When Books are Made into Movies

Recently, me and my children read a few books together that were eventually made into movies. We read the books first, and then we watched the movies. I’m a believer that most books are better than their movie counterparts. It is nearly impossible that the images I create in my mind can be recreated on screen. However, a movie adaptation still has a chance to wow me. If it makes a very literal translation to the screen, then the movie might be okay. But if the movie brings something new to the interpretation of the material- a new perspective, a creative visual twist, the intriguing portrayal of a highly complicated character- I might enjoy the movie just as much as the book.

The first book we read was The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. It is the story of a family of tiny people who live under the floor of a house. A teenage girl named Arrietty lives with her mom and dad under the kitchen. They “borrow” just what they need, and only those things the residents won’t miss. It was published in 1952 (and won the Carnegie Medal and other awards) but it has a timeless quality to it. There were several movies made from this book, including an American live action version with John Goodman. The movie we saw was The Secret life of Arrietty, which is a 2010 Japanese anime film dubbed in English.

We enjoyed both the book and the movie. It is a fanciful story, but set in everyday environments. It draws on a common human premise: where do things go when I can’t find them? The movie was different in many details and subplots from the book, but it deftly visualized the core elements. Each of the characters was presented slightly differently, but in most cases the changes smoothed over parts of them that I found mildly annoying in the book. For example, Arrietty’s mother is whiny and neurotic in the book, which is switched to concern and worry for the well-being of her family.

The second book we read was Holes, by Louis Sachar. This book tells the story of Stanley Yelnats, a boy who is always in the wrong place at the wrong time. He gets sent to a juvenile detention camp in the desert, where each boy is tasked with digging a large hole each day. It was made into a movie in 2003 with Shia LaBeouf in the lead role. The movie sticks fairly close to the book, but changes some of the details. My son was wondering why some parts of the movie felt so different from the book. The book is written in first person, from Stanley’s perspective. We get to hear his thoughts directly – how he feels about a situation, what he worries about, etc. I explained that if they directly translated it, we would be spending a lot of time watching Stanley think, or listening to an annoying voiceover. The film makers chose to use the parts of the book that had the most visual potential, and focused on those.

I especially enjoyed this book. There were details thoughout the book that seemed to be character or setting description. When you get to the end, you realize that everything the other has included is important to the resolution of the story. As a writer, I was amazed at how tight the writing was, while being so descriptive and creative,

I was also interested to see how each of these books were adapted, given that The Secret World of Arrietty is screenwritten by someone other than the author. The screenplay for Holes was written by the author, Louis Sachar. I was impressed with the restraint he showed with the source material, only including the parts that would best tell the story on screen. I was also impressed with his ability to write a screenplay, which to me requires a different skill set than writing a novel.

I would recommend both of these books and movies. Me and my kids are so enjoying this process, I think we’ll keep it going. We have already read Charlotte’s Web and seen the movie. I’m waiting until they are older for necessities like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Any recommendations for other book and movie combos? Please share in the comments!