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Why Movies from Books Often Suck


While teaching this past week, my class engaged in an interesting conversation about description. Specifically, we discussed how the level in detail in description feels akin to an extreme close-up (or wide shot) in a film. How close we enable readers to get (or not) to important details determines how effective they can be as co-authors of the version of our work in their imaginiation.

In the immortal words of Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride:

In my humble opinon, writing is about communication (wait—no, I'm sure smarter people have said and/or proven such things). And communciation is a two-way street. When communicating with readers, we share key details to help them understand the story/scene/world we create. In turn, they sign up to fill in the details that round out the vision in their imaginiation.

So that's where movies based on books run into trouble. If a reader has committed to loving a written work and supplying the missing details with their imagination, suddnely filmmakers have the work of two powerhouse co-authors to measure up to, if not surpass, to succeed. A tall order, to say the least. And it seems success occurs in only a few ways:

  1. The movie is soooooooo true to the book (i.e. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), it cannot be faulted because if you love the book, the movie is the same darn thing.

  2. The movie intentionally is NOT the book. Inspired by: yes. Same thing as: no. An example of this is World War Z.

  3. The movie is brave and opts to keep the best bits of the book and surpass expectations in the new bits (for me, examples of this are Chocolat and Stardust).

In the writing life, this concept is important in terms of providing enough telling-detail for readers to help them understand the characters, plot, and setting of a work; at the same time, it's leaving some space for the readers to communicate back—to embrace a story in their imaginiation space and fill in the details and gaps.

#moviesfrombooks #writinglife

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