One of the more popular dystopian youth novels is “The 5th Wave” by Rick Yancey. Yet one of the worst dystopian youth movies was also “The 5th Wave.” How did Hollywood botch a perfectly good book and create a boring movie? If you’ve read the book and watched the movie, you can see several glaring problems.
One crucial problem lies in the nature of books and movies. In a book, you want plenty of details and thinking to get into a character’s head and immerse yourself in another world. In a movie, you can’t get get into a character’s head to learn what he or she may be thinking. Because movies are more visual, it’s difficult to translate the appeal of a book into the visual aspect of a movie.
In the book, “The 5th Wave” focuses much time on the hero (Cassie Sullivan) trying to figure out if a handsome boy is really going to help her or kill her. Tension increases even more when she realizes that this handsome boy was the sniper who actually shot her and has killed multiple people while nursing her back to health. In the book, this tension is enjoyable because you don’t know for sure who this handsome boy might be and what his plans might be for the hero.
In the movie, “The 5th Wave,” it’s impossible to dwell on the hero’s fears and hopes about whether this handsome boy is trying to kill her or save her, and if he’s the sniper who shot her, why is he suddenly helping her? Because the movie can’t immerse the audience into this dilemma, it simply glosses over it in a few simple scenes that essentially gut any emotional tension from this dilemma.
In the book, the story focuses on the hero, then suddenly shifts to a handsome boy the hero first had eyes for and his adventure being turned into a soldier. Suddenly ignoring the hero to focus on a new character works in the book because it further immerses us into the new world of aliens trying to exterminate the human race.
Yet in the movie, you want to stay focused on your hero as much as possible. When the movie cuts away to this other character and ignores the hero for close to half the movie, that breaks the audience’s emotional link to the hero.
Think of every great movie and you’ll realize that most of the screen time focuses on the hero. In “Star Wars,” there are a handful of scenes with Darth Vader in the Death Star that doesn’t include Luke, but for the majority of the film, the emphasis and focus is always on Luke. This lets us see Luke evolve and change as he struggles to overcome various problems.
In the movie “The 5th Wave,” just as we start cheering the hero, the story cuts away for long periods of time to focus on a new character. While this other character’s story eventually merges with the hero’s in the end, there’s a huge chunk of action scenes that don’t involve the hero at all. So rule number #1 when writing a screenplay is to stay focused on the hero as much as possible.
Can you think of any great movie that ignored the hero for long periods of time?
The flaw with “The 5th Wave” is that the story is structured fine for a book, but not for a movie. Another fatal flaw in both the book and the movie is that the villain is never defeated in the end.
For some odd reason, the villain decides to blow up his own military base in the end to evacuate. Yet there’s no compelling reason to do so because there’s no threat. Even worse, the hero’s goal is to rescue her little brother, which has zero effect on the villain’s goal. Ideally, you want a battle to the death where only one can win. If the hero wins, the villain loses. If the villain wins, the hero loses.
In “The 5th Wave,” the hero wins but the villain never loses. In fact, the villain doesn’t even care about the hero’s little brother because he has no effect on the villain’s long-term plan. Because the hero never defeats the villain and the villain never loses, the ending is far less satisfying.
Imagine if in “Star Wars,” Luke never blew up the Death Star and the Death Star never threatened the rebel base. The ending would be boring because the whole movie led up to this final confrontation. In “The 5th Wave,” the story fails to lead up to a final confrontation between the hero and the villain.
In the book, the hero does face the villain, but gets away from him rather than defeat him. By letting the villain escape without losing, the ending is a let down.
Read “The 5th Wave” and you can see why it’s popular. Then watch the movie version and you’ll see why the movie flopped even though it did follow the book closely. The ultimately problem is that the story is better structured for a novel than a movie because it lacks visual conflict for the hero and it ignores the hero for long periods of time.
Sometimes stories just aren’t visual enough for a film and sometimes a story can satisfy both a book and a movie. “The 5th Wave” fails as a movie but succeeds as a book. Read the book and then watch the movie, or watch the movie and then read the book. In either case, you’ll see that the book is far superior to the movie and it’s mostly because the story’s action is far better suited for a novel than for the visual aspect of a movie.