There’s often a huge difference between a novel and a movie, which explains why so many good novels get turned into bad movies. The biggest problems with novels are that they often contain too many characters to help immerse the reader into the story world, the hero is often more passive in letting events happen, and that novels often don’t wrap up loose ends as tightly as they should.
If you read “The Hunger Games” novel, you’ll notice that Peeta’s mother appears when he throws Katniss some bread to eat, and that Katniss runs into a girl who tries to escape the confines of their district, only to get caught and have her tongue cut out. While getting prepped for the Hunger Games, Katniss later runs into this girl.
From a novel point of view, these added characters make the story world more convincing, but from a movie point of view, these added characters are unnecessary and distracting. “The Hunger Games” worked as a movie because the story structure is largely the same as what you need for a movie. Similar movies based on novels such as “The Golden Compass” or “Divergent” are less successful because these novels are less structured like a movie.
In many novels, events happen to the hero who then responds. In movies, that can never happen. The hero must always be proactive. In the novel “A Clockwork Orange” the hero kills a man in prison so the authorities choose him as their test subject. In the movie “A Clockwork Orange,” the authorities are looking for a test subject and the hero deliberately steps out of line to volunteer. Novels can tell us what happens, but movies must show us what happens.
In the novel “Pinocchio,” Pinocchio helps his dad climb out of the whale’s mouth because it sleeps with its mouth open. In the movie, Pinocchio helps build a fire to make the whale sneeze so they can get out. What’s more exciting? Watching a hero escape danger because there just happens to be an opening or because the hero helped create that opening?
That’s the difference between novels and movies. Novels can get sloppier but that sloppiness translated into a movie means creating a bad movie. Stephen King novels often translate into mediocre movies because much of horror occurs in the mind and the imagination, which movies can never duplicate successfully. “The Shining” deviated from the novel considerably to create greater horror on film.
In Stephen King’s novel “Salem’s Lot” the villain hides in a boarding house where the hero must confront him. In the TV movie, the director wisely chose to make the hero confront the villain (a vampire) in his mansion. That creates a greater sense of fear and also keeps the story from wandering off into a new direction by introducing a totally new setting. Novels often have characters wander in and out of settings that are used once or twice. Movies should strive to keep characters in the same settings as much as possible for greater unity and also for budgetary considerations so the film crew doesn’t have to travel to five different places to film a scene that could be shot in one place instead.
Novels are often sloppier than movies, so it’s no surprise that Hollywood turns sloppy novels into mediocre movies. If you’re writing a novel, you’ll do best by thinking in terms of a screenplay first. That means using the fewest characters and setting as possible and keeping your hero proactive. Movies must also show us what happens so we can experience that scene. Novels can tell us what happens and let us read the minds of the characters. Since that’s impossible to duplicate in movies, screenplays need to always show us what happens and let us live vicariously through the movie characters.
Study novels made into movies and notice the changes they made to make the movie better. Also notice what changes the movie didn’t make that made the movie boring. There’s a huge difference between novels and movies, so make sure you can see the difference so you don’t duplicate the common mistakes that Hollywood repeats over and over again.