This weekend, the first of two major Stephen King book to film adaptations coming out this fall will arrive. While there's an enormous amount of anticipation for these two films, there is also a certain level of apprehension. While there are some great Stephen King cinematic adaptations, many are horrible.
That begs the question, why do so many book to film adaptations fail with the critics, the fans, and at the box-office?
On paper, book adaptations seem like a guaranteed bet. When making a movie, two of the most important questions decision makers ask are:
(1) Is the story compelling?
(2) Is there an audience for this story?
A hit book demonstrates that both the story works and there is an audience for the story. More importantly, there is a built in-audience that can be marketed to directly. From the beginning of production, there’s a clear idea what the story will be, and who the marketing team needs to attract. As guaranteed as this formula sounds, it frequently ends in disastrous results.
Take for example, The Circle (2017). The film is based off of a popular book of the same name from awarded author Dave Eggers. The book and film tackle the highly relevant subjects of social media and internet/reality TV fame, and it features a diverse cast of popular stars (Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega). The film was released just weeks after Emma Watson’s Beauty and the Beast (2017) made nearly $200,000,000 in the U.S. alone in its opening weekend. The film had popular source material, a built in audience, a star studded cast, and a nicely timed release, but the film failed to resonate with critics or audiences. The film ended up with a 15% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it made only $30 million worldwide (significantly less than 10% of what Beauty and the Beast made in the U.S. alone).
How did a movie with so much going for it fail so miserably? Why do so many adaptations seem to end up more like The Circle than the Harry Potter series?
MOVIES | Movies are Complex and Collaborative
Why is it so difficult to create a great film adaptation of a great book?
THE SIMPLE ANSWER:
It’s incredibly difficult to make a great movie.
There’s nothing easy about writing a great book, but the process is, essentially, fairly simple. At the core of creating a great book is simply a great writer with a great idea taking the time to write the story. The only significant cost is the author’s time and perhaps some research.
The process for creating a great film is infinitely more complex. Even if you ignore all of the complexities of studio politics, budgeting, and producers, there are far more places for a film to go horribly wrong. It’s often said that the film is created by the screenwriter with the script, the director while shooting, and the editor while editing. At any point along the way, if something goes wrong, a solid idea for a movie can turn into the next disaster.
For Stephen King to write a great book, he needs a great idea and a few good months in the office. For that Stephen King novel to turn into a great movie, the entire cast, crew, and studio needs to have a solid year of great work.
The main reason it’s hard to make a great book adaptation is that it’s hard to make a good movie.
THE STORY | Books and Movies Tell Stories Differently
What I’m about to say isn’t particularly insightful, but it’s incredibly important to keep in mind.
Books and movies are different!
The experience of a literary story-telling exclusively involves the audience reading or hearing words and constructing the story in their minds. They require the reader to actively create images in their mind, and most books not aimed for young children are intended to be read over a long period of time. As a point of reference, The Circle audio book is over 10 hours long, and several Stephen King audio books are over 40 hours long. The assumption is that a book will be consumed over a course of days, weeks, or maybe even months.
However, cinematic story-telling is a passive multi-sensory experience where the story is interpreted into moving images and sound (including music) for the audience. The use of images and music create a great sense of urgency and presence in the story telling, and the assumption is that a film is to be consumed in a single sitting.
Since books aren’t meant to be started and finished in a single sitting, the story telling is done in a way where there are frequent breaks (chapters). With a film, the only intended on-ramp is the beginning and the only expected off-ramp is the closing credits. Therefore, the flow and pacing are uniquely important to movies. Likewise, books allow for the reader to see inside the thoughts of the characters in ways which are very difficult to convey in film. Conversely, films can convey stories and emotions using images, sound, and music.
This doesn’t make one better than the other. It simply means that they are different.
While a great story is a great story no matter what, each method of storytelling has different advantages and disadvantages. Certain stories lend themselves better to different methods of storytelling to best capture the impact of the story. Some books very naturally translate to cinematic storytelling, but others require far more translation.
So, what seemed like an advantage in adapting a book to film (a story which connects with an audience) can become a liability by failing to acknowledge that part of what the audience connected with was the story-telling. By adapting the book to film, a key element to why the story connected with the audience is radically changed.
THE AUDIENCE | Two Audiences = Two Goals
Finally, the studio strategy of adapting an existing property with a built-in audience inevitably leads to conflicting goals. The purpose of adapting a book to film isn’t to simply appeal to fans of the books. The desire is to take that story to a wider audience. One of the benefits of adapting a book is the existing audience, but the goal is to reach a broader audience. This means the film from the beginning has two different audiences, with two different relationships with the film. Inevitably, this leads to the film having multiple goals:
- The existing audience wants a faithful adaptation of the book.
- The new audience wants a great movie.
Fans of the book naturally watch the film and compare it to the story that was created in their mind. Before they even see the film, they start to judge the film based off of the casting and the trailer. This causes filmmakers to have a vested interested in making decisions that please the existing fans.
However, filmmaking requires translating and adapting a literary story to film; changes have to be made. The story usually needs to be condensed, the structure and pacing need to be significantly adjusted.
Early in the process, the filmmakers have to decide how faithful to the source material they want to be. This is an incredibly delicate balance. We can all think of films that veer so far from the source material that it’s unclear why they chose to adapt the story in the first place. Other adaptations struggle due to sticking rigidly close to the source material. Still other films seem to find that right balance. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining takes significant liberties with the source material, but the end result was a highly respected film (even though Stephen King has had some harsh words for it).
At the time of this writing, The Dark Tower is still a couple of days away from being released. The film is based off of The Dark Tower book series written by Stephen King over several decades. As of right now, the film hasn’t been screened for critics, and the buzz surrounding the film is not good. All things considered, it’s not surprising. The book series has a strong, loyal fan base with strong opinions on the material, and the story is far too encompassing to be translated directly to the screen. The end result is a film that is too weird and niche for the general public, but which is too mainstream and polished for fans of the book. This is the tension of adaptations.
We shouldn’t be surprised when an adaptation turns out poorly, but we can certainly respect the films that do manage to do it well.