THE BLOG

From the Page to the Screen - Why Some Books Make Great Films

09/02/2016 12:20 GMT | Updated 08/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Excitement as well as media interest is building again as we wait to discover which of the last year's clutch of movies will be recognised at the forthcoming 88th Academy Awards.

It's interesting to note that five of the movies shortlisted as this year's Best Picture - The Big Short; Bridge of Spies (based in part on Strangers on a Bridge by James B. Donovan); Brooklyn; The Martian; The Revenant, and Room began life as books. Three recent recipients of the same accolade - 12 Years A Slave, Argo and The King's Speech - did likewise.

This, though, is the tip of the movie iceberg. So why is there a huge reservoir of films based on books but rarely, if ever, an original movie that is subsequently turned into a novel? You may find a film-jacket edition on the shelves but never an original work. Books provide filmmakers with a solid foundation from which to start, and sometimes a track record of sales that suggests a ready-made audience.

But what else makes a book good source material for a filmmaker? Plot and character are key for works that transfer most effectively to film, though not necessarily critical for all fiction. They drive the narrative in a way that film needs to capture the attention of the viewer, though in some fine examples of literary fiction - Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, for example - plot and character may be secondary to style, atmosphere and the internal dialogue, which can be harder to convey on screen. Of course, we see books all the time that that we feel could make great movies. Published this month The Long Room by Francesca Kay has a quality of plot, character and a sense of time and place that would transfer well from page to screen whilst Alan Dean Foster's recent novelisation of Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been well received and goes beyond the film.

There's a quote - nobody is completely sure to whom it is attributed - that you should 'never judge a book by its movie'. I come at this as an unapologetic book lover and even I'm aware that there are brilliant films made all the time. However, when you are watching a film you are being told what the director wants to tell you and are seeing what the director wants you to see; with a book you are being told what the author wants to tell you but what you see is left to the your own imagination.

That said, it doesn't have to be an either/or choice. The book-film-online engagement is more of a package now than a simple selection between one or other medium. Currently, the dynamic young adult market - works like John Green's The Fault In Our Stars, Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid and, of course, Suzanne Collins', is driving much of what is happening and all are also good illustrations of films bringing people back to the book. When a film has been successful, it almost always produces uplift in sales for the book. Currently we are seeing a lot of interest in Emma Donoghue's Room.

Films are an 'appointment to view' at the cinema now, with people going for a live experience. Some, though, still believe filmmakers will never win over book lovers; that film is is set up to never stand a chance to satisfy us. If a book has touched you, you tend to become fiercely protective of it. When you see the film and it's not how you imagined it would be - and it rarely if ever will be because our imaginations are peculiar to ourselves- you can feel almost affronted with the treatment given to a piece of work you value so highly. Perhaps we should try a little harder to see filmmaking as an art in its own right, try harder to see the merits in both. In the end, it's all a matter of opinion and, like all art, that's part of the joy.