What Makes a Successful Book to Film Adaptation?

February 20, 2014

What Makes a Successful Book to Film Adaptation?Paring three hundred or more pages down to a hundred-page script is no easy task. Making those hundred pages a critical and financial success is another feat altogether. Understanding how to properly interpret a literary work rather than just copying it into a visual one is the key to a successful film adaptation. A filmmaker has to actively engage with the material and present the essence of that story in a way that makes sense on screen. Here are some examples of successful book to film adaptations and why they worked.

Harry Potter

Adaptations can be tricky to get just right. Stray too far from the original work and you risk upsetting the book’s fanbase. Toe the line and the story becomes static and un-cinematic. The best adaptations strike the perfect balance of staying true to the source material and bringing something new to the table. The Harry Potter series is probably the best example of how a best-selling book series can transfer successfully to the big screen. With a worldwide collective box office gross of more than seven billion for all eight films, the franchise is one of the biggest financial successes of all time.

With a massive following for the best-selling books, the franchise was guaranteed a built-in audience. The real trick was keeping those loyal fans happy and coming back for more. The first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, played it safe, sticking to the book as much as possible. As critic Roger Ebert wrote, “[The movie] takes the time to be good. It doesn’t hammer the audience with easy thrills, but cares to tell a story, and to create its characters carefully.”

As the franchise continued, the filmmakers began to take more creative liberties, most notably with Alfonso Cuaron’s reimagining of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. By the series end, the films had taken on a real life of their own. Some critics, like The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, even said that the story’s finale played out better on screen than on the pages of the book.

Life of Pi

Academy Award winner director Ang Lee has made an art of adaptation: eight of his 12 feature films are based on a book, short story or comic book. Out of all of them, it is Life of Pi that stands out among his body of work as a shining example of how a filmmaker’s vision can drive the success of a book to film adaptation.

When Ang Lee first read the Booker Prize winning novel, he considered it impossible to film. Not only is the story a very internal one, but it also involves several cinematic complexities, not the least of which is working with a tiger. Yet, as the technically stunning film and Lee’s second Best Director Oscar illustrates, the impossible can become possible in the hands of a visionary filmmaker.

In an interview with Roger Ebert, Lee explained that he wanted to disguise the philosophical story as an adventure. “I thought water, with its transparency and reflection, the way it comes out to you in 3-D, would create a new theatrical experience and maybe the audience or the studio would open up their minds a little bit to accept something different.”


Faithfulness isn’t everything. In fact, many successful film adaptations are so different from the book they are merely loose interpretations of the story. One of the best and most extreme examples of this is Adaptation. Garnering numerous award nominations and wins, including the BAFTA for Best Adapted Screenplay, the film literally re-wrote the rule book on adaptations.

After years of struggling with how to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a nonfiction book about orchid poachers, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman finally hit upon the idea to write his struggle into the story. The film becomes a meditation on the art of storytelling itself and shines a light on the notion that film adaptation is less about recreating something that already exists and more about giving birth to something new and original.

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