Novels vs. Movies

Hollywood often thinks that good books can be made into good movies. Yet some of the best movies were either original stories or heavily adapted from the source material. In other words, a good book doesn’t always translate into a good movie.

The latest misfire is “The BFG,” which stands for Big Friendly Giant. This movie is based on the children’s book of the same name, written by Roald Dahl, the author who wrote “James and the Giant Preach” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” As a children’s book, “The BFG” is an enjoyable tale about a little girl who discovers a race of giants is secretly visiting cities around the world, kidnapping people, and eating them.

The movie faithfully adapts the book – and that’s its greatest weakness. With a novel, it’s easy to immerse the reader in a fantasy world. With a movie, it’s not enough to immerse the viewer in a fantasy world. At one point in “The BFG,” the hero and the giant visit the place where dreams can be captured. It’s a visually appealing scene where the hero and the giant jump into water and wound up in an upside down world. The big problem is that this scene is nothing more than eye candy.

What makes every scene in a movie interesting isn’t special effects, but drama, and you can only create drama through conflict. In this scene from “The BFG,” the hero and the giant simply explore the place where dreams are captured, but there’s zero conflict. That makes this scene relatively boring.

In the novel, it’s interesting how the hero gets the British military to capture the giants and isolate them where they can’t kidnap and eat people ever again. In the movie, it’s boring to watch the British military capture the giants and drop them off on an island where they can never eat people again. There’s simply little conflict and tension. One moment the giants are sleeping and the next, the British military is capturing them in giant nets.

Visually it’s interesting. Dramatically, it’s completely dull and boring. Yet this scene follows the book closely.

In books, it’s okay not to have so much action all the time because sparking the reader’s imagination can be entertaining enough. In movies, showing a parade of special effects is mildly interesting, but not sustaining. You can’t just show special effects and expect people to be entertained and amused for long. Even Steven Spielberg and Melissa Matheson, the screenwriter of “E.T.” can’t save “The BFG” from being just a mildly interesting film with little drama or suspense. The huge problem is that the film version of “The BFG” lacks meaningful action.

In “Star Wars,” it’s a dramatic moment when the Death Star is approaching the rebel base to blow it up. Not only is there fighting, but it’s the biggest fight of all the huge stakes in the balance. If the Death Star wins, the rebel base and Princess Leia will be destroyed. If Luke destroys the Death Star, the rebel base and Princess Leia will be saved.

In “The BFG,” there’s a bunch of sleeping giants and then they struggle as the British military captures them. The end.

Imagine if “Star Wars” had the Death Star approach and Luke blows it up before the Death Star even gets close to the rebel base. No tension, no suspense, no audience interest. That’s where “The BFG” fails in its climax. By following the book too closely, the film simply shows something happening without any real conflict or drama to make that event interesting and suspenseful to watch.

The failure of “The BFG” shows that even a top director like Steven Spielberg or a screenwriter like Melissa Matheson can’t turn a mildly interesting story into a great movie. When movies fail, it’s rarely the fault of the actors or the director but of the screenwriter. In this case, “The BFG” too closely follows the book. Instead of capturing the spirit of the book, it methodically and faithfully reproduces the book, and that made a mediocre movie.

To see a good adaptation of a book into a movie, watch “Die Hard,” which was adapted from the book “Nothing Last Forever.” Although “Die Hard” follows the book closely, it also alters the story to make a better movie.

Another great adaptation is “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which is about an American soldier captured by Germans during World War Two. The novel includes space aliens who look like plumber’s helpers with an eye on the top. The movie wisely chose to make the aliens invisible to make the scene more believable. The movie also omits major parts of the book while still retaining the spirit of the book. Ultimately the movie succeeds because it doesn’t slavishly follow the book but does successfully capture the spirit of the book in showing how to view life despite all the hardships around.

The lesson is that turning a book into a movie may not always work because books and movies are different mediums. Read a good book and then imagine how it could be a good movie. Chances are good even the best books many not always be turned into great movies, which is a lesson Hollywood still hasn’t figured out after all these decades.

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