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  • Writer's pictureDonna Norman Carbone

Never judge a book by its movie: Or should we?

Book or movie? It’s an age-old question. I teach a Reading Literature/Reading Film class where we examine this very question. I am an equally avid reader and movie viewer.

There are so many great adaptations. Fun fact: about 50% of films have been adapted. I usually make it a point to read the novel before seeing the movie, expecting to be disappointed. This isn’t always the case.

For me, it depends on…

  1. casting

  2. whether the film is a tight or loose adaptation of the novel

  3. originality (what has or has not been cut)


One of the things inherent in reading a novel is taking all of the details provided by the author to conjure an image in the reader's mind. What does the character look like? How do they behave? What do they sound like? How do they interact with others? No two people read the same book in exactly the same way because each reader brings to the reading their own repertoires (life experiences unique to them). While reading a book, part of the fun is imagining these things.

In seeing a movie, we are viewing someone else’s interpretation of the character (actually many people’s interpretation: the casting director, the film director, the actor/actress…). Then we, as the viewers, need to decide whether or not the character holds up from what we’d imagined.


First, a tight adaptation follows the books closely which means the screenwriter pretty much replicates the work in script form as close as possible to the original. Whereas, a loose adaptation takes liberties in a variety of ways: characterization, plot, setting, scene.

For me, I tend to gravitate toward looser interpretations because I could then view them (the novel and film) as independent discourses.

I once attended a book talk for Philippa Gregory’s new release. At the time it coincided with the wrap-up of the film, The Other Boleyn Girl, based on her historical novel. She relayed that she’d been hired as a consultant for the film, but wasn’t consulted once. Basically, production hired her for this position, so she couldn’t sue over the film being a somewhat vast departure from her novel. When asked what she thought about that, she said (and I’m paraphrasing) that if she considered the two (the novel and film) separate entities, she really appreciated what they did with the film, but that it was not a true representation of her work.

I also attended a workshop with a Harvard film professor who suggested we should not consider one a version of the other, but instead separate and complementary discourses.

Both rang true for my own appreciation of adaptations.


Inherent in making a film are budgetary concerns; obviously, filmmaking costs much more than publishing a book. Run time for films is generally 120 minutes which equates to roughly 120 pages of script. Most book-length genres are 200+pages of text. The bottom line is that something needs to be cut when adapting words on a page to the screen. What gets cut (or doesn’t) can make or break a film. There are so many considerations to this decision. Ultimately, the viewer gets to decide whether the essence of the story holds water in light of what’s been omitted (or, for that matter, added).

Let’s take a look at each of these considerations using these four adaptations for exemplification.

The Great Gatsby: F. Scott Fitzgerald, author: Baz Luhrmann, director, 2013

The Other Boleyn Girl: Philippa Gregory, author: Justin Chadwick, director, 2008

Into the Wild: Jon Krakauer, author; Sean Penn, director, 2007

The Color Purple: Alice Walker, author: Steven Spielberg, director, 1985

The Great Gatsby

This version of Gatsby is a huge departure from previous adaptations of the novel. In typical Luhrmann style, he took some huge risks. Some believe it paid off. Others don’t.

Casting nailed it, especially with Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby. I’m still salty he didn’t get an Oscar for his portrayal. I thought the whole ensemble worked well together.

While visually set in the 1920s, this film had a modern-day feel with the choice of music, something that is largely debated regarding its effectiveness. I’ve been teaching this book for a long time to, mostly, a sleepy audience. But when this film was released–WOW! did it wake up my students. It did exactly what I believe the intent was…to make this story accessible for a modern audience. Using the music as a vehicle proved just how relevant this novel still is. One can imagine the Gatsby-like parties hosted by Jay-Z or or Fergie, am I right?

The cinematography and sets for this movie were stunning. The scene at Gatsby’s house while he’s throwing his silk shirts off the balcony to Daisy to prove his wealth brings to life a very mundane scene in the novel.

Last, the portrayal of Nick at the beginning and end of the movie is the only sticking point–one of disappointment–for me. I get why the decision to have Nick in, I’m assuming, rehab was made, but it doesn’t align with how I perceived his character. At the end of the novel, throughout really, he’s the only one that has it together. He recognizes both the good and the bad in the characters which depicts him as a realist (as juxtaposed with Gatsby who remains a romantic throughout). I believe Nick’s learned from his experiences with the characters surrounding him. By portraying him as an alcoholic, it negates the only hopeful aspect of the novel’s end. (But, perhaps that’s the romantic in me speaking).

The Other Boleyn Girl

I wholly love this novel. As such, I was hesitant to see the movie; I feared it would taint my impression of the former. Because Chadwick changed so much, I saw it in a completely different light. Not only does Chadwick frame the movie in a completely different way than the novel, he puts emphasis on and detracts major characteristics in the three Boleyn children.

Both the novel and movie work as stand-alones in my opinion. We can never really know what parts of history actually existed; they were obviously recorded from the point of view of the recorder. So the way Gregory and Chadwick filled in the gaps were plausible and somewhat different. For example, the portrayal of Lady Boleyn (the mother figure) in the novel is of a self-serving, cold, even vile woman; whereas, in the novel she appears a bit more sympathetic or perhaps empathetic of her daughters.

The film is filled with the lush landscapes and commanding castles that are featured in the novel and the casting was certainly a win (with the slight exception of Eric Bana as a much more attractive older King Henry III). Overall, I love both of these discourses. I think Gregory did a superb job giving the reader a plausible account of what might have happened and Chadwick did the same, though they differ.

Into the Wild

The book is nonfiction from the perspective of Krakauer, himself a hiker. It’s clear Krakauer writes from a journalistic perspective in an attempt to almost defend Chris McCandless’s reckless, and eventually fatal (no spoilers: this is revealed in chapter 1) wanderlust. McCandless is a transcendentalist and portrayed as such in both mediums. Krakauer uses primary sources (McCandless’s journal, postcards, scribblings in the margins of the books he left behind, as well as interviews of friends, family and acquaintances) to piece together his journey in Alaska. To me, McCandless comes off as naive in the book because you don’t get the backstory that is provided in the film.

Penn, consulting with the family, created a very different version of McCandless’s journey. And it isn’t surprising that he comes across slightly more noble in the film that is narrated by an actress playing his sister, Carine.

The film also takes a much different approach in terms of the timeline than the book which provides the viewer with flashbacks and insights into the reasons Chris McCandless wanted to leave it all behind.

The cinematography is the best feature of this film. The pacing and rhythm and duration puts the viewers on the edge of their seats and also in his shoes.

For this, I view the film as a complement to its nonfiction counterpart.

The Color Purple

I saw this movie before I read the book. I was so impressed by the rich characterization and story arc of the film. This casting is incredible. Whoopi Goldberg embodies the character of Celie who gains strength as the story ensues; honestly the whole cast is stunning. This is a culturally rich portrayal of African American women finding power in their gender and in each other.

The cinematography is powerful as well. Spielberg uses crosscutting to amplify the tension and juxtapose the lives of Celie and her sister, Nettie.

While the film is shown from an objective point of view, the novel, conversely, is written in diary format from the perspective of Celie. This is another case that if viewed as separate discourses, both stand up. In fact, the novel gives the reader an even deeper sense of Celie’s character right down to her struggle with language and her belief in God.

So, to answer my original question: should we judge a book by its movie? I don’t think there’s a black and white answer. In some cases, the book is much better. In other cases, the movie is better. And, I THINK, in the best case scenario we need to judge them as separate discourses in order to truly appreciate each on its own merits.

Other adaptations you might check out–these are among some of my favorites and listed in no particular order:

The Hours & Mrs. Dalloway (these are good companion pieces)

Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood

The Da Vinci Code

Memoirs of a Geisha

Forrest Gump

The Green Mile

The Shining

Stand By Me & “The Body”

The Shawshank Redemption & “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”

The Godfather

Fight Club

Little Women

The Secret Life of Bees

The Help

Great Expectations

Wuthering Heights

Have I forgotten any great adaptations? If so, please include them in the comments.

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