Why Novels Don’t Make Good Movies

A novel and a movie are two different ways of telling a story. A novel lets you get into the thoughts and emotions of different characters while a movie must show you scenes and let you infer the emotions of the characters since you can’t get inside their heads. Stage plays are much closer to movies because they also force the audience to infer the motivation and emotions of characters. The difference is that stage plays convey information mostly through dialogue while movies convey information mostly through pictures.

If you read most novels, they can be emotionally engaging because the novelist puts you into the thoughts and emotions of the characters in every chapter. Yet if you study novels carefully, you’ll see that they’re much less structured than movies.

With novels, it’s easy to read a story that’s compels you to keep turning the pages only to realize the novel never ties up its loose ends in the finale. If a movie doesn’t tie up loose ends in the finale, it feels empty and unsatisfying, but novels can get away with this because the journey to the end is the main attraction while with movies, the journey must feel complete or else the movie feels unsatisfying.

If you read the novel “The Maze Runner” and its sequel “The Scorch Trial,” you’ll be sucked into the hero’s plight from page one and you’ll want to keep turning the pages until you reach the end. Yet if you analyze each novel carefully, you’ll realize they never answer their initial question.

(Spoiler alert if you don’t know anything about “The Maze Runner” or “The Scorch Trials”)

In “The Maze Runner,” the hero wakes up to find he’s trapped in a maze. The big question is why is he trapped in this maze and what do his memories mean about his past? That’s a compelling question that drives the hero to find a way out of the maze.

Yet by the end of the movie, “The Maze Runner” still never answers this question of why the hero is trapped in the maze or what his past memories mean. In the novel, this can be easily overlooked because the journey to the end was so enjoyable, but in the movie, this leaves a loose end that makes the movie feel so unsatisfying.

Imagine if “Star Wars” ended without the Death Star blowing up. Boring. Imagine if “Die Hard” ended without all the terrorists dying. Boring.

Ultimately if you read “The Maze Runner” trilogy, you’ll discover that the hero was part of a team that built a maze to test why some people were immune to a disease that’s wiping out the human race. The goal is to stress people out enough so they could analyze their immune system. Since the hero was partly responsible for designing the maze, he decided to volunteer to go into the maze, and that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Even worse, the goal of the maze is to stress people out to analyze their immune system, yet this maze also winds up killing many of the people who are immune. So the government needs people who are immune to the deadly disease so they can study them, yet the maze is killing off the very people they need to keep alive to keep studying.

In other words, the whole premise behind “The Maze Runner” makes zero sense whatsoever. That’s why the movies based on these two novels were so mediocre because they never answer the questions the story raises.

Imagine telling a story about a guy named Jack who climbs a bean stalk and finds a giant in a castle. Then the story ends without explaining what Jack found in the castle or what happened to Jack or the giant. That would make for a boring story and that’s exactly the problem with “The Maze Runner.”

Other novels suffer this same problem. “The 5th Wave” is about aliens taking over the Earth through several waves of disasters designed to destroy the human race. The 5th wave turned out to be aliens tricking children into killing the remaining human survivors. Yet the movie and novel ends with no conclusive defeat for the villain. The villain simply abandons a base and flies away.

The goal is to set the stage for a sequel, but “The 5th Wave” was such a disappointing movie that there probably will be no sequel. Even though the novel is still popular, it still tells an incomplete story, which translated into an incomplete movie.

So the lesson is that novels can get away with taking the reader through emotional journeys without a definite conclusion. Movies cannot end without a definite conclusion, which is why the movie adaptions of “The 5th Wave” and “The Maze Runner” were so mediocre.

Novelists can tell  great story without a definite conclusion. Screenwriters can’t afford this luxury. Even novelists would write better novels if they told stories with definite conclusions. “The Hunger Games” was both a great novel and a great movie because it told a complete story with a definitive ending where the hero wins and the villain loses. The sequels to “The Hunger Games” were far weaker and less compelling because each one set the stage for a sequel.

Telling complete stories is the way to success. Telling incomplete stories is the way to disappointment. Remember that the next time you watch another mediocre movie based on a best-selling novel.

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