Film vs. Novel: What Makes Them Different?


Lets say you think of an amazing three act story that you want to create. “I think I just” “yeah” “I just had an idea” The first question you have to ask yourself is What do you make? Should your story be written as a movie or a novel? It’s a simple question, but the answer gets complicated because of how often stories get retold in different artforms The majority of highest grossing and most critically acclaimed movies were adapted from novels and many unforgettable stories became famous both as a novel and as a film but each of these stories is presented differently depending on the medium used so what’s the difference between telling a story through a film and through a novel What can a novel convey well that a film may have trouble with? When I was in high school, I read “How to Write a Movie in 21 Days.” The first chapter of the book provides an interesting thought experiment to consider the differences between a novel and a screenplay. The experiment asks you to think of a scene and write that scene both as a novel and as a movie. Consider a scene where a robber breaks into a home to steal something. In a novel, we may get the inner thoughts of the robber before the robbery. The robber and his predicament get described to us through various literary devices. no other option and with the shaking
hand he lifted the hammer and smashed the window shattering the glass in his
expectations for a quiet life free of Where the novel stands out is its ability to put us in the thoughts and perspective of a character so smoothly. Of course, movies do the same thing. Movies narrate, have voice-overs and even talk directly to the viewer but the novel can transition from thought to action so seemlessly to the point where the vast majority of some novels can take place completely within the mind of a character and the story can remain gripping and moving. In movies, action is more common than just thinking. “Alright, you just need to calm down. We need to think for a second.” “We just need to think this out.” “Fuck thinking, we need to act.” It’s rare for a movie to spend the whole time narrating because it would get boring but novels are different. Instead of showing a character, a novel completely inhabits the mind of a character in the world of the narrative. Novels can tells us how a person is feeling, tell us what something looks like, or what something tastes like in a way a movie has trouble with. “Catcher in the Rye” wouldn’t work very well as a movie because movies are best at showing action and movement. The vast majority of “Catcher in the Rye” takes place inside the mind of Holden, and little action occurs as Holden ponders. So when a scene consists of nothing but Holden sitting on a train thinking, the novel is the best method for bringing Holden’s thoughts and character to life While there are definitely good movies that showcase a character’s thoughts, novels do it better. In the adaptation of “The Hunger Games” from the novel to the big screen, the writers had to do away with a lot of what was going on inside Katniss’s head because it didn’t transition well to screen. In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss has to fake a romance with Peeta to win affection from the viewers and in the first two books, she constantly thinks about Gale back home and has an inner struggle about whether or not she likes Gale or Peeta The movies almost entirely do away with this plotline in the earlier films because it’s really awkward adding love triangle to a film that has no action associated with it. Movies aren’t good at thoughts. They’re good at actions. The “Great Gatsby” film adaptation has several differences with the novel and it capitalizes on what movies do better than books. They show. To show Gatsby’s anxiety towards seeing Daisy, he orders a ridiculous amount of flowers for the house and hires dozens of servants to redecorate Nick’s lawn. The visuals show Gatsby’s overpreparation and anxiety from seeing Daisy. The scene of him waiting for Daisy has the ever-increasing volume of the time ticking in the background as we get closer and closer to the clock. “I can’t wait all day. I’m leaving” Along with DiCaprio’s performance all the elements of the scene–the editing, sound, visuals and acting–convey the sense of anxiety Gatsby has.
The novel does it a little bit differently. The novel has no flowers delivered and only
one of Gatsby servants comes to mow the lawn. Instead of representing nerves
through big visuals we get told about Gatsby’s nerves through literary devices. Both scenes are written very similarly with
almost the same dialogue and action but the subtle differences between the
movie’s visuals and the novel’s descriptions are how two different art
forms convey the same mood. The novel tells us about his nerves through
description and the movie shows us his nerves through editing, lighting, sound
and acting. So what would a robbery look like as a movie? To play to the strengths of
film when it comes to conveying the robber’s hesitation and regret we would
show rather than tell. Maybe we get a close-up of his trembling hand or sweat on his brow. Maybe he’d be dressed in everyday attire instead of the typical
robber gear. The shots could be close ups and point-of-view shots to place us into
his perspective and empathize with him and the shots could be edited very quickly to up the pace and anxiety of the scene. These visuals are what would make the
story powerful. For the novel, metaphors tone, hyperbole and all the other
countless literary techniques are the key to telling a story and lighting,
camera angle, actor placement and other cinematic techniques are how movies
show a story. Different techniques with different strengths and weaknesses.
Movies show. Novels tell. Many people on the internet loathe movies that don’t stay
true to the novel’s they are based on. There are a lot of reasons for the
changes from novel to screen like fitting feature-length screen time and a
desire to appeal to a larger audience but I think one key difference some
people miss is that movies can’t always replicate the mood of a novel because
movies have to present the story with different techniques. Perhaps “The Great
Gatsby” wasn’t a good adaptation because it focused too heavily on the visuals of
the story and not the emotion behind it. Take this excerpt from the novel That moment is recreated
in the movie like this “He seemed to be reaching towards
something out there in the dark.” The movie doesn’t come close to capturing the moment correctly. In the novel, Gatsby can be seen trembling even from a distance
with both arms stretched out. It’s obviously a very personal moment for Gatsby, where he looks extremely desperate almost pathetic with such dramatic body
posture. In the movie he just does this. No trembling. Just one arm. Not
embarrassing, not intimate. It’s completely casual and this is the whole
point of the scene. It’s supposed to be a very uncomfortable moment to see Gatsby’s desperate and weak side but the movie recreates this moment totally wrong. The movie’s visuals made Gatsby look so cool and his life so dazzling that we
miss how he’s not just a cool rich guy with a weakness for a girl. He’s actually
an extremely empty, hollow failure that’s anything from great. The movie’s visuals
along with the modern score made Gatsby’s character much less moving and pathetic
like the novel did. So sometimes the movie gets it wrong. There are many more
examples where the movie does it write and maybe even better. What better way to show the clamor of a foreign world than to go from a world in black and white to
a world in color? What better way to show a narrator dominating the scene than by
having him look straight at us and introduce us to the world himself? What
I’m saying is that for every poor adaptation there are dozens of examples
proving otherwise. Many stories work very well on screen and off so I don’t think
movie adaptations of a book are cursed to be worse than the book. I just think
that sometimes the filmmaker doesn’t bring the emotion of the book onto the
screen properly. So the next time you read a book or watch a movie ask yourself does it show or tell? “I know kung-fu.”

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