Novelizations of Movies

I’ve written on here before about how film adaptations of books are usually (though not always) unsuccessful, because the stories told in books are usually optimized for book form, and so don’t work as well on screen.  But what about books adapted from movies? Do they have the same problem?

Again; yes, usually.  But sometimes they can complement the movie well. I think it’s actually easier for a novelization to enhance a movie than for a movie to enhance a book.  You can probe the motivations and details of the characters more thoroughly on the page. But with movie adaptations, it’s more likely you’ll lose content rather than gain it.

An example of a bad novelization is the Star Wars: Attack of the Clones book by R.A. Salvatore. The whole thing feels off. It lacks much of the quick pacing of the movie, and when we get to “hear their thoughts”, as it were, the characters don’t really match up with how they seem to be acting in the film.

You don’t have to look far for a much better novelization, though:  Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Stover is a great adaptation that does a very good job illuminating other aspects of the story and fleshing out the characters in a way not possible in the movie.  One thing that’s not communicated in the movie, but which Stover includes, is the point that Anakin is very sleep-deprived during the events of the story. This helps make his decisions much more understandable.

I read a novelization of the movie The Mummy Returns, and it was about what you’d expect for a novelization of a popcorn action-adventure flick.  It’s entertaining on the screen, but dire on the page.  I think many novelizations really are nothing more than cash-ins.

One question that occurred to me as I was thinking about this issue: between books and movies, which medium do you think is more conducive to nuance and subtlety in storytelling? My first inclination was to say “books”, but then it is true that you have to spend a lot more time describing something in a book than in a film. “A picture is worth a thousand words”, as they say. What do you think?


  1. The problem with adapting a movie from a book is that an hour and a half movie equals a short story or novella. It’s taking three movies to do the Hobbit right and it’s about the same size as most novels for books and way short of James Clavell or Stephen King or Tom Clancy, which is why the movies either leave a lot out or don’t follow the book at all.
    Think Game of Thrones, each book is ten or twelve hours long, and the people who’ve read the books are still fussing about what’s left out or added.
    I agree novelization of a screen play is a pale imitation. Isaac Asimov novelized Fantastic Voyage, even got the ship out in the book, but he didn’t think much of it. It was his actual work.

    1. I remember reading a quote from David Lean on adapting books for the screen. I can’t find his exact words, but it was something to the effect of “filmmakers make the mistake of trying to cram in a bit of everything from the book, when what they should do is just focus on what thread that illustrates the core theme of the book.” Not sure if that advice is always applicable, but it is interesting.

  2. Very good advise, but most screen writers don’t follow it. What comes to mind in Hunt For Red October, the movie followed the plot very closely, but the event that motivated Ramius into defecting was the doctors and medicine killed by incompetence and he was denied a faith to mourn her. The movie hints at why he’s defecting, but it doesn’t wash. The other movie is Tai Pan. How could they make this movie and leave out the four half coins when Struan is given all the silver to save his business?

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