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The 5 Biggest Differences Between Books And Movies

22 March 2013 | Industry Insights | by David Zou

movies and books

From Harry Potter and Twilight through to Romeo+Juliet and Pride & Prejudice, books represent some of the biggest source material for movies. Even when the adaptations are far from faithful – think 2001: A Space Odyessy– the original source material shines over the subsequent movie like a lamp.

I’m a novelist myself. I write books. And of course, my books tell stories, just as movies tell stories, so you might be tempted to think there’s not a huge difference between the forms, except that the screenwriters have bigger budgets and cooler special effects.

But the differences are profound, all the same – and when screenwriters’ imaginations fail, you find that movies can go clunkingly wrong.


#1 In novels, characters think

The biggest difference between books and movies is that in books characters think. Obviously in movies we see the results of characters choices. (Not always good ones, as in those horror flicks, where the pretty teenage girl thinks, hey, would it be a good idea to investigate those creepy noises in the dark house …?) But in books, we actually get direct access to a character’s thoughts, emotions and physical sensations.


Indeed, when you think about it, the reason why books have a chance of surviving in the movie age is that novels arguably have the biggest special effect of them all. We novelists aren’t so good at showing you James Bond leaping onto moving trains – but we’re much better at telling you what it’s like to be James Bond leaping onto that train.

And sometimes screenwriters are envious of our one real superpower. You know those films that are full of voiceover? Or where the main character has conversations with himself in the mirror? Or the where heroine has a ditzy best friend whose major role in the movie is to give the heroine the chance to vent her thoughts and feelings aloud to camera? All those things are little more than attempts to do clumsily what a novelist can do naturally. And why heavy use of voiceover in a movie is nearly always the sign of a pretentious and unsuccessful film.


#2 Novelists don’t have studios

Another key difference is that novelists exist in the thinly paid world of publishing where no one has much money. You’d think, therefore, that all the really good, really creative writers would head for Hollywood where the paychecks are huge and the storytelling talent is prodigious.


Except that it doesn’t really work like that. Because there is so much money involved in movies, that also means that screenwriters are never remotely in control. It’s not just that executives and star actors and directors and producers all want to push a script this way or that. It’s also that the industry develops huge theories about What Makes A Good Script. There are writing courses that push ever more prescriptive solutions, full of acts, and pinch points, and turning points, and Hero’s Journey … yet the very best screenplays simply duck under all of those things and are just themselves. (Think Juno, or that screenwriters’ classic, Robert Towne’s Chinatown.)

Because there’s so much less cash at stake in the world of books, novelists can safely ignore all those theories and nearly all the executives. Novelists have to care about literary agents and editors: those guys matter (but they’re also story insiders. Not creatives exactly, but they come pretty close.) Apart from that, we’re just left to get on with it. And that’s why when you think of Hollywood, you so often think of the big budget blockbuster stuff: nothing interesting by way of story, but look at those explosions. The more quirky personal creations – Juno, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – come much closer to the way a novelist crafts their work: alone and without interference.


#3 Novelists don’t have stars

Novelists also don’t have stars to contend with. A minus, you might think, except that it means we can get away with creating much more interesting characters. So sure, in an action movie, the Tom Cruise character might show a moment’s fear before doing some death-defying thing … but that moment’s fear is nearly always just a way to highlight how incredibly brave he really is.


It’s pretty rare that a major movie star allows his or her character to have real inner darkness, real character flaws – and that’s why so many big-budget movies can seem dispiritingly thin when you look back on them later. Novelists, on the other hand, are positively encouraged to show that darkness. I once wrote a very dark main character and remember my literary agent telling me, ‘Good, Harry, but doesn’t she need to be more violent? More confused?’ Again, it’s not much of a surprise that some of the more interesting characters come from more indie-type movies (where screenwriters will typically call the shots a little more) and be played by actors who haven’t yet made it to that Hollywood A-list.


#4 Novelists don’t have to get out after 110 minutes

Films, you might have noticed, are expensive beasts – and audiences get restive if a film time runs much over 120 minutes. So the industry standard script is about 110 minutes long. More, yes, if you have a director with heft, but even then you can bet an accountant is counting those minutes.

The result is that films are much lighter in terms of story – and even dialogue – than any book. When I’ve seen my work turned into scripts, I’m astonished at how much is left out. Fewer words, fewer characters, fewer plot twists.At a rough guide, to conver a book to a movie, you need to chuck about about three-quarters of what’s there. And that’s a good thing! Books are books, films are films. Whenever screenwriters are tempted to ‘be true to the original’, they usually produce a film which is baggy, boring and overweight. (Think Da Vinci Code or half the Harry Potter films.)



#5 Story is story

But in the end, story is story. We’re all doing the same thing, we just need to make sure that whatever we’re writing – book, movie, TV script – we are servants to the story. Hollywood is often accused of favouring the happy ending. Well, you know what? Literary agents and publishers demand the same thing too.

happy endings

In Hollywood, it’s pretty much compulsory to have the third act (typically the last twenty minutes of a movie) ratchet up the tension and the stakes. This is the part of the movie, where the guy has to wrestle the baddy on that rain-lashed rooftop, or where the girl has to speed to save her relationship. Done badly, and those things feel clunking and crass … but publishers demand exactly the same kind of approach from novelists. The problem isn’t that the demand exists, but how well it’s executed.

Harry Bingham runs the Writers’ Workshop which offers creative writing courses and helps writers hook up with literary agents via Agent Hunter.


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