The silver screen has been the pinnacle of Hollywood since the early days of Hollywood. Movies occupy the top rung of the creative hierarchy, towering over television. Actors work hard to get their big break, looking to move from TV to the big screen. For adaptations, movies are both a blessing and a curse. A film adaptation means that an author has reached enough of an audience that a studio has noticed. On the downside, few books survive the process of being adapted.
Over the past fifty to sixty years, the average length of a book has grown over the past 50 years, with doorstoppers common today. There are exceptions, naturally; each book of The Lord of the Rings was far longer than the other fantasy novels of the time. At the same time, The Lord of the Rings became the template for modern fantasy works, leading to series such as The Wheel of Time and A Game of Thrones. With the increased length comes more detail, more plot points, more action, all of which makes it difficult to put into a feature film.
Typically, a theatrically released movie is from ninety minutes to two hours long, with a few going under to eighty-five or over to three hours. Any shorter, and the audience starts wondering about the cost of seeing something so short. Longer, and audience fatigue sets in unless the film is kept tight so that the viewers don’t notice the passage of time. The time limit means that something from the original work has to give. Usually, the decision is to remove scenes that will confuse the audience or that don’t add to the plot. Such partial adaptations can work; Blade Runner, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, and Jurassic Park all kept to the core story while still excising elements that detracted from the plot. However, if the wrong elements are removed, or the story is so intertwined that removing elements causes the story to fall flat, movies can fail. The Dragonlance animated film is a good example; with a ninety minute running time, the movie felt shallow, missing concepts that made the original work breathe.
The problem grows if the original work is part of a series that isn’t yet complete. While Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was successful both as a movie and as an adaptation, some parts of the story that became important in later book were removed for the sake of fitting the movie into a decent running time. With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the studio decided to split the book into two movies to avoid rushing the story in just one. Likewise, The Hobbit became three movies in part to give the plot the time it needed to unfold.
With short stories and novellas, the problem doesn’t quite go away. A short story may not have enough plot to last even ninety minutes, requiring padding. A good example is the Ian Fleming story, “The Living Daylights”. The story has 007 protecting a Soviet defector from a sniper. In the movie, The Living Daylights, the original story takes up about twenty minutes of screen time, leaving over one hundred minutes to be filled.
The answer, though, isn’t to stop adapting books. Given the risk aversion in Hollywood, not adapting anything is off the table. One solution is to take into account book length. Going back to James Bond, the movie versions of both Dr. No and Casino Royale stayed close to the original works, with little to no scenes added or removed. Longer books could be broken into parts, though if the first movie fails at the box office, the rest of the story won’t be filmed.
Another solution is to take a hard look at adapting the work for television. Whether the work becomes a regular series or a mini-series, the adaptation isn’t as dependant on the vagueries of the international market. With mini-series, the full novel will be shown in a short span, long enough to get the immediate ratings, but not long enough for the network or cable channel to end the adaptation early. In a regular series, the adaptation will have the time it needs to build the world and establish characters, but poor ratings could kill the show before the work has been fully aired. However, cable channels aren’t as beholden to the Neilsens as the broadcast networks are. Dexter, True Blood, and A Game of Thrones all thrived as series, with each book becoming a season in the series.
Reducing the size of novels is a non-starter. As mentioned earlier, The Lord of the Rings became not only a classic but also a template for writers inspired by it. It is rare to find a stand-alone fantasy novel that isn’t a tie-in to a property such as Dungeons & Dragons. Science fiction does have them, but given the time and effort needed for worldbuilding, recycling the work becomes tempting when looking at building a new universe from scratch. There’s also the readers’ reaction; the price of books has crossed a point where buyers are expecting not just a good story, but a long one to match the cover price. A short book just doesn’t have the physical weight that readers want.
In short, the glamour of the movies needs to be balanced with the idea that two hours just isn’t enough time to do justice to today’s works.
Next week, Smokey and the Bandit.