Thursday, July 30, 2009

Books to Movies

This week I saw the film of HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. I enjoyed it very much. Everything in it was wonderfully rendered. As usual, though, so much had to be left out. One of the production staff has been quoted as saying that to include everything in the novel would have required eight hours. Well, yeah. The natural medium for a novel adaptation is a TV miniseries, not a novel. And, yes, I know a film can’t be a word-for-word transcription of a book. Still, I watch movies based on novels in hopes of seeing the story transferred to the screen as faithfully as possible. If the producers don’t like the original story well enough to aspire to that goal, why do they bother with it at all? (Which, fortunately, isn’t the case with the makers of the Harry Potter film series. I’ve seen a few screenplay adaptations to which my reaction was an infuriated, “If you wanted to make up your own darn story, why didn’t you do so and call it something else, instead of exploiting a perfectly good book?”)

The HALF-BLOOD PRINCE movie opens with spectacular scenes of dark magic attacks on Muggles, including the collapse of a bridge. That montage represents a good choice to show events only mentioned in dialogue in the book. The book’s delightful first scene, however, a meeting between the British Prime Minister and the Minister of Magic, was omitted. (I’ve read that it was “in and out” several times in the course of production, so I hope it will be an outtake on the DVD.) The movie skimps on visits to Voldemort’s past, which I consider the heart of the story. The investigation of the Half-Blood Prince’s identity gets pushed into the background. And we never actually see Snape teaching Dark Arts, quite a disappointing omission, even though it doesn’t hurt plot development.

There’s one added event that's not in the book, wholly gratuitous in my opinion (and setting up a problem for the adaptation of THE DEATHLY HALLOWS), but I won’t describe it because of the spoiler factor. I can give an example, though, from another epic fantasy film—PRINCE CASPIAN. An inordinately big chunk of the middle of that movie comprises an attack on Miraz’s castle that isn’t in the book at all and includes jarringly out-of-character actions and dialogue from Peter. This intrusion occurs at the expense of leaving out the long, thematically vital sequence in the novel where Aslan leads Susan, Lucy, and a troop of dryads and other pagan creatures across Narnia to join the final battle. What a disappointment that loss was!

The way I see it, in filming a book there are good alterations, omissions, and additions, and there are gravely misguided ones. Too often, producers and directors seem tone-deaf as to which is which.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. Why do they bother making a movie out of a novel?

    Money, of course. A best selling novel reaches less than about a third the audience that a medium movie will reach.

    But the thing is, producers and editors have no clue as to WHY a particular bit of art is popular.

    And to make a movie costs huge amounts more than to publish a book, so it's a matter of how much capital is put at how much risk.

    They think they have less risk to the capital invested in a movie if they base the movie on a book.

    No, that's not right.

    It's more that they do have less risk to the movie's investors if they can SAY THEY BASED IT ON A POPULAR BOOK (as opposed to making up a new story).

    But if you read reviews, you will note that no two readers read the same book, even if the words are the same.

    Likewise with movie-goers, but more so with novels where the reader must interpret so much and add in their own art.

    So the book you read is not the book the producers (or screenwriters) read.

    Likewise, the film structure which I've written of at length on this blog, is very different from the usual novel structure.

    Today's most popular novels are structured more like scripts, but POTTER novels are not.

    So the screenwriter must lift out a thread from the tapestry of the novel, and showcase that thread by supplying the missing parts out of his own imagination.

    They just need to put in enough of the book so they can claim "based on" and the only reason to do that is to reassure investors who put up money before "development."

    Novelists can only protect themselves and their fans from this process by writing the novel in the form (beat sheet) of the screenplay to begin with.

    My novel, DUSHAU, is an example of that -- but there are better ones.

  2. "Novelists can only protect themselves and their fans from this process by writing the novel in the form (beat sheet) of the screenplay to begin with."

    I do that now anyway, but only because structuring a novel doesn't come naturally to me. One of the editors who requested the Full of MANIC KNIGHT commented that it was very well structure with nothing extra, no dragging or sagging, so I think I must be on to something here. Alas, still no word, but I'm distracted by other things now.

  3. I read the all five books of harry potter and i enjoyed it. Yesterday i saw a Half blood prince i like this movie.

  4. I saw Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince a couple of weeks ago, and enjoyed it very much... although I missed the Dursleys, and the various magic lessons, and felt that there was a little too much of Bellatrix and Fenrir whizzing around like recycled dementors.

  5. The scene with the Dursleys was one I missed, too. I hope they won't omit the final farewell to the Dursleys from the film of DEATHLY HALLOWS.

  6. Like it or scorn it as a rationale, the previous books were consistent with the premise that as long as Harry spent the summer holidays of his minority in the home of his mother's sister, he was shielded from the dark lord.

    The Hallows/Horcruxes thread becomes all the more confusing if that premise is forgotten. IMHO.