4 Times When the Movie Needs to be Different than the Book

Many people comment on the ways that filmmakers can change things when they adapt books. What few people talk about is the fact that sometimes, that’s a good thing.

Certainly, there are plenty of adaptations that don’t fully work because they omit things that were crucial for the story to make sense, or add things that don’t fully mesh with the story. But there are book adaptations that work well because they recognize they can’t do everything the book did and just focus on what they can do well.

Here are four situations when a movie adaptation should be different, based on well-known adaptations that changed things.

1. When Exploring a Different Concept

When you want to explore an idea that fits the character but wasn’t in the original story, it may be worth changing things up.

Take the movie Batman Returns, which opens with a shocking scene where the Penguin’s parents drop him into a sewer. While there are some Batman comics where we learn the Penguin was rejected by his family, the sewer element was totally new.

However, the sewer scene creates a strange feral background for the Penguin, which contrasts really sharply with the way he tries to present himself as a cultured, intelligent man to other people in the movie.

That conflict between the Penguin’s animal qualities and his human qualities becomes one of the movie’s strongest points.

2. When Times Have Changed

The way people perceive different things changes over time, and if a story relies heavily on a concept or idea people see differently than they used to, you may need to change the story.

The 2002 movie The Bourne Identity starts just like the book it’s based on, but about halfway through becomes drastically different. Since both stories rely heavily on twists and shocking reveals, I won’t give too many details, but a big part of the book is the American government trying to capture an “international assassin” called Carlos the Jackal.

This plot point featured in a 1988 miniseries based on the book, but the 2002 movie leaves it out entirely – and arguably works well because it does that. The book and the miniseries describe Carlos the Jackal, named after a real terrorist, as being a glamorous killer. This worked in the 1980’s because many terrorists at the time were Europeans or Latin Americans with political rather than religious motives.

After events like 9/11, the public perception of terrorism changed, and you couldn’t describe terrorists as being glamorous. So, by leaving that plot point out, the 2002 movie becomes less time-bound and accessible.

3. When the Story’s Too Long

Even unusually long movies like The Lord of the Rings can only hold your attention for so long and tell so many complete stories about the different characters. Sometimes, you just have to cut back.

The Godfather does this rather well, covering most of the book’s story faithfully but leaving out a large subplot. Halfway through the book, just after the main character has fled the country, the story shifts to talking about the main character’s father. It covers the father’s family background, where he came from in Italy, how he came to be a mobster, and how he became so successful that people started calling him “The Godfather.”

This subplot works fine in the book and really complements the main character’s story. But in a movie it would seem confusing to just stop after the main character did something exciting and go back in time to describe his father’s childhood. The movie wisely leaves the subplot out, saving it for the sequel.

4. When the Story’s Too Complex

Some stories have multiple levels to them – they shift narrators, cover several time periods simultaneously, even have story within a story frameworks. While you can do some of this in a film, you usually can’t do it to the same extent. So, you must simplify things.

You see this in The Princess Bride, which tells the story of Buttercup and Wesley as well as the story of the little boy having the story read to him by his grandfather. As Slate contributor Marissa Martinelli pointed out, the book (also written by William Goldman) makes that story within a story more complex.

In the book, the little boy is Goldman himself, so he tells the story and how his father figure read it too, but also goes on tangents about his extensive writing career, a fictitious family life, how he’s really giving an abridged version of the original book because the full version has all kinds of unnecessary supporting details, alternate versions of a scene he didn’t like… And if this sounds complicated, there’s also an edition published after the movie came out with new tangents about that process.

The book is really telling three (with later editions four) stories at the same time. A straight movie adaptation of that would make Inception look like a nice family romp.

Goldman wisely sticks with just the first two stories, which captures some of the humor and complexity while leaving time to focus on a few key characters.

What’s one movie you think benefited by not totally following the book? Leave a comment and let us know!


G. Connor Salter has had over 150 articles published, including contributions to Aphotic Realm and Area of Effect. His ebook Sunrise Over Beijing is available through Amazon.

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