Adding Drama to Novel Adaptations

If you haven’t read or seen “The Martian” or “Inferno,” you might want to stop reading right now to avoid spoiling the ending of the stories.

“The Martian” and “Inferno” are both novels that were turned into movies. If you read both novels, you’ll notice that the ending is slightly different from the movie. That’s because the movie is more about visual drama while the novels are more about imagination and intellectual satisfaction.

In “The Martian,” the hero is stranded on Mars and with the help of NASA, has found a way to blast off the surface to meet the orbiting spaceship. The problem is that he doesn’t quite reach the necessary orbit to meet the spaceship. In the novel, he stays strapped in a capsule and awaits one of his fellow astronauts to float out to him and grab him. Visually, that’s boring because there’s no risk of danger and the hero remains passive.

Here’s how they rewrote the ending in the movie. Once the hero realizes he’s too far away from the orbiting spaceship, he unstraps himself from the capsule and against orders, punctures his suit to provide an air leak so he can steer himself towards the orbiting spaceship. Instead of just his fellow astronaut reaching out to grab him, the captain of the spaceship goes out to grab him instead. This raises the stakes because the captain is a far more important person than just another crew member.

By modifying this ending, the hero is pro-active in saving himself (while in the novel he’s more passive awaiting rescue) and the spaceship captain risks her own life to rescue him. That ups the dramatic stakes and makes the movie ending far more emotionally satisfying than the novel ending.

In the novel “Inferno,” the hero races to figure out clues so he can stop a virus from being released, but in the novel, the virus has already been released and it’s relatively benign in that it doesn’t kill people but makes one-third of people sterile to reduce overpopulation. In the novel, this is intellectually satisfying but in a movie, this is visually boring. The hero spends his whole time trying to stop a virus from being released and he’s too late, which means he ultimately fails.

In the movie, they changed this to having the hero stop the virus from being released. It’s not as intellectually interesting as the novel version, but it’s far more visually dramatic. After all, you can’t have the hero rushing to achieve a goal and then fail.

The lesson from both “The Martian” and “Inferno” is that when telling a story, strive to make it as dramatic, risky, and important as possible. In “The Martian,” the lesson is to make the hero pro-active in achieving a goal and create more consequences if the hero should fail along with making other people fail if the hero fails.

In “Inferno,” the lesson is that you can’t have the hero struggling to achieve a goal and then fail, which is what happens in the novel.

Whether you’re a novelist or screenwriter, think visually, think big, think dramatic, and most of all, think of keeping your hero pro-active and successful in the end. “Inferno” as a novel is great right up until the end when we realize the hero failed in his quest but everything turns out okay anyway. “The Martian” is great as a novel, but the movie ending is far more dramatic and interesting than the novel’s ending.

Novelists should learn from screenwriters and create better endings. Novels engage the mind’s imagination and force the reader to be more active. Movies don’t engage the mind’s imagination as much so they have to do more work for the audience.

It’s rare that a novelist can adapt his or her book to the screen successfully, but as “Cider House Rules” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” demonstrates, it’s possible only if the novelist reimagines the story from a movie point of view.

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