When the Movie Isn’t True to Your Story

Most writers love the idea of a film company bringing their books to life. However, if past movies based on books serve as examples, most authors can’t count on their stories being presented with complete accuracy, hence, the phrases “adaption” and “based on” the novel.

Take the book Elmer Gantry, written in 1926. Sinclair Lewis, an atheist, wrote a satire about a minister who should never have been a minister.

One adaptation of this book, a 1960 movie, was controversial enough that the opening cautioned against allowing impressionable children to view the film. Note that the book also stirred controversy and was banned in Boston.

The book includes conversations about the religious conflicts of the day, which are similar to today’s. As a reader, I appreciated the conversations. However, arguments don’t always translate well to film, so the filmmakers ditched them.

In the film, invariably characters are altered and eliminated. For instance, an essential character, Lulu Baines, played by Shirley Jones, appears early in the book but not until late in the film. Her character combines two women, and Lulu is a prostitute in the movie. She is not a prostitute in the book. Although the film works, it’s not accurate to the book. Other characters are changed to fit how the medium works.

Also, consider that film is visual, whereas a book engages the inner imagination. To that effect, the drama must be observable. For instance, an angry congregation pelts Elmer Gantry with eggs in the film. I don’t recall this happening in the book.

Because film as a medium is visual and compact, nuance is lost. A book has the luxury of offering a character study. Character nuance is rare in cinema. Movies must take shortcuts and convey personalities and situations as stark to express their points.

Rare is the author who controls how her book appears on film. So, as the expression goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Your turn:

Do you enjoy movies adapted from books? Why or why not?

What is your favorite adaption? Why?

What is your least favorite? Why?

31 Responses to When the Movie Isn’t True to Your Story

  1. Avatar
    Cynthia Allen November 19, 2020 at 5:49 am #

    I refused to watch the movie Anna Karenina because I could tell that the movie altered the plot too much, but I was delighted with the movie The Giver. That is a book that I’ve lived for many years and, as a teacher, read to children many times. I actually preferred the changes the movie made. They made the story more workable.

  2. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser November 19, 2020 at 6:08 am #

    The film is God’s reality
    of the book writ in my head,
    and I can say with certainty
    that I thought I’d not be dead
    before goals were accomplished,
    with so much incomplete,
    relationships unpolished,
    turned sour fom the sweet.
    But I know that this is what was planned
    by the Lord, from bith,
    and though I do not undertand
    I will accept its worth,
    and the premiere floodlights gleam
    for His Technicolour dream.

  3. Avatar
    DAMON J GRAY November 19, 2020 at 6:51 am #

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading “The Robe” written by Lloyd C. Douglas. It was a gripping tale that easily held my attention. Given that, I was thrilled to see the movie adaptation of the novel, with Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, (made roughly ten years later) at my local library. The movie, however, was so horribly done. so distorted that I made it only twenty to thirty minutes before shutting it down and returning it to the library.

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    Jeannie Delahunt November 19, 2020 at 7:03 am #

    My favorite movie is Ben-Hur. in all the years I’ve watched and enjoyed Charleton Heston and the other actors, I am surprised that the book is different. I’ve only just begun reading the book. Thus far it appears basic nuggets still held true from book to film, not so many others. Disappointing, thus far. I may not finish the book, we’ll see.

    Though I can accept some adjustments, overall I like to see the movie version follow as closely as possible the book. I think Gone With the Wind was a great adaption.

    For myself, when I fall in love with characters in books, that’s what I hope to do when I see them in films. Another I like is A Christmas Carol. I’ve seen a few versions of the book in films, and I think overall they hold to the integrity of the book.

    • Avatar
      Cole Powell November 19, 2020 at 7:17 am #

      I recently finished reading Ben-Hur for the first time myself, and it does indeed differ quite a bit from the Charlton Heston classic.

      It was still a great story, but the biggest hurdle for me was Lew Wallace’s prose. I generally love 19th-century writing, but Wallace seems to lack the beauty and finesse of many period writers.

      Still, I’m glad I finished it!

  5. Avatar
    Cole Powell November 19, 2020 at 7:04 am #

    Great post, Tamela!

    I was a “film guy” before I became a “book guy,” and a friend and I once had a discussion about a particular page-to-screen adaptation. My friend lamented the filmmakers’ omission of some his favorite parts of the book. I, meanwhile, praised the decision to excise the segments because they were unnecessary to the central plot and would’ve slowed down the film’s pacing and detracted from the narrative. My friend shook his head in disbelief that I’d said such a thing.

    Books and movies are indeed two very different forms of storytelling.

    • Avatar
      Kristen Joy Wilks November 19, 2020 at 7:58 am #

      Tom Bombadil! Yep, I loved it in the book, but it would have been a confusing tangent for the movie that would push the length well beyond people’s patience.

      • Avatar
        Cole Powell November 19, 2020 at 1:04 pm #

        Great example, Kristen! I loved Tom Bombadil, and my favorite part of LOTR is Frodo and the gang’s returning to the shire and having to fight one more battle. But neither would’ve worked in the films.

    • Avatar
      Abby Martin November 19, 2020 at 2:42 pm #

      Such great insight, Cole!

  6. Avatar
    Kristen Joy Wilks November 19, 2020 at 7:54 am #

    Books and movies are different. They should be different. They engage our hearts and minds in completely different ways. I think that too many times the screenwriter tries to make the movie follow the book exactly and the movie feels stilted since it is trying to use the strengths of a book to make a strong movie. A movie should use the strengths of cinema for its storytelling. My favorite adaptations are probably Holes and How to Train Your Dragon. I love both movies and I adore both books. In the case of How to Train Your Dragon, the movie is WILDLY different, but it totally works. The books are more character driven and subtle, as they should be. The movie is simple, epic, sweeping, and lovely, just like a movie should be. I still like the books best, but I love books so that isn’t a surprise.

  7. Avatar
    Kristen Joy Wilks November 19, 2020 at 8:00 am #

    Oh, I forgot Muppet Christmas Carol!!! That is one of my all-time favorites! It somehow retains the heart of the original but while including all the muppet insanity as well. Quite an accomplishment, I think.

    • Avatar
      Peggy November 19, 2020 at 9:52 pm #

      Kristen,
      Muppet Christmas Carol is one of my favorites too. It’s one of the films we watch at Christmas time. It keeps the original story, but allows for a lot of laughs from the muppets. I enjoy watching the muppet vegetables in the street scenes.

      • Avatar
        Kristen Joy Wilks November 20, 2020 at 10:46 am #

        Yes! Those vegetables, so so funny! But the story of redemption and learned compassion still shines through.

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    Tom Morrisey November 19, 2020 at 8:11 am #

    I have only seen one movie that did justice to the book, and that is the adaptation of John Irving’s A Widow for One Year. The adaptation, called The Door in the Floor, did not attempt to take on the full novel. Rather, it was based on an excerpt from the novel, only a few thousand words long.

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    Cindy Fowell November 19, 2020 at 8:14 am #

    Two movies that followed the books were Little Women and The Kite Runner.
    I want to see my favorite scenes from the book on the screen. If not, I’d rather read the book for the character arcs.
    But then there are few re-makes of movies that work for me either. I think its the sentimental part of my personality.
    Thanks for the post, Tamela!

    • Avatar
      Abby Martin November 19, 2020 at 9:12 am #

      Little Women with Winona Ryder was so good!! I totally forgot about that one! <3

  10. Avatar
    J.D. Rempel November 19, 2020 at 8:23 am #

    Pride and Prejudice (1995) made the book become even more alive for me. Andrew Davies, the screenwriter, did a wonderful job in the adaptation. I’ve seen the movie probably over 50 times (I’m not exaggerating) and read the book multiple times. Whenever I read the book, I hear the characters.

  11. Avatar
    Abby Martin November 19, 2020 at 9:05 am #

    Tamela, wonderful post!!!
    It all depends for me.. I don’t read much (gasp!) fiction because I am so busy with college and a lot of fiction just isn’t my taste. But I have seen a couple movies adapted from books that are pretty good.
    My favorite, is probably the City of Ember. I love how it is so much like the book. It is a beautiful movie in my opinion. I love the scenery and the characters are wonderful. I also love Bridge to Terabithia, both the movie (2007) and the book. I didn’t like the original movie made in the 1980s. I thought it was quite cheesy and it didn’t end like it was supposed to. It ended right after Jess heard that Leslie had passed. No funeral, no scene with the dad, no fight with Maybelle, and no building the bridge at the end.
    Like I said, my least favorite is the 1985 Bridge to Terabithia movie; but then again, I haven’t seen many adaptions of books.

  12. Avatar
    Ingmar Albizu November 19, 2020 at 9:06 am #

    You just explained why the book is usually (but not always) better).

  13. Avatar
    Abby Martin November 19, 2020 at 9:08 am #

    Oh, and about Bridge to Terabithia (2007),
    the scenes in the movie are the exact names of the chapters in the book! I thought that was so cool! And not to mention, it is my FAVORITE movie. 🙂

  14. Avatar
    Wendy November 19, 2020 at 9:18 am #

    While working on my book, I’m also learning to write the screenplay. I received encouraging feedback while participating in a logline webinar last June, hosted by a writing software company, but the industry expert took out the faith-based part of my story. When a writer sells a script to Hollywood, they’re selling their rights; whoever buys the screenplay can change it as they wish. I won’t sell out to Hollywood. If God wants my story told cinematically, I’ll trust Him to work out the connections. Christian films have proliferated in recent years, helping to glorify God in the telling of our stories.

    Which leads me to ask: Does The Steve Laube Agency represent screenwriters?

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube November 19, 2020 at 10:46 am #

      Wendy,

      Unfortunately, no. Our agency does not represent screenwriters.

      The Hollywood world is quite different from book publishing. So we stay focused on book authors.

      You may want to connect with Ted Baehr’s organization. He has a top-drawer course on screenwriting and is well connected in that universe.
      https://www.movieguide.org/master-class

      • Avatar
        Wendy November 19, 2020 at 1:26 pm #

        Steve,

        Thanks for your reply and referral. I always look forward to reading your blog. I’ll investigate Mr. Baehr’s site, as well.

      • Avatar
        Wendy November 19, 2020 at 1:45 pm #

        I signed up for Mr. Baehr’s newsletter and just ordered his book, How to Succeed in Hollywood (Without Losing Your Soul). Looking forward to the read.

        Thanks again.

  15. Avatar
    Jeanne Takenaka November 19, 2020 at 9:33 am #

    I really liked how the Lord of the Rings trilogy excelled at bringing the story to life and kept the story moving. We read the books with our sons before they watched the movies, and I felt like they did a good job bringing out the most important aspects of that story. Anne of Green Gables (With Meghan Follows) was beautiful and inspired me to read the entire series. Though the second and third movies diverged significantly from the books, I felt like the first one did a good job staying true to the major points of the story.

    Sometimes I’m disappointed in how some books are adapted. The newest Prince Caspian added a love angle between two of the main characters which I felt detracted from the story.

  16. Avatar
    G.A.Chinni November 19, 2020 at 11:31 am #

    I like good stories, apolegetics/allegory books and films. Sometimes a biography.

    Shadowlands, The Lord of The Rings, also Narnia, for me are great.

    Lewis and Tolkien. Always good.

    For transliteration of a book you need a great film director involved in the storyboard, or a writer involved in the film.

    The writer must be involved in some way or the storie could collapse (and the book to).

    The Silmarillon, a great book, it will be reality difficult to adapt at film arts.

  17. Avatar
    Scott November 20, 2020 at 1:23 pm #

    Like most, I usually find that “the book was better.” Still, I do like most film adaptations.

    My favorite film adaptation to date was “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” In my opinion, it’s that rare film that’s better than the book (and the book is among my favorites).

  18. Avatar
    L.G. McCary November 22, 2020 at 7:12 pm #

    Worst film adaptation ever: World War Z. It should have been a documentary-style movie with a loose storyline about the reporter traveling around the world investigating and taking the oral history of the zombie war. It would have been an amazing film with episodic storytelling that matched the philosophical themes of the book.
    As it was, Brad Pitt got hold of it and wrecked the whole thing by trying to make a blockbuster action movie. I think of the book and the movie as completely unrelated but accidentally sharing a title. Thanks for letting me rant. I feel better. Ha!

  19. Avatar
    Hope Ann November 25, 2020 at 12:19 pm #

    I am normally able to seperate book and movie in my mind and enjoy both. There’s no redeeming the first Percy Jackson: Lightning Thief movie though. Just…no.

    Sometimes though, after I’ve read the book, watched the movie, then read the book again, I can visulize the book better. Especially characters; I’m pretty terrible at ‘making up’ faces so sometimes it’s cool to see them in a film and then be able to match them up to the book. (Sometimes. Sometimes it’s a disaster but such is life.)

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