The Movie Will Never Be the Same as the Book (So Get Over It!)

I remember it very clearly; I was a young boy of around 15 years, and I had recently learned that the awesome movie Starship Troopers was based off a book. After a trip to the library, I found myself sitting on the couch with Robert Heinlein’s novel in hand. It was a moment of great anticipation.

I remember diving into the prose, all the while waiting to see familiar characters, big explosions, people screaming “kill the bugs!” or whatever while their faces got chewed off. None of that crap happened.

Honestly, I don’t fully remember what the novel was about other than long, LONG explorations of fictional, interstellar government policy. It was as if CNN and The Wall Street Journal teamed up to write science fiction. There certainly weren’t any nude shower scenes.

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Replace that explosion with 500 pages of galactic gerrymandering and space politics and it’s pretty much spot-on with the book.

Yes, I’m aware that I’m talking crap about a classic piece of writing. Yes, I’m fully cognizant of the fact that I’m doing so whilst comparing it to a positively godawful B-movie about teenage space commandos.  But seriously, there were like no boobs in the book.

Anyway, now that I’m twice as old, I’ve seen a pretty hefty amount of movies that were based on books. The sheer number doesn’t surprise me  — it’s smart from a business standpoint. What surprises me is that there are still people who think a film adaptation should hold true the book it’s based on.

Sure it can happen, but it’s rare for a reason. Movies and books are so completely removed from one another as artistic mediums, that it would be foolish to expect any kind of parity betwixt them. In other words, if someone watches a film adaptation with the expectation of it “living up” to the book, then they’re the asshole. Not the screenwriter, not the director, and not the executive producer.

It’s the difference between seeing and feeling.

Movies are a visual medium. Even the most basic screenwriting course will tell you to minimize the dialogue and drive the story through action. On the other hand, novels are an emotional medium, using the reader’s imagination to “decode” the written word into an internal experience. Dialogue is welcome, and there are no special effects.

Experience. That’s what entertainment is all about, and movies offer a completely different experience versus a book. It’s imperative that every medium be used to its fullest potential, thus delivering the richest experience that it’s able to provide. On the big screen, the experience comes from the actors, the effects, the sweeping vistas, the brilliant use of photography, the audio. In books, the experience is more cerebral, stemming from imagination, exploration of deeper ideas, intricate themes, complex relationships between readers and characters, and arcing evolution of narrative and cast.

These strong points are not interchangeable. It doesn’t matter how well an author describes a landscape, the experience will never be the same as seeing it portrayed on screen. I’m not saying that one version is better than the other, but they are vastly different.

Sometimes, the book isn’t better.

Game of Thrones is my go-to exemplar in this matter. The Song of Ice & Fire books are really badly written, devoid of style and energy, but the show ranks among the most amazing productions ever to appear on a TV. I’ve always believed that George R.R. Martin actually wrote the novels as if they were script treatments from the very beginning — not a far-fetched notion since being a television producer meant that Martin probably planned for it to end up in the hands of screenwriters. With that in mind, it’s a very capable adaptation.

Game of Thrones also works very well because it’s a series, not a movie. Imagine trying to fit even the first book of the series into a two-hour movie, and one will immediately realize the age-old problem of screen adaptation. The serialized drama has made it possible to preserve the timeline of a novel . . . a huge leap in the right direction.

Which leads me to:

Some changes still bug me.

Thanks to the popularity of the format that The Sopranos, Lost, Deadwood, and countless others have popularized, we no longer need to compress a novel into a 90-minute blast of “beats” just to get it out there. A chapter can become an hour-long episode. There’s room for the story to breathe, and more importantly, there’s time for the characters to develop.

I was thrilled when I found out that the Dark Tower show was finally green-lighted. Stephen King’s fantasy series is one of my favorite written works, and it could make for a very spectacular series; it’s perfect for a serialized drama.

Except that it’s not being made into a show . . . it’s going to be a movie. (I guess they wasted the “Stephen King serial” idea on Under the Dome. Ugh.) Not a good sign, but we’ll roll with it. Do I expect the movie to match perfectly with the books? Of course not. You read my feelings on that.

But decisions have already been made that have me wondering how it’s all going to work out. Namely, the casting of Idris Elba as the gunslinger character, Roland.

Here’s the part where people start giving me that “you’re a racist” look for questioning the decision, but bear with me for a moment. Some businesses have to make choices based on how well people fit a defined role. This is why grandma couldn’t get that job at Hooters and why the strip club wouldn’t hire me as a cocktail waitress. I was turned down for roles in independent films many times because I didn’t look like what the director envisioned for the character — as has anyone who ever even dabbled in acting or modeling. That’s the business.

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In the books, Roland (the gunslinger) was described many times over. He basically looks like John Wayne. I own several versions of the Dark Tower books, many of which have illustrations. Guess what Roland looks like in those drawings and paintings. Yeah, he looks like John Wayne. Readers are free to imagine what characters look like until it’s drilled into their heads that they look exactly like Hondo…and then they’re shown a picture of him dancing the commala to reinforce that fact.

So, they cast a black guy in the role instead of a white guy who looks like a cowboy. So what? Well, beside the fact that I can’t fully wrap my head around why they wouldn’t just cast someone who looks like what the character looks like, it’s going to create complications with the actual story.

Big complications.

If you’ve read the Dark Tower series, you’re familiar with a major character named Odetta/Susannah. She’s the black woman with a split personality. One half is a civil rights activist who practices passive resistance against racial oppression. The other is violently hateful towards white people. This leads to a lot of depth in her relationship with Roland because he’s a white cowboy type. There’s no way around the fact that changing Roland to a black man completely breaks this character dynamic — and we’re not talking a little sub-plot; it’s a huge part of the overall story that continues through the last seven novels!

This makes me continue to wonder: how will they try to fix this broken story element? Are the producers afraid that viewers are too stupid to “handle” a racist, black female character? We couldn’t possibly process such a thing, so they’d better get rid of that aspect altogether or — far worse — make Odetta into another cookie-cutter white racist. Yeah, ignorant white people hating black people! The viewing audience can understand that!

Hopefully, they don’t make a mess of things. I guess this is the benefit of making Dark Tower into a feature film instead of a serialized drama. There likely won’t be time to address pivotal story elements like racism and split personalities. You know, the stuff that made the books worth reading.

But I can’t complain, because I know how it goes. The headline of this article applies. So when the highlight of the movie is the CGI fireworks when Roland blasts Sylvia Pittston in the vagina*, I won’t be surprised.

 

* Literally, with his gun. Read the book!

 


All opinions are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Deck Ape...or anyone else. Arrr!

J. Paul

I'm a professional writer and amateur filmmaker from Miami, Florida. Huge fan of the Dark Tower Cycle, strategy games, photography, and food trucks.

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2 Comments on "The Movie Will Never Be the Same as the Book (So Get Over It!)"

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jpraise
I’m pretty sure it was Clint Eastwood, not John Wayne, but I digress… I personally liked the Elba casting, because I have no doubt he can handle the emotion of the character. He’s a great actor. That said, I also see the problem with the casting just because of how much it contradicts the source material. But that said, I also don’t think the race of the character is pivotal to the actual plot. There’s no way in HELL they do the Detta Walker scenes in Hollywood today. She was a caricature, a black woman that was racist for the… Read more »
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