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I Didn’t Picture It Like That! The Art of Book to Movie Adaptation

Book-to-movie adaptations are becoming more and more popular, whether critics and audiences like them or not. Much of fan and critical reaction is determined by how closely a movie follows the plot and character descriptions put forth in the book itself. There are three ways in which screenplay writers can approach adapting a book into a movie: literal, traditional, and radical.

1. Literal Approach

The first of which, the rarest, is the literal translation. In this type, screenplay writers take a book word-for-word to put into movie form. No detail is changed for the plot, characters, or setting. Because this approach is so rare, no popular examples exist. Multiple movies are very close to being a literal adaptation, as the movies took huge passages word for word from the original book. One such adaptation is the movie version of Louis Sachar’s Holes. This high degree of similarity can possibly be attributed to the fact that Louis Sachar also wrote the screenplay of the story.

2. Traditional Approach

The second type of adaptation is the traditional approach, in which the majority of a story is kept, but some minor (or not so minor) details are changed. This can help the flow of the movie, but doesn’t change the overall message or outcome of the story. There are way too many examples of this approach to name them all in a list, but a few especially popular ones are: Little Women (2019), The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003), or To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before Trilogy (2018-2021). Movies that follow this approach also tend to do better if they don’t stray too much from the original story. The more that screenplay writers decide to change, the less likely audiences are to accept the movie.

3. Radical Approach

The third and final type is the radical approach. This approach completely changes one or more aspects of the original story. Think Shakespeare in space, or Jane Eyre under the sea. While this type of adaptation is rarer than the traditional approach, it is more common than the literal approach. A few well-known examples of this approach are the 1996 version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, She’s the Man from 2006 and starring Amanda Bynes, and Ten Things I Hate About You from 1999, starring Heath Ledger. It should be noted that all of these examples are retellings of famous Shakespearean plays, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and Taming of the Shrew, respectively. The radical approach tends to be applied to older stories such as these because copyright law doesn’t apply to them. This approach also tends to be pretty successful in adapting to the big screen because they provide fresh twists on familiar stories. Taking William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet into account, the audience is pulled in by the modern setting that contrasts with the original iambic pentameter.

As book to movie adaptations continue in popularity, an interesting literature phenomenon might occur. Because adapting a book to the big screen can be quite lucrative, authors might begin changing the form of their writing to make it easier to change the way in which their story is presented to audiences. Instead of vivid physical descriptions, readers might begin to see characters described as a slightly different version of an already famous actor. Or, readers might start seeing authors jump between scenes with little to no warning as movie editors cut between scenes.

KBarthKrista Barth
Associate Student Representative, Midwestern Region, 2021-2022
Epsilon Iota Chapter
Culver-Stockton College, Canton, MO


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Sigma Tau Delta, International English Honor Society, was founded in 1924 at Dakota Wesleyan University. The Society strives to

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