGM adapted the fantasy all the way down to the ruby slippers (which were really silver, but they wanted to show off their newfangled Technicolor to viewers.)

The biggest difference which fundamentally shows why the book is so much deeper and more meaningful is that Dorothy really did go to Oz. She didn’t bump her head, dream it all up and see all the farmhands as the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow. THERE WERE NO FARMHANDS.  See how much more exciting the story is now that you know it was real?

-Lesson: Respect the reader contract.

I don’t know about you but I definitely remember learning that “and then she woke up” is the single worst ending for a story. And essentially that’s what MGM did with the Wizard of Oz, but I guess we were all so impressed with the singing voice of Judy, the cuteness of the Munchkins, the evil Wicked Witch of the West and  RUBY SLIPPERS!!

If you are going to take the readers on this fantastic, perilous journey, it has to make sense and reward them with a reasonable outcome in the end. Baum actually wrote 14 books in the Oz series, so you can bet there was a whole lot more going on along the yellow brick road than you thought. All the characters have detailed origins, personalities and have more obstacles and challenges because IT WAS REAL! It’s much easier to write strange, superficiality if the protagonist dreamt it all up, because dreams don’t have to be rational (like Alice.) However, you want people to be invested in your created world, so you need to find a solution that satisfies the “reader’s contract.”

This is one of my favorite books of all time. The movie however…not so much. Anne Hathaway said there was an original script that was much closer to the book’s storyline, but it didn’t work as a film. Ella Enchanted the novel is a retelling of the Cinderella fairytale, with a twist: Ella is under a spell that forces her to be obedient and she doesn’t know how to break it. Great conflict there!

But the movie adds its own twists too, because apparently that wasn’t enough. Prince Char’s parents are dead and he now has an evil uncle with a talking snake that wants to steal the throne by putting a poisioned crown on Char’s head. Ella now is not just on a mission to save herself but also the prince. I’m all for getting rid of the damsel-in-distress motif, but I didn’t like how the movie overshadowed Ella’s quest by adding this unnecessary and frankly cliche danger plot inspired by Lion King-Hamlet-Aladdin.

Lesson: Make a focused, time-oriented goal.

Ella’s quest in the book was much longer and more complicated than the movie. It followed the Cinderella tale fairly closely in its structure up to the ball (or three balls rather.) Readers have that kind of patience and appreciate all the details, flashbacks and longer character development.

In the movie, viewers need a more compact, time-oriented deadline because honestly Ella could have taken her whole life to break her spell. That’s why they added the evil uncle plot, because it made it more difficult for Ella to save the day and triumph over her own weakness and make up for Prince Char’s. There was a specific element that needed to be defeated that Ella could focus on, not just her obedience. So if you want to be more cinematic in your action, suspense obstacles are much easier to create when a clock is ticking.

Classic Disney movies are nostalgic fan favorites all over, but what many people don’t know is how much better perhaps those movies could have been without the Mickey Mouse make over. Granted, some of those wouldn’t have been as kid friendly like the original tales of Cinderella or The Little Mermaid, but the characters wouldn’t be so perfect, one-dimensional and predictable.

Mary Poppins is a great example of the difference in character development. In the book series by P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins isn’t a very nice nanny. She’s quite strict, rude and very vain. Her magical powers are the envy of magical creatures in various worlds and many are afraid of her. This doesn’t sound like the jolly Julie Andrews we have all come to love.

-Lesson: Don’t make your characters too unlikable.

It’s fine for Mary to be strict (because that’s what a nanny needs to be,) but if she’s too mean and unpleasant, audiences will not connect with her. That’s why it was smart for Disney to make Mary sweeter by balancing her strict disciplining with her charming singing and charming friendship with Bert. In the series, there are more opportunities for readers to find out the complexities of Mary Poppins through all the adventures she has with the children, but in one movie, it can be hard to gain that same trust.

When you craft your characters, you may find yourself adding traits like stubbornness, sarcasm, wittiness or matter-of-fact, but don’t over do it. Give the reader a chance to see their softer side even if the character doesn’t realize it. It has to make sense though and not a total change in their behavior. Even villains shouldn’t be completely bad, because then they are just laughably evil and cartoony.

Can you think of other books-turned movies and what changes (good and bad) that were made?

*Flickr photo credits to: uglypeaches, courtneybolton and wherethelovelythingsare


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