Any time there’s a popular novel, Hollywood wants to turn it into a movie. More often than not, the movie fails to match the book. Just as you should study bad movies to see where it went wrong, so you should especially study bad movies based on good books to see what went wrong.
In rare cases, a movie is just as popular as the book as in the case of “The Hunger Games.” However if you study “The Hunger Games” as a novel, you’ll notice that its story structure is perfectly suited for visual story telling.
Not only is there a hero (Katniss) with a clear goal (save her little sister) and a visual challenge (survive a reality show death match) against a villain (the president of a dictatorship), but “The Hunger Games” also tells a complete story (Katniss survives the death match and helps spark a rebellion against the president).
Now study bad movies based on books and you’ll notice that the flaw is often that the novel was poorly structured in the first place. In “The Maze Runner,” a boy wakes up to find himself trapped in a maze and he tries to discover why he’s there and what’s the purpose of the maze. By the end of the novel (and movie), the boy (and the audience) still has no idea why the boy was in the maze or what its purpose might be.
This incomplete ending in the novel is meant to entice you to read the next book in the series, but as a movie, “The Maze Runner” is frustrating and disappointing because it’s incomplete.
Read “A Wrinkle in Time” and it’s an odd children’s story about a girl who’s trying to find her father who disappeared in a strange science experiment. However, the novel doesn’t clearly define the strange world that the hero enters with the help of three powerful women who help her enter this strange world.
Because these women seem to appear for no reason and have no goals of their own other than to advance the plot, the story in both the novel and movie feels empty and meaningless. Not surprisingly, “A Wrinkle in Time” as a movie made little sense and bombed. Even as a novel, it makes little sense when you analyze its story structure, and that’s its fatal flaw.
Another bad movie based on an equally poor novel is “Mortal Engines,” which is about a future world where cities roam the land, looking to swallow smaller cities for their resources. While an interesting premise, “Mortal Engines” (the novel) doesn’t create a hero who wants anything. As a result, he simply drifts along with other people taking action to save him while he’s mostly a bystander.
In a novel, this is boring. As a movie, this is a death knell for telling a story. Not surprisingly, “Mortal Engines” bombed at the box office as well.
Read “The Da Vinci Code” and it’s a page turner filled with action and intellectual puzzles. Translate this to a movie and the movie comes across as improbable action minus much of the intellectual puzzle that the novel’s hero (and reader) gets to experience.
Not all novels are well-structured, which explains why so many movies have to change the story to tell it visually. By studying these differences between telling a story as emotional thoughts in a novel and telling the same story visually in a movie, you can better understand the importance of story structure in defining your own screenplay.