Sometimes, the book actually isn’t better.
“The book was way better.” Nothing takes the fun out of discussing a film adaptation of a novel, play, or manifesto quite like that statement. But that’s not always the case: I think we’d all rather watch Adaptation than read The Orchid Thief. However, for every Godfather, there's more than a few Scarlet Letters. So, with both The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in theaters, here are five rules film adaptations should follow to avoid hearing that dreaded phrase ring out across the country.
1. Focus on exaggerating imagery, time, and mood.
Filmmakers need to recognize what in books won’t translate well onscreen. Carrie the book is an okay read, especially considering that it was Stephen King’s first-ever published; but it veers on the edge of boring sometimes since it’s an epistolary novel. Carrie the movie isn’t particularly fast-paced itself, but it's retained its potency for over three decades because of strong scenes and imagery: the bleakness of the small-town setting, the opening shower scene, the religious symbols, the dreamlike ending cut short by Carrie’s hand emerging from the grave, and (of course) the image of Sissy Spacek doused in blood in front of a wall of fire all stick in your brain like a nightmare.
2. Adapt a lackluster book and use your actors for the heavy lifting.
The Devil Wears Prada and Julie & Julia would have come out in theaters and then just gone away without much notice if they hadn’t nabbed Meryl Streep to play Miranda Priestly and Julia Child, respectively. Granted, she was offered the roles of the more interesting characters from both books (aside from Nigel in The Devil Wears Prada, as portrayed by Stanley Tucci — because really, who could play a “Nigel” better?); but can you imagine if, say, Katharine Heigl and Sarah Jessica Parker had been cast in those roles? Instead, both of those movies are considered better than they had any right to be — that is, if you fast-forward through any of the parts featuring Anne Hathaway or Amy Adams.
3. If the ending doesn’t work, scrap it. Or just overhaul the whole movie.
Adaptation is a perfect example of a complete overhaul. The movie itself is about wanting to adapt a book to a screenplay (hence the title), but being hamstrung by the book’s strange subject matter. At its core, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief is a beautifully written meditation on what it is to have a passion for something; but it is also, as she says, “a book about flowers.” There is a lot of history and plain ol’ information about orchids and orchid hunters in the book: not exactly a screenwriter’s dream. So Charlie Kaufman wrote a screenplay about writing a screenplay about The Orchid Thief, then tacked on fictionalized elements of Susan Orlean’s story at the end. Perhaps overly meta, but deeply entertaining nonetheless.
4. Have an awesome soundtrack.
A choice soundtrack can do a lot of things for a book-turned-movie, because unless you’re in pre-school, books don’t come with music. The Graduate boasts one of the best soundtracks of all time, and it also doesn’t make the mistake of overwhelming the movie — it complements it. About a Boy (based on the book by Nick Hornby) also benefits from a memorable soundtrack by Badly Drawn Boy, the songs of which feel impeccably crafted to each scene. Same goes for Goodfellas and Casino — the songs in those films are married to their visuals in a way that you simply can’t get in any other medium. Unless you read your books to a precisely researched and synchronized custom soundtrack (trust me, it really livens up Guns, Germs, and Steel).
5. Be fearless in selecting material for adaptation.
Prospective filmmakers shouldn’t worry about picking Pulitzer Prize-winning source material: sometimes a so-so book can turn into a great movie. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve ever read The Godfather by Mario Puzo, but I know that it was considered a somewhat trashy, fast read. But because The Godfather is one of the best films of all time, it’s fair to say that it did the book justice in the best way: it took a great story seriously, made a great, serious movie out of it, and in many ways, improved upon it. Or look at Dr. Strangelove: Stanley Kubrick took Peter George’s super-serious (and largely forgotten) novel about nuclear war, Red Alert, and turned it into one of the most darkly comic and incisive films of the twentieth century.