Book To Movie Primer

Thursday, February 14, 2002

By Justin Colburn & Keayn Dunya

With the current trend of Book-to-Movie deals there has been a question about why the movie industry is not able to do an accurate translation for the written word to the silver screen.

Once upon a time there was an indy press comic book writer named Brian Michael Bendis who created an award winning crime series called Goldfish. When Goldfish came out in trade paperback format it did something rather surprising; it began to create a small buzz around Hollywood. One day while working at his drawing table, Bendis received a call from a film studio asking if he would be interested in selling the film rights to Goldfish. As time passed Bendis received more and more calls asking the same thing, so he decided to pack his bags and go to Hollywood to sell the film rights to his series. After visiting several studios and attending tens of dozens of meetings the time came for someone to write the screenplay, and Bendis was going to be the one to do it.

The average length of a screenplay is somewhere between 90 to 120 pages, about a page for every minute of film. When Bendis was finished with the Goldfish screenplay it was 280 pages. His agent advised him to sit down and watch a movie and to think about how it was written as he watched it. While watching the movie Bendis came to a realization, and when it was over he said to himself "...How many movies have I seen? How much thought had I put into the idea of writing and making this a movie? But still, I make the rookiest of rookie mistakes. I fell in love with the sound of my dialogue and not with my scenes." The point of all this is, there is a difference between writing books and writing screenplays.

Bendis' problem was that his screenplay was too long, so the next step to turn a 272 page graphic novel into a screenplay is to trim it down. Then it becomes an issue of what do you keep and what do you throw away? In movies based on books you often see all detail that is not vital to the main plot removed. So after putting hours, upon hours of work into something you now have to tear it apart, a technique which Bendis calls, "Gutting it like a fish." When you're finished you have a skeleton of your former story - a Cliff Notes version for the cast and crew to work with.

There's a trend that often occurs with people when asked how they liked a book-based movie (Jurassic Park is a good example). If they haven't read the book they'll say they enjoyed it (unless of course they didn't), but if you present the same question to someone who has the read the book, they'll usually start telling you how much better the book was than the movie. And it's not just Jurassic Park, it's Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Steven King's Misery. If someone has read the book they feel compelled to tell you about it when you're not asking them about the book. You're asking them about the movie, and there's a big difference between the two. The book has extra room for flavor, and if the author is a good one the image the reader creates is infinitely better and personalized. The movie's role, at the base of it all, is to make money. It's marketed to bring in as wide an audience as possible. Instead of the personal characters the reader can create in their mind's eye a movie has to use whatever actors are "hottest" at the time. A book is like wine, it should explode in you mind and create a rich vivid world. A book should also get better every time you read it. A movie is like a popular soda, when it's good it's filling but ultimately it's cheaper, more sugary and your apt to forget the taste quicker. The movie industry just hopes you liked it enough to want another later.

When we review movies, we review movies. We take it for what it is, a movie, a two-hour slice of someone's life. Next time you see a movie based on a book that you've read, try to sit down a watch it with no expectations in mind. Don't compare it to the book; just take it for what it is. If you try this we think you'll find yourself enjoying the movies more than had before. Besides when you get right down to it, the book will always be better than the movie.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: