There’s a tendency to tell the truth rather than tell a story, and that makes the story suffer as a result. Hollywood makes this mistake in two ways. First, they’ll make a movie based on a book, but follow the book too closely. Second and more common, is that they’ll make a movie based on a true story, but stick too close to the facts so it’s not a very interesting story.
Clint Eastwood made a movie based on a novel by the same name of “White Hunter, Black Heart.” If you watch the movie, it’s actually pretty bad because what the characters do doesn’t seem to make much sense. However if you read the book first and then watch the movie, you’ll see that the movie faithfully follows the book, which is its downfall.
The novel is an interesting look at a director obsessed with shooting an elephant. The movie simply strings out the most interesting scenes from the book but doesn’t translate the book’s story well into a movie. You can see the failure of this often with Stephen King movies that are adapted from his novels.
Stephen King’s novels rely on the reader’s imagination to amplify the horror. Turn this into an image on the screen and it suddenly looks simple and boring. “The Shining” dumped much of the novel’s details and created a better cinematic experience as a result. When Stephen King turned “The Shining” into a TV movie, he kept it closer to the novel’s details, which resulted in a boring and less frightening movie.
In the novel, the idea of shrubs, in the form of animals, is frightening. In the TV movie, it just looks kind of boring. Seeing a giant shrub chasing you is far less interesting than imagining the horror of a giant shrub moving and stalking you.
One movie that got much criticism when it was released was “Munich,” which was about an Israeli team of commandos send to kill the people responsible for planning the Munich Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes. Instead of faithfully following the actual details of the Israeli team, the movie changed major details around.
In real life, the Israeli team found their targets with the help of their own Mossad agents, which is the Israeli equivalent of the CIA. In the movie, the Israeli team relies on paying an underworld figure for information, which amplifies the story when they start doubting whether this underworld figure is helping them or taking money from others to get them killed as well.
In the movie, the Israeli team finds themselves being hunted. In real life, this probably didn’t happen to the extent depicted in the movie simply because the Israeli commandos weren’t relying on buying information from an underworld figure.
“Munich” took a real life event and modified it to turn it into an interesting cinematic story. If they followed the real-life events exactly, they would have wound up producing a documentary, which is far less satisfying to watch than a story.
Back in 1986 I was an extra for a bad Vietnam movie called “The Hanoi Hilton.” This movie consisted of nothing but scenes that actually occurred at the Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. Unfortunately by following real life so closely, the movie lacked a story.
The latest multimillion dollar disaster is “Winter’s Tale,” which has gotten largely negative reviews that focus mostly on the failure of the script to tell an interesting story. While the A-list cast of actors perform well and the visual effects are decent, the story never engages the audience. By trying to follow too closely to the book, “Winter’s Tale” simply substitutes a coherent plot for random scenes that may be visually interesting but emotionally empty and meaningless.
When given a choice between being true to your source material or telling an interesting story, you want to tell an interesting story first and follow the facts second. This may mean changing or omitting facts, but it’s far better to tell an interesting story than to tell a deadly dull real story that nobody wants to watch.