Why Most Novels to Film Stink

This is my 100th post as a WordPress blogger!

It seems appropriate to be talking about two of my favorite subjects: writing and Jane Austen.

When I was uninitiated, I recall thinking that writers were an exclusive group of visionaries and writing was a one-on-one organic experience with a mystical Muse.  I admit it, I was somewhat wistful.  Okay, perhaps it was more like outright, green-eyed jealousy.  Sound familiar to anyone?

After some time of writing courses, making contacts with “more established writers” and paying my dues as it were, I finally began to be accepted by some of my peers; that is, other unpublished writers that were further along the writing process than I was.

Finally, one of my author friends had a breakthrough.  I was subsequently initiated into the secret that forms the backbone of Hollywood films today.  I don’t think that’s too much of an exaggeration either…

Breakthrough #1

Novels and film are two completely different medium.  As I am quickly learning in my screenplay course (as mentioned in “Keep Learning”), films are primarily VISUAL; plays are ORAL; and novels are MENTAL.  This isn’t mutually exclusive.  You can have a great book with plenty of dialogue, internal and external, plenty of action, and lots of descriptions.  It’s usually difficult though to translate thought to film as it requires heavy emphasis on actual acting.  This is why subtle body movements, looks and gestures can be so significant in film.  Case in point, please watch this brief (2:42) clip from BBC‘s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.  See below:

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Their looks convey quite a bit, don’t they?  Andrew Davies, the screenwriter of this version of Jane Austen‘s classic novel, is one of my heroes of novel adaptations currently.

Breakthrough #2

The second thing (although actually, the earlier revelation of the two) was given to me in the form of notes taken by a friend from a video course, and this is the crux of my post.  “The Hero’s Two Journeys” by Chris Vogler and Michael Hague describes Hollywood’s magic formula for screenplays, based on the earlier works of Joseph Campbell.  The majority of popular films that I’ve seen recently are based on the tricks presented in this video series. To name a few based on this method of the monomyth, see Star Wars or google search “monomyth examples”… you’ll find dozens!

Right, so, back to my original premise: why most novels to film stink.  From what I’ve observed, Hollywood is about making money.  If you find a formula that works, you stick to it, brand it, sell it.  Others emulate it.  This is fine for films that come straight from screenplays.  There are some decent books that could probably transition well across mediums and be formatted into this formula.  However, I think what can happen at times (as I also heard in this week’s class and completely agree with!) is that in the effort to make money, Hollywood can go too far.

You cannot force a square into a circle peg.  There are always going to be some books that do not necessarily fit into the standard formula.  It’s when Hollywood starts dramatically adding and subtracting and just flat-out creating what never existed, for the sake of a better film, that they go too far.  Novels as films sometimes stink because the value of the dollar appreciates a higher interest than devotion to the author’s original vision.  Sometimes, people need to just let the square peg be a square.

By the way, the same could be said for these adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels as horror-drawing room social commentaries.  See the pros and cons in the related articles below.


4 thoughts on “Why Most Novels to Film Stink

  1. Dear Classic,
    I have indeed seen the Keira Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice. Jane is so addictive! 🙂 Right now, I’ve got at least 4 versions of P&P in my film library at home.

    Real quickly, just a couple pros/cons about the version you mentioned:

    Pro(s): Matthew MacFadyen does a decent job of establishing his own ‘Darcy’ apart from the Colin Firth idol craze that occurred several years ago. 🙂

    Con(s): One thing that does bother me about this version though is the Americanized ending vs. the English ending that was released. Did you know that when the film came out in the UK, it did not include the evening scene by the lakeside? As a reader/viewer of Jane’s work, there are some things that don’t necessarily need to be translated to film that perhaps are best left to the imagination. In my opinion, the honeymoon is one of them!

    Thanks for the post and please keep reading!


  2. Have you seen the Pride and Prejudice film made a few years ago? It has Keira Knightley starring as Elizabeth, I loved it. Perhaps the only good movie representing a book… I love this post 😀


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