Updated: Oct 10

Once upon a time, I did a very silly thing and watched the movie The Lightning Thief after reading the Percy Jackson books. Then when I watched the making-of segment on the DVD, I couldn't believe the way Rick Riordan raved about what a great job the filmmakers had done. From my point of view, about the only thing they'd done a great job of was mangling his story!

Many of us book authors hope to one day see our stories turned into movies. However, that conversion rarely turns out well. In the vast majority of cases, the book is better, and sometimes even people who haven't read the book still hate the movie. Why is that?

I've noticed there are fundamental differences in the way a story is told in a book versus in a movie, all of which make it tough to make a good movie out of a good book. Knowing those differences will help us write better no matter which format(s) we intend to use.

(For the purposes of this post, I'll refer to the writers of books as authors and the writers of movies as screenwriters.)

Difference #1: Time/space constraints. Authors have pretty much all the time and space they need (or as much as they can get their editors/publishers to agree to) to tell their stories. Most people don't expect to read a novel in one sitting. But when people go to the movies, they expect to see a complete story in a couple of hours. So screenwriters have to get just as much storytelling done in two hours of the audience's time as authors get done in days or weeks of the audience's time.

Difference #2: Exposition. While info-dumping isn't good in either a book or a movie, authors can usually get away with more exposition than screenwriters can. Again, the audience isn't expecting to finish an entire book in one reading period. But screenwriters have to get the exposition out of the way quickly, usually within the first few minutes, or the audience gets bored. Additionally, viewers' tolerance for exposition decreases significantly the farther they get into the movie; they usually just want to get (back) to the action.

Difference #3: Methods of showing versus telling. Authors can sometimes get away with simply telling readers important information, because even a book would be way too long if everything was shown. For instance, in the novel of The Scarlet Pimpernel, the characters reflect on or talk about the Marquis de St.-Cyr's attack on Armand, but that actual scene isn't in the book. In contrast, "telling" in a movie usually involves putting information in dialogue. Screenwriters have to be careful with this because no one likes a movie in which the characters spend a lot of time talking about things rather than doing them.

Difference #4: Amounts of time needed for showing versus telling. In books, showing usually takes longer than telling. In movies, some things take longer to show than to tell (e.g., Carl and Ellie's married life in Up), but other things take less time to show than to tell (e.g., a fight scene). All of this means that when books become movies, some sections get stretched while others get compressed. This can make the pacing of the movie extremely bumpy, especially if screenwriters aren't willing to cut material.

Difference #5: Tolerance for archaic or obscure language. For both books and movies, a certain amount of old-fashioned-ness is expected in genres like fantasy or historical fiction. Authors have more freedom to use uncommon vocabulary and syntax because the audience can reread things or stop and grab a dictionary (though there's a limit to how much of this the readers will tolerate). Screenwriters have a lot less leeway because no one brings a dictionary to the movies, and people get frustrated and/or lose interest fast if they can't understand/follow what the characters are talking about.

Difference #6: Complexity. Again, this goes back to Difference #1: there's simply a lot more time/space in a book to explore characters' thoughts, emotions, past love lives, etc. Of course, authors have to show how these things relate to the main plot, but they have room to make those connections. In movies, there's often barely enough time to get all the major plot points in, let alone cover how everyone laughed at the protagonist when she lost her shoe playing dodgeball in third grade—unless that incident is really important to the main plot of the movie. And especially when subplots involve mainly internal thoughts and feelings, it's difficult to translate those subplots into a visual format. (This was one of my gripes with the later Harry Potter films. Yes, the romantic mishaps are an important subplot in book 6, but when they take up half the movie, it gets old. Really fast.)

Do you know any book-to-movie conversions that actually turned out well? What do you think made the difference? Join the discussion in the comments or on Facebook!

Write on,


(Thanks to JuniperPhoton for sharing their work on Unsplash.)