Film Adaptations: Following in the Masters’ Footsteps

Do film adaptations ever really do a novel justice? Purists cry no. But you might be shocked to discover a majority of award-winning and even legendary films started as novels.

Adapting a novel is a terrific way to hone your filmmaking craft. Think of a moving, inspiring, or gripping book. How would you communicate its story visually? (Note: get copyright permission before you try to make money from your version.)

Adapting a book brings unique challenges. You’ve got to make everyone happy while avoiding the middle ground of boredom.

  • Hardcore bookworms will throw a hissy fit if you leave out their favorite parts
  • People who “don’t do books” just want a good flick
  • Prudes won’t sit through the book’s original steamy scenes

And yet, when done well, original fans and new converts alike will flock to your film. Check out these four film adaptations, and what the director did right in each case.

1.) The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Why it worked: Director Frank Darabont crafted the inmates’ relationships beautifully, and (mostly) stayed true to its originating novella. It was also smart to cast a heavyweight actor such as Morgan Freeman, who captured the essence of Red brilliantly and gave extra life to the movie as its narrator.  Though this wasn’t a box-office hit initially, later success gave this film ‘classic’ status.

2.) Stand by Me (1986):

Why it worked: Based on Stephen King’s short story “The Body”, Stand by Me fully developed individual characters, and stayed extremely true to its novella origins (except a little in the ending). By carefully crafting a beautiful and easy-to-follow storylineStand by Me captured the hearts of both young men and women.

3.) The Godfather (1972):

Why it worked: By working closely with writer Mario Puzzo, director Francis Ford Coppola created a perfect balance between film and novel. The two appropriately picked out meaningful dialogue from the novel, threw in a pinch or two of violence, and voila: a masterpiece. Additionally, emphatic lighting choices gave the movie  that ‘mobster’ vibe. The book was a classic, and the movie followed up as instant classic as well.

4.) To Kill a Mockingbird (1962):

Why it worked: The novel was idolized for its gripping storyline and extraordinarily well-developed characters. It was a challenge to depict such characters, but director Robert Mulligan developed them almost perfectly, especially the protagonist Atticus. By keeping the characters extremely true to their literary selves, book lovers were allowed to have that “that’s exactly how I pictured them!” moment. As with most movies that are based on books, it’s almost impossible to include every scene, but when Mockingbird won the Academy Award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), they knew they did all right.


Notice a common theme? Character development is one of the most important tasks as a filmmaker. People tend to get attached to their beloved book characters, so creating a character inconsistent with what the reader had in their mind is an ultimate no-no. Oh and you might want to determine what in the novels are actually important. You’re confined to a short amount of time.

Ready to whip out the storyboard? Head to Film School Rejects’ excellent advice on book adaptation to complete your education.


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