Why You Loved the Book, But Hated the Movie

“Ugh! The book was better. They left out so much of the story!”

If you’ve ever felt the frustration of watching a movie after you’ve read and fallen in love with the book first, you’re not alone. It’s a rare occasion when a person is just as satisfied with the film as they were with the book. But before you blacklist the writers and producers of the “butchered” film, let me explain the harsh reality of the two story-telling mediums.

Books are written to empower your own brain to cast and direct the story. Not only do you get to watch it play out in your mind’s eye, but you get to dive inside the hearts, minds, and backstories of the characters and situations you’re reading about. The author gets to interject information or thoughts without interrupting the flow of the story. An author can pause the story just as the character is about to make a decision, then write several paragraphs or pages about something that happened in the past that we can assume is a split second thought in the mind of the character. When we return to the present and they make their decision based on the past, it all flows and we’ve bonded further with the character. The reason it works is because it’s happening inside the head of the reader. That doesn’t work well on screen, not because screenwriters wouldn’t love to write that kind of scene, but because we just don’t have that kind of time.

Think about the time invested to read a great novel. How often do you read a novel within two hours? What would it take to edit your favorite book to be a two-hour read? That’s exactly what a screenwriter has to figure out. Unfortunately, there is no choice, a lot of the time, but to cut some of your favorite storylines and characters. That’s just the reality if you think about the number of pages and the number of words on each page. A novel can have hundreds of pages with each page filled with several beautifully written paragraphs. On the other hand, a feature screenplay is limited to a maximum of 120 pages and because of the way it’s formatted, there’s more white on the page than there are words. The screenwriter has no choice but to make some hard decisions on how to focus the story and cut the rest. Thankfully, some writers are very clever and are able to imply a lot without using many words. Cutting characters and storylines is never easy, especially when it’s good writing because all of the tangents interweave and connect to one another. But cut, they must!

Another detail screenwriters have to keep in mind that novelists don’t is the number of characters. A novelist can write as many characters as they like as long as it doesn’t confuse the reader. A screenwriter, however, needs to keep in mind that each time they add a character, they’re adding an actor, which means they’re adding to the budget requirement for the movie. This is why you often see two or more characters rolled into one in the film version. (It’s the same thing for movies based on true stories; the character might only have one brother in the movie, when in reality, they have three.) Screenwriters are bound to think financially. Every additional character, location, or page of script means it’ll cost more to produce.

Lastly, the other main reason your favorite novel didn’t seem to translate well to the screen is that it may not have been a truly visual story. A film has to deliver a story through images and sound only. The audience can’t learn something about the character or the situation unless they see or hear something happen. While some movies incorporate a character’s voiceover to be able to express their thoughts outside of what the audience can see on the screen, it’s often not recommended to do this. In screenwriting, we have a saying, “Show. Don’t tell.” I understand that’s also a saying for novelists, but it takes on a new meaning when it comes to film. People watch movies because they want to watch a story play out; they want to be shown a story, not told a story. The reality is that not all stories are the kind that can be shown. Some stories need to be told.

Every writer who has written both books and movies will tell you they’re completely different to write. Each form of story-telling has its own benefits and strengths as well as challenges and parameters. There are several mediums in which to share a story. The challenge comes with crossing over into other mediums without losing too much in the transition.