One editor’s take on what makes novels-to-film engaging, with top new picks for literary movie fans.
The best literature makes the best film experience. All movies begin as text, really. Filmmakers take the raw material of a script and turn it into a living, breathing performance with their imaginations—and a lot of technological and human assistance.
Film producers do the work of the fantasy mind for viewers. Readers have to work their own imagination muscles by world-building inside their heads, essentially painting the movie with one’s thoughts.
One of the great pleasures of literature is when a favorite book is turned into a film or TV series. Sometimes the screenplays can even introduce a new generation to an older book. Many classic stories have had their turn on the stage or screen. Some we can’t get enough of: how many times and ways can we do Hamlet? And I will tune in again and again to see who gets cast as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. (Jane Austen’s best-known has been produced as a film at least four times, with a stage version and web spinoff as well.)
When we watch a book turned film, it can be loosely based, such as an adaptation. Often, the result is a complete reimagination that furthers the original material. A recent example is the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, adapted from a Margaret Atwood novel first written in 1985. While many unsatisfying film remakes exist, The Handmaid’s Tale series is an intricate furthering that looks beyond what Atwood scripted.
The show takes the original dystopian novel and stretches it out, imagining what happens next in Atwood’s proposed future wherein women are property of the state. The series goes deeper into what the book envisioned, to eerie effect. (Atwood revisits Gilead in her newest book, The Testaments, out this year, pushing the tale even further with a next-generation story.)
Books We Love
Readers are intense judges of film versions of books we loved. It’s a rare day when you will hear me say, “The film was better than the book.” I usually insist on reading a book before watching the film so the film won’t taint my impression of the book.
Readers value the visions we create in our heads and see them as the most true. For example, I have never been satisfied with a Little Women’s casting. However, I am excited to give this next iteration a chance: starring Meryl Streep and Emma Watson, directed by Greta Gerwig, coming out this Christmas.
Pro tip: if you want the dual effect of text and screen at once, turn on the subtitles so you can reread all the lines that you loved and appreciate their delivery. (A good one for this is Sharp Objects, see below.)
Sometimes we watch the movie when we don’t want to read an extremely long or complex book, no matter the hype. War and Peace as a film has helped many Tolstoy readers with this. Even a 431-minute film version is a shorter “Cliff Notes”-like experience for a determined literary enthusiast with too many books and too little time.
I admit I watched Moby Dick in college to bypass a few pages of grotesque meatiness (Melville is not my fave prose artist out there). Although sometimes a decision to watch the film instead of reading the book can backfire, like if a film slaps a happy ending on what was written as a tragedy. (Rumor has it that It: Chapter Two goes astray from the plot somewhat, and Motherless Brooklyn alters the setting’s era, see below.)
Some other popular series reads that have been brought to screen (so you can skip reading the sequels) include: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, the Anne of Green Gables series, as well as many mysteries, such as Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, and Nancy Drew.
What literary movie buffs look for
Consistency of Plot
Does the ending match the book? Or is it altered entirely? So many books become barely recognizable when built into something pat that is convenient to wrap up. It happens so often they have a term for it: a Hollywood Ending. Fans of books will want to see their story come full circle in the way they envisioned it. If an ending is changed to service the film, then it’s doing a disservice to the author, the book, and its readers.
On the other hand, a surprise treatment that puts a twist on a beloved story can be a thrill to readers familiar with a tale. For fans, producers who keep a story going in a new way by serializing it or writing new chapters is manna to the enthusiast sad to see the book end. Sequels are great; serials, even better. This translates well with comic book series—the DC and Marvel movies obviously come to mind. They have endless potential for mixing up plots and character with their vast trove of source material.
Constancy of Character
As fans loyal to authors, it takes a lot for us to commit to a character’s casting in the films of books we worship. But when done right, it’s a glorious lovefest for all involved. While Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry Potter is infinitely satisfying, the film version of the book gained extreme cultlike status with J.K. Rowling enthusiasts due to the spot-on casting of other iconic figures, such as Potter’s best buds Hermione and Ron, as well as the villainous Snape and lovable Dumbledore. Fan fiction websites have entire series based on supporting characters’ imagined psychologies, so filmmakers trust the Draco fan-geeks will roll deep with the Slytherin trivia. These films don’t diss the fanbase; they indulge us.
Accuracy of Place
Seeing the setting, such as Hogwarts campus, come to life on screen is exciting for us readers to see how the magical would be rendered lifelike. From the floating candles in the Great Hall to the antigravity Quidditch fields, the attempt to portray Rowling’s wild imaginings is a commendable and well-rendered feat in these beloved series films. Even if it’s not exactly how a reader imagined a Quidditch match would be, it is fun to see these fantastical, impossible things seem momentarily real.
Film versions are almost always condensed versions of a book. This is only possible with shortcuts, both visual and plot-related. Fiction fans watch to see how complicated scenes are shortened, played out, or axed all together.
You can relive a story with some of the written details shown through actual scenery rather than the description of it. Not often does every minor character make it into the film from a book. What or who do we absolutely need to keep? Can we spend all our money on the star and gut the story to its skeleton, with no location budget? Only a film producer can answer these questions, but they’d be wise to ask a few fans of the book for opinions. If you leave out a key detail, then the film will fall flat, or worse, not make sense.
Game of Thrones readers who watched the HBO series may have cringed at some of the crude hacking the storyline took to make it fit the format. Still, I applaud the writers for making an effort to enclose the vast worlds of George R.R. Martin on the small screen. Hard choices in these situations are necessary to create a viewable product, and if the intricate storyline suffers, it is for (what we hope is) the greater good. A visually impressive flying dragon or three as special effects is the payoff we get for what the story may lack. And sometimes these cinematic delights allow us to forgive the producers their apathy toward plot detail.
For whatever reason you enjoy books made into movies, you won’t go wrong with these recent or upcoming selections.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (Netflix 2019)
Unsettling, to put it mildly … The novel played on screen does what Jackson has always done best: turns a dark mirror on our social stereotypes to create a macabre world of extremes. The outcast family is so beautiful and fragile you want them to be peacefully left alone, exactly what doesn’t happen. Crispin Glover as the disabled uncle author is a tragic treat to keep company with, even as we endure the weirdness. Details of the era in which Jackson wrote makes this film version a stylistic event that can also give you the chills.
Native Son by Richard Wright (HBO 2019)
The screen version of this classic is still the coming of age of an African American man in Chicago. Instead of 1930s though, it’s modern day with modern dilemmas. Producers used all the HBO tools to make a cinematically beautiful piece. The update to Wright’s tale keeps the conversation of race relations in the U.S. top of mind in a time when many cities are battlegrounds.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (Hulu 2019)
This is another update to what has come before. There was a film version of this released in 1970, prior to Hulu’s new six-part miniseries. Readers of Catch-22 may wonder how the book could work as a film because there’s a lot of rhetoric, wordplay and style at work on the page. But the screen offers nuance that can enhance the satire effects that Heller implied. For clarity of viewing, the storyline on screen takes a more chronological approach in this version than the nonlinear timeline of the novel.
A Dog’s Journey by Bruce Cameron (In theaters 2019)
Cameron’s created a pet-as-narrator genre of his own that reimagines how humans interpret a dog’s perspective. Which is to say: as a dog lover, this is as close as I’ve seen to how I imagine a dog actually thinks. Add in the mystical “love is forever” elements of his series (including the precursor A Dog’s Purpose) and you’ve got a tear-jerking heartwarmer that any pet owner can appreciate. The film versions have seen huge success, and it’s a fun translation from page to screen. Canine companions from middle school to elder age will find relatable scenes in these films. Watch (and read) at home with your favorite dog.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (In theaters 2019)
Tartt won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel in 2013. Like It, The Goldfinch is a big book, 771 text pages, so if you want to shortcut the task with a Hollywood take, here is your chance. Or, a potential reader can get a sketch from the film and fill in the blanks it leaves by reading the book later, because certainly with that amount of text, something is getting left out. But in a sense, watching a film prior to undertaking the longer commitment of reading a long book can give one an idea whether they want to go deeper (Pulitzer Prize or not).
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz (In theaters 2019)
This one I read to shreds as a kid and memorized for campfires and sleepovers. Putting it to screen will make these classic tales all the easier to recall. It’s hard to forget when you have a few juicy scary visuals to remind you of the key (ghostly, threatening, or headless) details. Urban legends come alive will reinforce and even make new the old ghost stories that need (like zombies) fresh life breathed into them, so they can be remembered and retold anew.
It: Chapter 2 by Stephen King (In theaters 2019)
If you are intimidated by the 1,138 page count of Stephen King’s thriller It, you can watch the 1990 miniseries TV adaptation or the modern remake and its sequel It: Chapter 2. Just remember, you can’t unsee a horror movie. For some reason, it’s never as traumatic to read a gory scene description as it is to witness It in all Its clown-monster glory with flowing streams of blood.
Long-awaited (by me)
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (In theaters Nov. 2019)
This was the first book of Lethem’s that I read and I might say my favorite. So to see it come to screen will be a pleasure.
Ed Norton stars and produces in the film. He rewrote it to a different era, which makes me a little skeptical, but I always love a period piece if the costumes and setting are legit.
I look forward to seeing how the film triggers my memories of the story and if it influences my enjoyment of the book.
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (In theaters Dec. 2019)
This film of a memoir about recovery is long overdue. It was in preproduction years ago, when it came out that parts of the memoir were made up—so they scrapped it because of controversy. A new filmmaking team has taken it up now. Thus comes yet another opportunity to rehash what did or didn’t happen to him in rehab. It’s nonfiction turned mythology in the publishing world, which made us all question what is memory, what is nonfiction, and what is allowed as far as embellishment of fact to make a good story? An all-star cast will play it out, probably with a generous interpretation of reality: Hollywood’s forte. I am watching to see if it’ll include scenes regarding the fallout surrounding the falsification charges.
If you missed it … in 2018
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (HBO)
It’s a challenge to look past the stunning Hollywood faces in this miniseries of the thriller by Flynn. Amy Adams is amazing yet agonized—the makeup work for her cutting scars is an art to behold.
But if you listen to the language, all lit lovers will enjoy their shades of meaning. Double entendre and Southern passive aggression play out in female family relations. Tension to the very end provides a juicy twist in the last episode’s credits that will make you want to rewatch (and reread) the whole thing again.
Overall, favorite books have surprising potential as screenplays and will not soon go out of style. In fact, wise filmmakers would spend more time in libraries to tap into lit-loving audiences.