No, I’m not above using cliche titles, when they serve me. Because I’m so very fond of stirring up controversy, I’m going to talk about something that divides more people than religion, politics, or the Great Pumpkin: movie/book adaptations. Fair warning: we’re going to talk about some big name franchises, including Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Jurassic Park, and others, so if you don’t want to risk potential spoilers from either the book or movie versions of any of these, you might not want to read this post. Otherwise, let’s mire ourselves in controversy.
A few days ago, I had a conversation with someone who came down very passionately on the pro-book side. She claimed that books will always be better than any movie or television adaptation, end of discussion. Essentially, her claim was that because books can communicate the internal thoughts and motivations of characters, and through leveraging all senses immerse a reader more fully in an alien environment than the silver screen can, the textual medium is superior for telling any kind of story.
Another conversation I overheard, but was not a part of, claimed that movies/television were the superior mode of story-telling, because these lower the barriers to entry and allow more people to experience something that more closely resembles what the original creator intended, as opposed to leaving so much open to interpretation and imagination, as is the case in books.
Unfortunately, there is a dichotomy here, and I suspect it is a false one. Polarization is so much easier than developing a nuanced argument, or at least that’s what we’re led to believe; I’ve always found it to be the opposite. Making a nuanced argument adds immense strength to a position and provides significantly more material to support a claim. That being said, I am personally inclined to agree with the first argument, that books are going to generally be superior to screenplays, but I wouldn’t say that it’s exclusive, and there are some very notable exceptions.
It is very much worth noting that both mediums have some unique strengths that lend them to particular stories In many cases, adaptations between the two can take on unique characters that are quite distinctive and worthy of consideration as independent works of art. Perhaps the best example of this is The Lord of the Rings. The books are arguably milieu stories, and are simply beautiful. Tolkien developed such a rich world, and the books are so full of amazing details, intricate additions, and fabulous language that it would be very hard to make an argument that any visual adaptation is going to inevitably lose a lot of what makes those books so amazing, even were length not a consideration. I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was in third grade, and I will never forget that I had this amazing image in my head of what the Ents were like, which I could never recover after seeing them in the movies.
Yet the movies are a work of art in their own right. Instead of a milieu story, the movies are adventure stories, and really do a marvelous job of taking the basic outlines of the story Tolkien told, and a lot of the details of Middle Earth, and adapting them into a movie form that conveys the idea that this is a really big world, with a lot more going on than just what you’re going to see on the screen, but here’s an adventure that’s going to take you across a lot of it. In fact, I think the Hobbit movies actually stumbled by trying to do too much: they were too long, and digressed too far from the books in order to show more of the world and tie it into the trilogy. Yes, the movies left things out – they had to. But they stand on their own, and are a piece of art entirely their own.
Generally, I’ve found that whichever medium came first is going to be better than the adaptation. Books are often adapted into movies, so it’s easy to look at this and draw the conclusion that books are superior, but I would argue that’s a matter of correlation, not causation. Take Star Wars, for example. I’ve yet to read a Star Wars book that worked quite as well as the movies do, including some book adaptations by some fairly notably authors. Terry Brooks has a book version of The Phantom Menace, which while providing some points that add richness to the story and the world, was missing something of what the movies have. The same is true of Star Wars novels that are spin-offs, rather than direct adaptations, and I’ve observed the same correlation in Star Trek (in fact, the only Star Trek books that I’ve been able to get through are the ones by William Shatner).
This could be an argument for the originating medium theory, but I actually would argue that it points to an advantage of movies for portraying science fiction (while I argue that Star Wars is fantasy genre, it is visually science fiction, so that’s how we’ll address it for this post). Humanity’s technological advances for most of the past century have been related to the electromagnetic spectrum – light. It’s not surprising, then, that so much of our imagination regarding future technological developments would be with respect to the same trajectory, and that is uniquely given to the visual medium of screenplays. Describing alien species, new technologies, and capabilities can quickly become bogged down in technical and scientific language in writing, while screenplays can flash an image and simply run with it. Books demand more explanation and examination of how and why a thing works, which movies can more easily gloss over in order to move forward with the plot. That gives them a flexibility to explore ideas and concepts that would fly less easily in book form (all puns intended).
It is worth noting that there are exceptions. Soft science fiction does not lend itself as obviously to visual mediums. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series wouldn’t work very well as a screenplay, because it changes times so often. Ender’s Game could have been an excellent movie adaptation, but ended up being terrible, although I mostly fault the creators for that, not the content; it could have, and should have, been a very good adaptation. Not that I’m still disappointed by that or anything.
Jurassic Park is another example that fits into the Lord of the Rings schema, where the book and the movie became very different stories. The book was hard science fiction, through and through. The whole premise was to explore the idea of genetic technology being used to recreate extinct species. The movie, on the other hand, was a thriller about being chased by dinosaurs. Both are excellent in their own right, but they are telling very different stories.
I would be remiss if I went this entire post without discussing two of the most recent and most famous book to movie adaptations: Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones. Harry Potter straddled the line well, aided by the straightforward structure of the books, and their setting in the “real” world (more or less). They stumbled here and there, and by necessity left some out, but with seven books to work with, and plenty of resources, the movies convey fairly faithful a very similar plot, character development, and world to the viewer as was depicted to the reader. Although I personally prefer the books, and letting my imagination paint in the details, I was not disappointed by the movies.
Game of Thrones, though, is a different beast entirely, in part because it was presented as a television series, instead of a movie. While I have some personal gripes with the story itself that I’ll talk about if I ever do a review for it, I suspect that this may have just become the gold standard for fantasy book to fantasy screenplay adaptation. Martin was deeply involved in the television series, to the point that he actually finished writing the television show before he finished writing the novels, despite having started out with the novels coming out well before the series caught up to them. As a television show, the producers could afford to include a lot more detail than could be captured in a movie – it’s the difference between having three hours to tell a story, and over seventy hours. With the television series, they could afford to go basically scene by scene, chapter by chapter, even with books as long and intricate as the Game of Thrones series. That meant they could communicate a lot more of the same character development, and include all of the minor events that help flesh out the plot and the myriad subplots. With its huge success, there are several other fantasy to television series in the works, including Outlander, and The Wheel of Time.
It’s also worth noting that as screenplay technology has improved, the ability to convey the amazing, “plausibly impossible” things that happen in genre fiction has improved drastically, making really good adaptations, and original pieces, more achievable.
Whichever way the translation goes, something is inevitably lost, even with something as extensive, faithful, and detailed as Game of Thrones was. So I’m going to end the post by answering that neither books nor movies are inherently superior. Instead, start with whichever came first, and then go ahead and appreciate the adaptations, too. Both are going to enrich your experience, and if the story is truly a good story, you will gain something from each iteration.