Novel-to-Film: Xeroxed or “Inspired By”?

I watched Peter Sellers’ Being There last night for the first time in many, many years. Thoroughly enjoyed it. I saw that the source novel’s author, Jerzy Kosinski, co-wrote the script. I must admit that I haven’t read the book. But watching the film gave me many of the pleasures of reading a finely textured novel, and I came away with the impression that the film probably hewed very closely to the book. Peter Sellers’ performance is extraordinary; given minimal dialogue, he invites the viewer to understand Chauncy Gardiner/Chance the gardener almost entirely through his facial expressions and body language, much the same way Chaplin did fifty and sixty years earlier. The book’s setting in New York was changed in the film to Washington, DC, which I can only think was an improvement, given the liveliness and visual humor of those scenes where Chance emerges for the first time ever from his benefactor’s Washington mansion in a rundown neighborhood not far from the White House and the Capitol Building. I’m very curious now to read the novel and see what other changes were made, if any, and how significant those changes were.

As a pre-teen I read Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain right after seeing the 1971 film version on TV. I was struck by how faithful the film version was to the novel, virtually scene for scene, dialogue line for dialogue line. The only major difference between book and film was the gender of Dr. Leavitt (Peter Leavitt in the book, Ruth Leavitt in the film). The screenwriter, Nelson Gidding, specialized in bringing literary adaptations to both the big and small screens. I was very interested to learn that he also wrote the screenplay for the 1963 film version of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting, which I recall also hewed extremely closely to its source material (unlike the rather baleful 1999 remake, which relied far too heavily on CGI effects and not nearly enough on suggestion). Apparently Gidding was a screenwriter who believed that fidelity between source novel and script served a film the best. Given my reactions to The Andromeda Strain and The Haunting, very different films yet both (to me) greatly satisfying cinematic experiences, I’d say he was right — concerning these two projects, at least.

One of my favorite horror/science fiction novels, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, has been filmed three times: as The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price, The Omega Man (1971) with Charleton Heston, and most recently as I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith. I haven’t seen the latest version, although I’ve viewed the first two multiple times (The Omega Man regularly scared me silly as a kid when it showed up on network television). Of the three, only the earliest, The Last Man on Earth, was faithful to Matheson’s vision of a virus from outer space killing the great majority of humanity and transforming virtually all the survivors into vampires. Cinematically, however, it is the weakest of the three, having by far the lowest budget and being somewhat hamstrung by Vincent Price’s limp portrayal of protagonist Robert Neville (I’ve read that Will Smith’s performance as Neville was the best thing about I Am Legend, and I’m a big fan of Charleton Heston’s stiff-chinned, bitterly sarcastic, Ford convertible-driving character in The Omega Man). Given the vampire craze of the past quarter century, it really surprises me that no one has attempted a faithful adaptation of Matheson’s scientific updating of the vampire legend since 1964. None of the three films brought to the screen the psychologically devastating twist ending of the novel, when Neville realizes that, in this world of a completely changed humanity, he is the monster, not the beings who have been trying to rid themselves of him.

Another Will Smith genre film, the extremely loose adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, seemed to have little in common with Asimov’s series of linked stories other than a title. Much of the thumbs-down reaction from the SF community was based on the filmmakers’ seeming disregard for their (much beloved and revered) source material. In fact, the screenplay, first entitled Hardwired, originally had no connection with Asimov’s works at all. But when 20th Century Fox acquired the rights from Disney, the new producers dictated the title change and that Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and some of his character names from the I, Robot stories be shoehorned into the script. Would the picture have been a better film had it been a more faithful adaptation? For a contrafactual look at what might have been, see Harlan Ellison’s screenplay for I, Robot, originally written for Warner Brothers with Asimov’s support.

At the other end of the fidelity scale, Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen may have suffered from being too faithful to its source material, at least during its first three quarters. (Some fans of the graphic novel castigated the filmmakers for changing key elements of the novel’s ending; I think the filmmakers made the right choice, as the novel’s climax, featuring a gigantic, dead B.E.M. in midtown Manhattan, could have come across as inappropriately comical on the big screen.) Having read the graphic novel four or five times, I could see, watching the film, how Snyder had utilized artist Dave Gibbons’ page-by-page panels as a storyboard for nearly the entire movie. For the opening scenes involving the murder of the Comedian, this worked very well. For other, more character-focused scenes (the entire romance between the second Silk Spectre and the second Nite Owl), it hardly worked at all. Scenes evocatively and precisely drawn on the page by Gibbons simply did not transfer well to their on-screen miming by Patrick Wilson and Malin Akerman. Had the screenwriters been free to break loose from Moore’s graphic novel dialogue and Gibbons’ scene setting, maybe they could have conjured a more convincing emotional spark between Silk Spectre and Nite Owl. Or maybe not. Maybe Wilson and Akerman just lacked chemistry, and no scriptwriter, no matter how talented, could have given them dialogue that would have allowed them to click. Another contrafactual…

An example of a genre novel adaptation which I think was made a good deal better than it otherwise would have been by being unfaithful to its source material? I would suggest the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes, which was loosely based, of course, on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel Monkey Planet. I suspect any attempt to accurately reflect Boulle’s novel on film utilizing 1968 filmmaking tech would have been dead on the screen. Rod Serling made all the right choices in his script, which resulted in a film that has had a powerful impact on the public consciousness and left us with several unforgetable images (the end shot of the Statue of Liberty, in particular).

Jump into this, won’t you? Which films based on novels (or graphic novels) do you feel would have been improved by hewing more closely to their source material? Or which were damaged by the filmmakers’ attempts to be overly faithful to the written word? Comments are open!


  1. Nathan Krawitz says:

    We run into these problems far too often. We read a book, from which the author painstakingly paints pictures for us to imagine the best we can. When put on film, either the cinematographers are unable or unwilling to be faithful to the various scenes, or our images were inaccurate.

    In the 7th grade, having already seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, I checked the book out on a Friday. I read the first 50 pages that afternoon, then read the entire rest of the book the next day. There were a lot of explanations, especially in the end sequence, which helped explain the movie. It’s no wonder the book and movie were so close, as it turns out they were done most likely simultaneously.

    I wholly concur with the comments on Andromeda Strain. Michael Crichton is painstakingly accurate with details, and these details are pivotal to the script.

    But what happens when due to time constraints you need to do serious editing? How and when do you create composite characters? Should you even do that at all? Arggh.

    Having read James Clavell’s Shogun, I noticed that the pace of the miniseries was about the same as the book, which ran about 1200 pages. So it was about 100 pages per hour. But some of the scenes in the book were rather racy or mundane. About half the book was omitted, giving us a pace of 50 pages per hour. Other rather long books turned into miniseries seem to benefit from this pace, such as Steven King’s The Stand. Later, Steven King released a version about 200 pages longer, which included even more background material. In his forward, he likened it to either a nice version of Hansel and Gretel, or cutting it down to a few crude sentences. You get the same story and lesson, but the longer version is nicer.

    Douglas Adam’s brought us the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which spawned many more books. I read most of the books before getting bored with it. But I looked forward to the movie, but was disappointed. Even though they used Douglas’ screenplay, there were many changes, including incorporating material from later novels in the series, which confused me. Was this Hitchhiker’s, or was this his original series? Since Hitchhiker was rather slow and sardonic, pacing would be iffy at best. Much British humor is like that and requires the reader/viewer to have a certain patience and common knowledge. Last Summer, I checked out the British miniseries, which traces its evolution to the original radio programme. [Yes, British spelling.] Again, Douglas Adams had a lot to do with the production of both. Unfortunately, this didn’t translate well.

    Some of the best writing I read was the 100 or so pages across 4 chapters of Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games. Suspenseful, scary, gripping and engaging, it was as if Tom physically grabbed me, pulled me into his novel for the ride, and would only grant me permission to relax when the protagonist himself could relax. I couldn’t wait to see this on the big screen. Alas, I was disappointed. It just became another chase scene. Boo.

    Far too often, the background information turns the novel from a house to a home. In a movie, the pages of details only take a few frames to show. Painting the beauty of a sunset or sunrise, or showing the details of the interior of a room can be shown easily and accented with appropriate background music. In this case, nothing is lost. But what about all the little details of the characters’ past lives which help the reader “know” and care for these characters as if they are our own friends and acquaintances? The flashback device is often used to varying levels of success. In Stephen King’s It, the flashback device was central to the book, and was incorporated well in the movie.

    One of the worst adaptations I tried to watch was Children of the Corn, from Stephen King’s short story of the same name. Keeping to the 50 to 100 pages per hour pace, there is no way you can make a full length movie out of it, even at a minimum 75 minutes. So it was just a short story stretched to full length, with what seemed to be a college director student putting it together. I couldn’t watch it all. Better are Creepshow and Cat’s eye, which took 4 and 3 stories respectively, loosely segued them, and turned out to be enjoyable. Seemingly bucking this trend was Shawshank Redemption, often touted as one of the best movies of all time. The story was slow and pretty darn faithful to the novella. But it was engaging. We have lots of off screen faces to thank for this masterpiece.

    So, what we have are a series of problems. The author might have written a story which might or might not translate well to the big screen. The director comes from a certain set of skills which put his or her flavor on a story. When production staff decide to change parts of a story to “improve” it, and fail to include the author and advisers, it only begs for disaster. The author included details for a reason. Occasionally, the author goes along with changes because worldly facts change the accuracy of the story and accuracy is important. Other times, the author created his own world, and our perception of ground rules is different. The production staff changing those ground rules is taboo. When the staff just distorts reality because “it looks better on screen”, the purists are annoyingly distracted. For those who were in the military, when basic details are ignored, be it jargon, manner of dress, customs and courtesies or any other detail, it might as well be a turd in a swimming pool. (Unless that turd is in Caddyshack.)

    So many of us fall in love with a great story. But should it be put on film? Sometimes, it just can’t be done effectively. Disappointment is inevitable. Other times, the process of bringing it to the screen is unnecessarily hampered. Time constraints and budget are the biggest problems. How does one do James Michener justice when most of his stories stretch centuries? Good luck.

    • Andrew says:

      Nathan, thanks for your lengthy input. I believe 2001: A Space Odyssey was actually based on a Clarke short story from the 1940s called “The Sentinel.” Clarke wrote the full-length novel after the film had been made. However, he did write the sequels prior to the films of the same names being shot.

  2. Adam Burton says:

    An interesting topic, and intelligently discussed, I might add. I echo your praise and enthusiasm for Matheson’s I Am Legend, though I have only seen The Last Man on Earth, and found it equally tepid.

    I guess my offering for film improved by not following the source text too closely is Jaws. The film is perhaps my all-time favorite movie, and only within the last two years have I finally read Benchley’s novel. I attempted it once during my high school years, but quickly got bored.

    When I finally did finish the book, I found that the characters I liked so much in the film were far less appealing in the book.

    For example,after Richard Dreyfuss’ witty earnest portrayal of Matt Hooper, Benchley’s lascivious douchebag of an oceanographer was disappointing. I realize that Benchley’s version was more nuanced, perhaps, but not in a good way for me. It was like watching an episode of the Andy Griffith Show and hearing Andy fart and Opie pick his nose. More realistic, surely, but definitely not pleasingly so.

    And Quint without his character-defining U.S.S. Indianapolis story, or the noisy complicated relationship with Hooper? Just hollow, if you ask me.

    It could be that I’m merely under the sway of the powerful combination of Spielberg’s direction and the Scheider-Dreyfuss-Shaw trifecta, but I still find more to love about the film than the book.

    • Andrew says:

      Great comment, Adam! Thanks so much for stopping by. And try to see The Omega Man when you get the chance–very gripping, and lots of fun 1970s cheese as a bonus.

  3. VandalHeartX says:

    I know this is off-topic, but it’s near to topic.

    I recently finished reading The Running Man again, one of Stephen King’s Bachman books about a sadistically murderous gameshow set in a dystopian future. I’ve only seen about five minutes of the movie and I know for a fact that the film has NOTHING to do with the story. Fine. In Name Only adaptations get made all the time. However, being a fairly serious, if technically armchair student of film, I have to wonder what the faithful film adaptation of The Running Man would be like, and I don’t think it would go well. Any serious attempt at a “xerox adaptation”, as you’re calling it (which is awesome, by the way), would yield one of two finished products: either a neutered dystopian story that can’t hide all the executive meddling that went on during production, or something so offensive that the cast and crew will become Running People themselves, lest they be lynched by those without the sensibilities to appreciate transgressive fiction. I could wrong, but I just don’t think it would work.

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I agree that some novels simply don’t transfer well at all to film. Novels and films each do certain types of storytelling very well; sometimes those strengths overlap, and sometimes they don’t. Any novel which focuses on the interior lives of its characters, rather than on external action or conversation, is a poor candidate for a film adaptation. I can’t speak to your example, because I’ve neither read the novel nor seen the film. However, I have a great distate for “in name only” adaptations. I think they’re a form of bait-and-switch, highly unfair to the audience. I’d much rather see a film project “inspired by” a particular novel or story simply give credit to the literary work’s author in the end credits, rather than try to pass itself off as a legitimate adaptation. But, of course, there are legal ramifications and complications to be up-front and honest this way (re: The Terminator and Harlan Ellison)…

  4. Lori says:

    I just finished reading The Princess Bride, and I think Goldman made many improvements between writing the book and the screenplay. Chiefly, the movie had a much better ending. The opposite example is The Shining. I nearly ripped the arms off the theater seat when they killed the freakin’ *hero* in the movie. That sort of departure from the book can never be forgiven.

    • Andrew says:

      Lori, thanks for writing. If I remember correctly, I think the protagonist of The Shining was portrayed in a much more sympathic light in King’s novel than he was in Kubrick’s film version. The Jack Nicholson character in the film seems to act as a willing participant in his seduction and degredation by the Overlook Hotel’s ghosts. By the end of the movie, when we see him entombed in the ice and snow, I had the reaction, “he had it coming.” I would’ve been much more disturbed had his wife and son not escaped. Definitely a major difference between the novel and the film, though! Although, in my opinion, the change didn’t harm the film and may have improved it (despite angering at least one reader of the novel–you).

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