Watch a movie based on a book and you can see the different changes the movie had to make to tell the same story as the book. Much of the action of a novel takes place in the reader’s imagination, so something as simple as deciding what type of coffee to buy could be an interesting scene, but in a movie, such a conflict would be visually dull. When the first “Harry Potter” movie came out, I went to see it just to see what hte excitement was all about, having never read any of the Harry Potter books. The movie immediately struck me as following the book too closely, even though I never read the book.
One scene in particular stands out when Harry Potter gets to the wizard school and some weird talking hat decides who goes into which group. Visually, this scene struck me as boring because there was no real conflict taking place. It was just some talking hat reciting names and everyone getting excited about the group they landed in. J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books had a clause in her contract that made sure the movie followed the book identically, which in my mind, made for a less than exciting movie.
Look at other movies that were turned into books and you’ll see that they often cut out whole scenes or rearrange the point of view so it tells the same story in feel, but not in exact detail. Kurt Vonnegut wrote his most famous novel called “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which is about a man who becomes unstuck in time and bounces back and forth between the past, present, and future. In the novel, he gets captured by aliens who look like plumber’s helpers complete with suction cups for their feet. In the movie, the aliens are invisible because following the book too closely wouldn’t work visually.
In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the movie’s main character is Jack Nicholson, who goes into an insane asylum and raises hell with the nurse while making friends with an Indian. In the book, the Indian is the main character who observes the hero played by Jack Nicholson in the movie, so you get a different point of view coming from the Indian instead of the Jack Nicholson character.
In “A Clockwork Orange,” the heroes wear masks of famous people like presidents. In the movie, the heroes wear masks that distort their noses. There are enough subtle differences between books and movies that if you study books made into movies, you can see how the screenwriter had to change the story to make it flow better visually.
In “The Hunger Games,” there’s an early scene where Katniss sees a girl getting picked up by the government and later runs into that girl, with her tongue cut out, when she’s about to enter the Hunger Games. In the movie, they cut that scene out because it would have slowed down the action and make no difference whether it appeared or not. In the movie, you can see that they probably filmed that scene because Katniss hides from a hovering government ship that likely captured that girl.
If you look at early drafts of “Star Wars,” you’ll find something interesting. In the movie, the action focuses on Darth Vader boarding Princess Leia’s ship, but in the early draft of the script, the action cuts between Darth Vader boarding Princess Leia’s ship and Luke hanging around with his buddies, bored to death. That’s when Luke’s best friend, Biggs, says he’s going to join the Rebellion and become a pilot. This scene was likely filmed but cut because near the end, Luke sees Biggs get shot down while attacking the Death Star.
A book tells a story in the reader’s head. A movie tells a story through the audience’s eyes. When writing your own screenplay, think visually. As an exercise, take a short story and turn it into a short script. A short story will be easy to do than a novel, but it will show you the challenges in converting a short story or novel into a movie screenplay. The more you understand how movies are told visually, the better you’ll likely create your own screenplays.