[Very pleased to say that the lovely Madeline Dyer, author of The Untamed series, has volunteered to be our guest blogger. I asked her a tough question and she provided the answer. Enjoy! 🙂 ]
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Book to Movie Adaptations: When Reading is Such an Intimate, Personal Experience, Can We Ever Really Fall in Love With the Screen?
Whenever I hear that a new YA novel is being developed into a movie, I get hugely excited. This is not only because I’m a writer—and yes, I would love to see my book get optioned for the big screen—but because I love to see exactly how a certain plot has been transferred onto the screen. I want to know how the director has interpreted the book, and how his or her interpretation is different to mine.
Although on the surface, books consist of thousands of words, reading is a visual thing. And it is an intimate personal experience where we shut ourselves away from the world and rely on our ability to imagine. We read words that an author has carefully placed on a page, and we construct our own images. We see the action play out, often drawing on things we’ve witnessed or experienced ourselves in order to identify with a certain character.
One of the things that I regularly notice when reading books is to do with house layouts. Quite often, I visualise the characters living in a house that I already know. Or their high school is visually very similar to the one I went to. Maybe it’s the layout of the rooms? Or the floor-plan? But this happens time and time again: by reading another person’s words, I put my own ‘print’ on it, using what I already know as a springboard for creating the images to go alongside the book I’m reading. I imagine the small details in such a way that only I can imagine them because I’ve experienced them. And, I suspect, this is the case with a lot of readers. We combine an author’s images, with our own experiences. And, therefore, our interpretations cause us to become emotionally invested in the story. We feel the scenes speak directly to us—even if it is only subconscious—because we’re using our experiences to aid our imaginations and give us the visual images as we read.
Books give us work to do, and I believe they are highly interactive, but personal. One reader is never going to come up with the same visuals as another reader might imagine for the exact same scene in the same book. And, as a writer myself, I can almost guarantee that no reader is going to create exactly the same images in his or her head as the author did when writing. But that’s what I love about writing and reading. There’s work for both the author and the reader to do.
But what happens when someone else has already done this work? When we’re told not to imagine, not to combine images from our own experiences with someone else’s story?
Well, this is the case with a book-to-movie adaptation. Another person (most likely the director’s and/or screenwriter’s) has already interpreted the author’s words—the same words that we’ve read—and created their own version of it. Going back to my earlier point about house and school layouts, in films I often find myself confronted by rooms and corridors that are nothing like how I imagined them to be –in particular, I noticed this with the movies of TWILIGHT and VAMPIRE ACADEMY. And it disorientated me a little. It’s the same with characters; often I’m like, But who is that? He can’t be [insert name]! And then I find that he is, and I’m left feeling a bit confused, and a bit confronted. Like, Oh you were wrong! He doesn’t look like how you imagined him, he looks like this!
But then I realise that I wasn’t wrong. That character can look like a thousand different people, because he’s a character, created mainly by the author, but imagined by the reader. He’s a character, not a person who has already has a ‘set’ appearance. Sure, I’m talking minor differences really. Authors do give us descriptions. But just think about it, how many guys with dark hair, blue eyes and tanned skin do you know? Do they all look the same? Of course not! So we can’t expect to see the characters that we saw when reading the book also in the movie. It just isn’t possible.
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But you know what? At the same time, I love watching films based on books that I’ve already read because I want to see how someone else has interpreted the same words that I’ve read, but in a different way—hello, HARRY POTTER films. The differences may only be small, or they may huge. And I think that’s part of the fun of watching it—that and seeing how certain elements (things that seem impossible to deliver to a screen) have been dealt with—especially the emphasis on finding yourself and identity that seems to be so prevalent in YA fiction. So long as I remember that that this movie isn’t the book, then I can enjoy the movie. I think of the book as the original, the movie as an almost parallel universe version. There are going to be differences, because it’s based on someone else’s interpretation, not mine. And we’re not always going to agree with others’ versions of the stories that we’ve read and love. People do get upset if a film has been done badly, or at least, if it’s done not in the way that we would’ve done it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I’m sure that the strongest negative reactions to YA movie adaptations come from people who really loved the books. And because they loved the books, and they invested so much of themselves into the books, they feel entitled to a good film adaptation of it. They want their imagined images to be transferred exactly onto the big screen. They want to know that yes, they did use the imagery the author provided correctly. So when it’s someone’s interpretation, this can be a shock. And a disappointment.
Of course, there are some bad adaptations out there. Movies where the acting is wooden, important themes have been overlooked, and plots have been completely undone. I’m not disputing that. But in cases such as these, again I think you have to remember that this movie is not the book. And a movie never will be the book. Perhaps the only ‘true’ movie of a book is the one each reader creates in their mind as they read the book?
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But with any book-to-movie adaptation, you’re not going to see the exact novel’s plot on the screen. It just isn’t possible. YA novels, for example, tend to be around 80,000 words, but their movie adaptations have to be less than two hours—any longer than that just isn’t feasible. It’s just simply not possible to include everything. So decisions have to be made. Quite often, characters get cut from movies, the pace of the plot gets faster, and other things are lost—or changed for convenience’s sake—take for instance how the colour of the cat in Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES changed for the movie, for instance. There’s stuff like that, too—things that get changed because of practicalities.
One thing I’ve noticed with YA books portrayed on the screen is that the violence is either toned down, or increased, depending on who the target audience is. In general, readers of YA novels are aged between 13 and 30, but when a movie is being produced quite often a more specific age range is required for marketing purposes. And so the content is often adjusted to fit a certain age rating. This is certainly true with other story arcs too—if the book has a slow-burning love story, quite often, in the movie, the relationship will start quicker, particularly if the rest of the content (such as violence) is aimed for older teens. Producers know they need to keep people interested; they can’t afford to lose viewers. They need their adaptation to be exciting and fast-paced.
But at the same time, I think that transferring a YA novel to the screen is pretty difficult. There’s so much packed into these books (despite the apparently widespread opinion that YA novels are just adult books ‘dumbed down’—like, What? Are you serious?) but it’s done in a clever way without sounding ‘preachy’. Another thing I think is important in a YA novel is the tone it conveys and the style that it is written in, and how this helps to deliver the prominent themes—but is it realistic to be able to deliver the exact same tone in a movie where the reader interaction that helps build the importance of the tone and style has been lost? Like I said, there’s less work to do as we’ve already been given something just to watch, and not really think about. And, because of that, YA movies, in my experience, tend to focus more on the stunning visual effects and action scenes to hold a viewer’s attention rather than building an emotional connection. For me, there’s a higher chance that I won’t identify with the main character in a movie so much as I would in a novel, because I haven’t got immediate access to that characters’ thoughts—particularly if the novel is written in first person, which so many YA novels are. But, the action scenes—which let’s face it, can be hard to imagine at times, especially when they’re technical—are more likely to grab me in the movie adaption. This was certainly the case with the movie adaptation of DIVERGENT and THE HUNGER GAMES. In fact, with the latter, I loved how we got to see an extra dimension, with how the arena worked—something we didn’t get to see in the book.
Overall, I think the main thing to remember when watching any movie that is based on a novel is to realise that it is not the book. It’s just another person’s interpretation of the book. And we should only view it as that.
Madeline Dyer is the author of Untamed, a YA dystopian fantasy novel from Prizm Books (May 2015). She is currently working on book two in the Untamed Series, as well as a new dystopian trilogy for adults. Aside from writing, Madeline enjoys reading, painting, and inline skating.
Madeline can be found at: