How to Turn a Book into a Movie in Two Agonizing Steps

Intros are for people with time on their hands and you’re a busy person, so let’s get right to it. How DO you turn a book into a movie successfully, according to this nerd’s perspective?

1. Put the Book in the Blender and hit Puree

Yes, fellow bibliophiles, if you want a good movie adaptation, you must eviscerate the source material. Why? Because a book is not a movie.

A book can go on for a month because it’s so portable. Movies are best enjoyed in static settings like living rooms and cinemas and take way more electricity than books, so two hours is a healthy norm. Books use words, movies use pictures. Books use specific POVs, movies show you everything the camera sees.

A perfectly-faithful book-to-movie adaptation cannot exist any more than a banana puree can faithfully represent a banana. Same building blocks, but a totally different properties and experiences.

What’s more, a perfectly-faithful adaptation should not exist. Not only would it be dull to see everything played out exactly like you already saw in your mind (and a film can’t live up to that), but it would rob film itself of its essence. If you don’t care about movies and just want to honor the book, why bother watching or creating an adaptation in the first place?

Scenes get cut. Characters get cut. What happens here will now happen over there. Timing will change. Words will be added. Words will be deleted.

For a film adaptation to succeed, the book must be irreparably destroyed.

Good Example: The Lord of the Rings.


The extended-cut trilogy totals ten hours. To which the books replies, “How cute.”

The film succeeded in part because it cut lore, characters, and more. Tom Bombadil did nothing that couldn’t be done by another character, so they dropped him. The film uses flashbacks of Isildur because just talking about him would bore and audience to tears. Merry and Pippin didn’t join Frodo the same way they do in the book because the means didn’t matter as much as the end.

True, some changes were strange (Why so much focus on Arwen?), but the film succeeded overall in part because it didn’t try to be a book. It knew where to be faithful and where to deviate.

Bad Example: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets


Easily the most faithful of all the Harry Potter–*snore*

I love the book, but the movie always whizzed right past my radar. It’s no wonder they got a new director for the third movie, making proper changes to the books and movies alike, and becoming what many say is the best film in the series.

Too much of what you already know won’t stand out, especially since, again, what’s on screen can never perfectly match what you saw in your head.

2. Drink Down the Essence

I used the blender metaphor on purpose. What do you do when you put food in a blender and essentially destroy it? Throw it out? No. You drink it.

While the book must be destroyed, its essence must be preserved at all costs. Just because a banana is put in a blender doesn’t make it an orange puree. It’s still derived from a banana.

What made the book work? Certain characters? Keep ’em. Certain themes? Keep ’em. Details change, but the heart cannot.

Good Example: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

While the film doesn’t have time for all the memoirs of youth that make the book so grand, it keeps the most influential and iconic aspects: Atticus Finch, the trial, and Boo Radley.

Without those three things, the movie could not possible call itself by the same title as the book. It would have lost the paragon of goodness, his greatest challenge, and the mystery man whose tiny involvement gives the book its name.

True, what makes a book work doesn’t necessarily translate, but what makes a story work will certainly cross over into any medium. Characters, themes, lines, these work in both novel and film.

That’s why To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of the best films ever made: it knew what made the original story work.

Bad Example: I Am Legend


Will Smith? Good! Quiet, frightening atmosphere? Good! Changing the ending and thus the central message of the story? BAAAAAD!


I Am Legend the novel ends with Neville realizing that these monsters he’s been fighting are evolving, that they are the new normal for humanity. He is the monster, the predator they all fear. Hence the title.

The movie ends with Will Smith blowing up all the bad guys, diluting it into just another action movie.

How much more opposite can you get? Sure, the film is still entertaining, but it fails as an adaptation by gutting the key concept: Neville is the thing that goes bump in the night, and he doesn’t know it.

There’s a better ending in the deleted scenes, but audiences didn’t like it, so the powers that be changed it to be more exciting. They forgot what I Am Legend truly was: a play on the standards of monster stories, not an action thriller.

Novel Concentrate 

Novels make lousy movies. Adaptations, on the other hand, can bring a novel to a whole different audience.

The trick is to remember that it’s an adaptation. It must change to suit the new medium. This goes for movies, TV shows, web series, video games, everything. You have to put it in the blender.

But this doesn’t mean you destroy it. You puree the material so it can be digested in a new and flavorful way. True, adding Tabasco sauce to a banana is a terrible idea, but that doesn’t mean smoothies are bad in general.

Is this metaphor getting away from me? Yes, it is.

The point is this: don’t expect an adaptation to be a cut-and-paste of something you love. Hate it only when it forgets what made the book good.

And if you’re lucky enough to make an adaptation yourself one day, don’t be afraid to be creative with your interpretation. That’s what being an artist is all about.

Which adaptations do you think captured the essence of the book? Which adaptations failed? Tell me in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “How to Turn a Book into a Movie in Two Agonizing Steps

    1. Probably less to condense and translate into a new medium, I’d assume. But then again, I watched Divergent and then read the book and it was like a page-for-page copy-and-paste, almost, and that was a full-length novel.
      All that rambling to say, “I don’t know why.”


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