On Storytelling: A Discussion Of The Privileging Of Certain Forms Of Storytelling Over Others

Part Two: ‘They better get this adaptation right’

A few years ago, in a relatively short space of time, it was announced that a number of YA novels that I had been reading were in the process of being adapted for the screen. Naturally I was really excited to see this characters and stories that I had loved for so long were going to ‘come to life’, that I was going to be able to experience these stories in a new and exciting ways.

Yet, when the time came, I found myself sitting in a cinema with my friends, avid readers of the same books, angry at the very film I had been so excited to see.

In many cases, the films had left out parts of the novels that were dearly important to long-term fans of the respective YA series they belonged to. One film completely altered the second half of the novel’s plot. One film completely changed the tone of the story to appeal to a younger audience. Both films were widely regarded as failures and neither elicited a sequel.


There are many things that usually anger the readership of a novel adapted for the screen – casting, special effects (or lack thereof), exclusion of in jokes or major plot points, costuming, sets, the list goes on.

Casting is usually the first point of contention for the readership, as often the image of the characters they had in their mind is highly specific to their own imagination. No actor is perfectly going to match the image in your mind. The same goes for the rest of the film.

No film has ever claimed to be the novel it was adapted from. These movies often come with a note in the opening credits that mentions that the film is merely “based on” or “inspired by” the novel from which it was adapted. Adaptation is not a process of replication. It is a process of inspiration and construction of a new piece of creative material.

More importantly, film adaptations, particularly films adapted from Young Adult Fiction, have immense power, even if the films themselves are not very good. Each film and each novel are part of the same adventure into storytelling, the different forms, whilst each with their own style, form, audience and success, informing one another. Both sides introduce their audiences to each other, and encourage a crossover into experiencing different forms of storytelling. Much in the same way a popular book encourages its readers to watch the adapted film, a movie can be a gateway to discovering the particular storytelling ability of novels. After the film adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones was released, a film that was not particularly well received by the novel’s large fan base, I knew a lot of people who decided to read the series for the first time, something that made me feel that the film, despite disappointing me, had still achieved immense success. After the recent release of the popular film adaptation of Andy Weir’s The Martian, I went out and bought the book myself. These films, with different audiences, different genres and different levels of success, both had the same impact.

They made people interested in the stories they were telling.

However, it is important for me to say that the reason I view these movies with such admiration is not because they increase the novel’s readership. I’m not interested in privileging one form above the other. I’m interested in what these mediums can offer each other, with the upmost respect for the role of storyteller they offer for audiences with different interests and access.

The same goes for movies that garner more interest than the novels they are inspired by. I have watched plenty of films that I enjoyed far more than the book it was adapted from. The film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, is one of these films. Whilst I did enjoy the book, the medium of film allowed opportunities for the creative team to re-imagine certain elements and add new plot points that only increased my admiration for the world it represented. Tom Ford’s brilliantly artistic adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man begs its audience to be involved in a discussion of the film’s storytelling ability, the way it captures a viewer and wraps them so tightly it the story that they refuse to let go even when the end credits roll. These films are just a few in a large collection of films that prove the power of their storytelling ability, but they don’t diminish the power of the novels they were adapted from. They simply explore different stylistic choices.

Neither medium is better than the other, however, in many cases, one medium is often better suited to the story it is trying to share. The particularities of each form allow certain ways of storytelling to work. Some stories work better in a visual form, others in a form that allows extensive written introspection. Books and films are equally important for those interested in storytelling, both offering unique ways of sharing imagined experiences*.

It is clear, to me at least, that in the battle between the novel and its film adaptation, neither one of them loses. Anything that brings stories to an audience and engages them in a discussion of these stories holds immense value. It is impossible for us to judge something that involves us in the act of sharing stories. The stories themselves are too important.




*I am not saying there aren’t bad movies, much as I wouldn’t say there aren’t bad novels. I simply refuse to judge the success of either form in their ability to captivate an audience and share important and meaningful stories with these audiences.


© Hayley New 2015


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