Why is the Book Always Better Than the Movie?

That first Myspace message looked fishy. Back in 2008, Myspace was the place to be, but it was also crawling with scammers and viruses. So when I received a Myspace message from a woman asking to option my book for film, I was skeptical. It was my first self-published book and it had been on the market for 3 years. Had it taken her that long to find me?

My office carpet took a beating as I paced and wondered what this chance might do for my books. Google told me that Marla Cukor, the woman who contacted me, wrote for a magazine called In Touch Weekly, and that she had written short films that starred actors I knew.

Advice poured in. Some writers vowed never to allow another film adaptation of their work because it had gone so poorly. Others cautioned that while the book is yours, the screenplay is completely out of your hands once you sign a contract. I decided to listen to the delightful Maggie Griffin, who relayed her boss’ advice on the subject, “A movie is a 40 million dollar commercial for your book.”

Marla and I signed our option in early 2009. Then we had our first call to get down to work on the adaptation. That call really opened my eyes. Marla asked, “What if we get rid of the money?”

The money appears in the opening chapter of Sin & Vengeance and ties several of the characters together, especially the protagonist and the villain. At first I didn’t believe she could remove the money from the storyline. When I realized she was serious my heart sank. I worried an adaptation without the money would flop.

I learned quite a lot over the next several months and when we were done, I began to understand why books and their movie counterparts were often so different. What follows is a bit of what I learned from Marla.

Time constraints play a large part in determining which elements of a novel make it to film. The screenwriter has about two hours of time to work with. Each page takes about a minute of screen time and there is surprisingly little on the page of a screenplay. Sin & Vengeance (the novel) has several plot lines. In order to fit the movie into two hours, some of those plot lines had to be dropped.

Perspective in a novel comes from inside the head of a point of view character. On film, perspective changes based on what the camera is pointed at. We move from listening to the thoughts and reactions of our hero, to watching moving pictures. Abstract concepts that are easily portrayed in a novel become difficult in film, but the camera excels at portraying grand settings and intense action. Because of this difference, entire scenes are dropped and new ones added.

Exposition (telling the reader stuff) in a novel is simple. Many writers include passages that run a paragraph or more to give the background of a company or a character. Readers easily shift, especially at the beginning of a chapter, from a block of description to action. This has to be done very carefully on film because too much explanation can make a movie feel like a documentary. No one wants to pay to see a thriller and feel like they’re in history class.  So, complex plot lines and abstract concepts are difficult for the screenwriter to include. Thankfully, moviegoers have been trained to accept really hokey dialog in action films. If you don’t believe you’ve been trained, rent a high-concept action film and write out some of the dialog word for word. The actors pull it off and make it believable, but on the page you’d never believe a person would ever say such things.

In the end the money vanished, but I am really grateful for what I learned from Marla.

I’m also thankful that Marla went to such lengths to capture the essence of Sin & Vengeance, which is an intense story of revenge. I won’t be disappointed if you see the movie one day and write me to say the book was better. I’m just hoping we both get a chance to see it on the big screen.