Your favorite book now a major motion picture.
I have a love/hate relationship with the concept of turning books into movies. When one of my favorite books is slated to become a movie, I tend to be excited and antsy. I search the cast list for any resemblance to the people I love. I watch trailers looking for that moment that was personally pivotal to me in the book. I read articles to discern the director’s depth of understanding of his material. When Peter Jackson first announced plans to make Lord of the Rings, I obsessed to a degree that was beyond fan girl. Way beyond fan girl. Why? Because Lord of the Rings is my favorite, not-the-Bible book of all time. Favorite.
But this isn’t an article about Lord of the Rings. This is an observation about translating books into movies, and how movies have changed our writing. I want to explore this idea by comparing The Hobbit, Hunger Games, and Ender’s Game. I’ve read and enjoyed all three books and all three movies. I hope they make an interesting comparison study.
Tolkien penned The Hobbit long before fantasy-type books became movies every summer. I can’t imagine Tolkien IMDB-ing actors to see if Martin Freeman would make a good Bilbo. When Card wrote Ender’s Game having a book turned into a movie was more likely, but still a shot in the dark. Then we come to The Hunger Games. It was almost a guarantee that if the book had any success, it would be made into a movie. Suzanne Collins worked in the TV business, writing shows for children. I can’t imagine her writing The Hunger Games without a movie in the back of her mind. How do I know that? Because I do the same thing. I grew up with movies and I can’t help but think of them when I write.
We have one book with no thoughts for a movie, one with a little thought, and one heavily influenced.
And their movies? (Please remember this is just my opinion.)
The Hunger Games was a great movie that followed the book closely adjusting pacing as needed for a film. My husband, who isn’t a fiction reader, really loved it.
Ender’s Game followed the book closely, as far as I can remember, but with more concern for the book’s fans than movie goers. My husband found it boring and a bit confusing. I didn’t feel as into the movie as I was the book. It came across as choppy, and poorly paced. I should note that it’s been many years since I read the book.
The Hobbit was so different from the book. In fact, I hated the movie when I first saw it. Right after watching it, my husband and I dove into the book and found the movie to be surprisingly accurate, all things considered. Of the three, this was the only one that my husband had read both the book and seen the movie.
I think it would have been impossible for Peter Jackson to follow the Hobbit as it was written. The barrel scene? Twelve dwarves floating down a river in closed barrels as river elves pushed them along: worked in the book, boring on the screen. In a book, the author can give the reader a brief sentence saying the town chief is gross and greedy. A reader has no problem accepting that a moving on. In a movie, you have to show it and establish it. It can’t be tacked on somewhere.
In fact, as I refreshed my view of the Hobbit, I became more pleased at what Peter Jackson preserved that he could have left out. There are writing tools you can manipulate in a book that you just can’t spring on people in a movie. The odd part is that even when I acknowledge the good things Peter Jackson did, I still don’t really like the Desolation of Smug taken in the broader context of all the movies. It’s pacing seems really off.
In Ender’s Game, I think they stuck so close to the book that that became more of a concern than making a good movie. If they focused on making a good movie, I think it would have been better. Instead, it felt confusing and emotionally unrelatable unless you’d read the book.
Hunger Games had no problem going from book to screen. The book just adds and develops the characters a bit more, but you get a good sense of the story and characters from the movie.
Has the silver screen changed how we write? Has it changed how we write scenes? Probably. I think this may be why the concept of Showing instead of Telling has gained such ground. If you read older work, they do an extensive amount of telling prior to showing. Older books also spend less time explaining battles, or fight scenes, if they even have them. Older works don’t seem as focused on character descriptions, partially, maybe, because they weren’t thinking about the actor who might be selected to play them.
Is this bad? No, not necessarily. I enjoy a book with a lot of showing instead of telling. I enjoy books with masterful battle scenes. But, I also think it opens the door to a lot of bad writing. (This is not the only day and age with bad writing, but it does seem easier to find than it used to be.) I think writers can focus too much on character description instead of just character. I can’t stand a novel that gives me a character’s measurements as if that is going to help me picture him better in my mind. I want to get to know this person, not that he’s 6′ 4″. Some people write scenes totally based on what they’ve seen in movies. Maybe they should just be a screen writer, instead of a novelist. I’ve had to tell new writers that they can’t write slo-mo action scenes. It doesn’t work when you’re reading. Matrix styled fighting and good cop/bad cop only work if you’re a really great writer. The rest of us just need to do more research until we find something based in reality that we can use.
I’m a product of my time. I can’t stick my head in the sand and pretend I live in a different time…unless I’m writing a period piece…which I’m not. I always have a ‘cast’ file. It’s filled with pictures of actors that I have in mind for the characters. Some of the actors aren’t alive anymore because I’m looking for a match to my imagination, not hoping to submit it to Hollywood. I don’t anticipate my books every becoming movies, thought I’ve daydreamed about it. Generally it ends up with me shuddering cause I don’t really like Hollywood that much and don’t want to get caught up in that world in any way, shape, or form. Besides, they wouldn’t like me. I’m too conservative, too Christian. It wouldn’t happen.
All that to say, yes, movies affect how we write. We don’t live in bubbles. We probably all write as if we were watching a film and just reporting on what we were seeing. I even refer to different parts in my book as scenes, as if I was directing a film. But, writing is so much richer and deeper than a movie. Writing let’s you escape to a whole new world in a way movies never can. You get to be in a new place and in a new person. Through the journey, you often learn more about yourself than you ever could watching a movie. Movies are wonderful, but books are often better. Don’t stop writing. Enjoy the gifts of the silver screen, but don’t rely on them.