How and How not to Adapt a Book for Screen

March 2nd was the 28th annual World Book Day. With book adaptations becoming more popular and frequent, there are times when readers take to them with equal enthusiaism and also times when they feel let down. 

We all remember the bus of books visiting our primary schools and running down the corridors with our book tokens to pick up ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ or the latest Jacqueline Wilson novel.  

As children, seeing these beloved stories adapted to the big screen was always a delight; our childhood imagination brought to life. But why are some adaptations perfect, and why do some support the common retort of ‘the book is better’?  


Straight off the back of modern sci-fi classics like ‘Arrival’ and ‘Blade Runner: 2049’, Denis Villeneuve was given the task of adapting Frank Herbert’s acclaimed novel ‘Dune’, to the big screen. A book which Villeneuve had read as a boy and dreamed of adapting. 

Incredible attention to detail from the book with an accessible and well-defined plot realised planet Arrakis just how it had been 56 years prior in the mind of the reader. Viewers would have seen intriguing world-building details in the background such as Duke Leto’s bull statue, but book fans would see this and know the story behind it as described in the book. 

Details like this are indicative of a director who has a passion for the property they are adapting, and this love and care will shine through to casual viewers and help generate word of mouth and thus revenue.  

The Shining 

The Shining is an interesting example of adapting a book into a film.  

Being now regarded as one of the greatest films of all time would lead you to assume it is the perfect example of an adaptation, but Stephen King is famously a hater of Kubrick’s 1980 horror.  

A dislike for The Shining was popular at the time, but opinions have since u-turned massively, with King maintaining his dislike toward the film. He is quoted as saying: “the movie has no heart.” 

He continued to say he wrote the book ‘as a tragedy, and if it was a tragedy, it was because all the people love each other. Here it seems there’s no tragedy because there’s nothing to be lost”.  

The book illustrates the Torrance family as a more difficult unit; there is love, childhood innocence and honest parenthood juxtaposed with abuse, shouting and addiction. Kubrick’s film has less time to develop these themes which the book does so well, but there are more obvious differences between the two mediums of The Shining. 

Furthermore, the iconic twins aren’t seen in the book, nor is the iconic blood-filled elevator scene. Characters are much more nuanced in the book than in the film as well. Jack Nicholson’s character of Jack Torrance is shown struggling with his state of mind a lot more and Shelley Duvall’s iteration of Wendy is a lot weaker than is described in the book. 

The film’s current critical success shows that adapting a novel in this manner can still be successful just as long as there is still a creative vision held paramount. 

The Hobbit Trilogy

The Lord of the Rings trilogy comes to around 1200 pages in total and warranted three critically acclaimed film adaptations in order to do the story justice. On the other hand, The Hobbit has a much smaller page count of around 300 but was also adapted into three films. 

After directing the seventeen-time Oscar-winning trilogy ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Peter Jackson was eventually approached to direct The Hobbit. Favouring a trilogy was a gargantuan proposal since the source material would be stretched extremely thin across three movies, but Jackson wanted the story to feel as epic as his previous trilogy. 

Commercially, the films were a huge success but were met with poor reception from fans and critics. ‘Bloated’, ‘bland’ and ‘simply unnecessarily long’ are all common critiques of the trilogy.  

By stretching out the novel’s 300 pages into nearly eight hours of film, new plotlines were added. Diluting a brief but brilliant story in The Hobbit is a perfect example of how not to adapt for the screen and can potentially be blamed for middling success in recent Middle-earth properties.  

It is always a difficult subject to approach; adapting someone else’s work. Many of the best examples choose the safer option of sticking close to the source material. Removing threads as seen with The Shining can upset the author but adding arcs as Jackson did with The Hobbit can upset a fanbase.  

There is a clear trade-off between critical and commercial success. We regularly see studios split films into multiple parts to make money; often met with good revenues and poor ratings. But when a visionary is at the wheel and does not alter a novel’s cohesion drastically, it can be quite easy to convert a book’s fanbase into a fanbase for the big screen. 

Image credits: Ed Robertson on Unsplash

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