Hollywood is risk-aversive so they constantly try to turn books into movies. The logic is that if a book is popular, turning the story into a movie will also be popular. Yet this strategy fails so often that it’s more common for a book to fail as a movie than for it to succeed.
The latest batch of book-to-movie failures include “The Goldfinch”, “Mortal Engines,” and “A Wrinkle in Time.” Part of the reason why books fail as movies is because novels tell stories differently than movies.
A novel tells a story through the thoughts and emotions of the characters. Movies tell a story visually through the actions of the characters.
Even worse, books can be popular but still poorly structured, so when the screenwriter tries to faithfully adapt a novel as a screenplay, it simply doesn’t work.
In “A Wrinkle in Time,” the novel is poorly structured because we never learn about the secondary characters. They simply pop up fully formed and never change over the course of the story. The movie follows this same structure and because we can’t get into the thoughts and feelings of the characters, we have no idea why they’re acting the way they do.
On the other hand, read “The Hunger Games” or “Room” and those novels are structured exactly like a screenplay where we get to know the characters and their actions foreshadow events later in the story. “Room” was actually written as a screenplay first and then rewritten as a novel.
This emphasizes the importance of structure in a story. In a good story, we’re taken along from start to finish to learn about sympathetic characters. In poorly structured novels such as “A Wrinkle in Time,” characters are thrown at us out of the blue and we’re supposed to accept, like, and understand their motives right from the start with no sense of logic or foreshadowing.
Hollywood is littered with books-to-movies that flopped. Books only make good movies if they’re either structured well in the first place or if the screenwriter successfully alters the story to make a compelling movie. Read the book “Forrest Gump” which is scatter-brained and poorly structured, and it barely resembles the movie “Forrest Gump” where the screenwriter made massive changes that created a far more interesting story.
The same screenwriter (Eric Roth) also turned an interesting but simple short story called “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and turned it into a drastically different and far superior movie. This story is about a man who ages backwards and starts out as an old man and gradually turns into a baby near the end of his life.
Trying to turn a poorly structured novel into a movie is difficult without drastically changing the story altogether, which Eric Roth did in both “Forrest Gump” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
When screenwriters try to faithfully follow a book that’s poorly structured, or like most YA (Young Adult) novels, which end without a satisfying conclusion, the result is always a lousy movie.
Watch “Divergent,” based on a YA novel that fails to end conclusively. Then compare that to “The Hunger Games,” where both the novel and movie end conclusively.
Just because a novel is popular and successful never means it will be successful as a movie. It all boils down to proper story structure, and Hollywood fails to remember that simple principle every time.