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Film Adaptation

Film Adaptation is typically referred to as transfering written media into film. This process usually involves numerous individuals providing their imput into the film. The book or novel, though originally authored by one person, will be splintered into several if not more inpretations. Films also attempt to obtain a slightly difference audience than written material and therefore go through moderate changes before being projected on the big screen. Some of those changes are for dramatic purposes, some are for logistical reasons, and some are used to make the content more palatable for the general public.



Some common types of changes include:


Point of View

Plot Structure

Character Development


These differences can be both positive and negative depending on the purpose of the change and the original intent of the author. Also, the structure of the written text also has a strong bearing on the effectiveness of the transition. This section will primarily focus upon the changes made to point of view.




Film Adaptation and Point of View


When pieces of literature, music, drama, and art become subjects for film adaptation many core elements of these works are changed drastically. One of the most obvious and obtrusive ways in which these types of works become affected in their eventual film adaptation is through the adjustments made to the point of view of the piece. This phenomenon is probably most evident when books and other forms of print literature are adapted to the silver screen. Arguably, the most common change that occurs when point of view is transcribed from the page to the screen is that narrative voice becomes lost as it must be replaced by a lens. In cases where movie directors attempt to keep the book’s original point of view intact, the point of view is delivered to the audience through the voice of a narrator. Clearly, in these instances the lens of the camera and the voice of a narrator cannot do justice to the original point of view found in the book, and as such, the essence of the piece becomes harder to find.


One of the main drawbacks to using a lens in conveying the point of view of a piece or a character is that the internal monologue that the lens is trying to represent becomes much less powerful. When reading a book through a certain perspective the audience is made privy to personal information such as thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are experienced by the main character. Though his or her own voice then, that character is able to convey meaning and provide context to such personal experiences in a very powerful way. When using a camera lens to accomplish this goal the effect is not quite the same. The lens is not able to employ the specific language and descriptors that would normally be used by the main character. Instead, the lens is forced to hint at the existence of certain thoughts, feelings, and emotional states through objects which are external from the main character’s being. In other words, through print the audience is able to be placed squarely inside the head of the main character who then conveys exact information. The lens, however, is limiting in that it takes away the power of the main character to tell his or her own story though their own words. The state of mind of the main character then, must be shown through visual points of reference or through interactions occurring between the main character and his or her surroundings. In such a way, much of the main character’s point of view must be inferred rather than transferred directly from the source.


When narrative voice is used in film adaptations of literature many of the problems created through the focal point of the lens are able to remedy themselves, but a seamless adaptation is still rare. This is because narrative voice is removed from the action of the story taking place. For instance, in a print piece the reader is constantly being exposed to the main character’s internal monologue. No matter what is happening the reader always has access to this monologue and as such, it becomes the authoritative voice of the piece. Take for example the book “A River Runs Through It” which is written from the first person point of view. As the main character Norman tells his story the reader has continual access to his exact point of view through language. Even during some of the most intense scenes of this book Norman is constantly appraising his inner thoughts and feelings for the audience. He could be yelling, fishing, or falling in love and the audience knows exactly how he feels during all of these activities because he is telling that audience precisely what is going on inside of him during these moments. When this book was adapted for film, however, Norman’s point of view became more difficult to access as the narrative voice was adapted into a script to be read between major events. In other words, the voice of Norman became a part all unto itself and was read by Robert Redford. As a result, Norman’s narrative voice as represented by Redford was only heard between action sequences. Thus, instead of getting up to the second feedback on Norman’s internal state during an argument, the film audience is forced to wait until the argument is over and Norman is on his own for a while. Consequently, the narrative voice in the film adaptation of “A River Runs Through It” does not match up with the events being depicted on the screen.



Another consequence of losing literature’s narrative voice when adapting the book to film is that the audience becomes much more of an observer than a participant. This outcome can be both a strength and a weakness in film adaptations. Film’s loss of the author’s intended voice and perspective can create a rift between the audience and the original meaning of the text. What the audience receives is one interpretation of the text’s meaning, exhibiting the writers’ and the directors’ biases and worldviews. This loss of meaning is evident in films such as The Great Gatsby. Due to the overwhelming necessity of using Nick’s perspective to gain insight into Tom and Daisy’s lives, films attempting to adapt Fitzgerald’s work typically fall short, sometimes well short, of showing the depth of character in The Great Gatsby. Only through Nick’s eyes, his biases and original impressions of Daisy and Tom can the audience see the depth of an individual. When adapted to film, Daisy is typically seen as just a shallow, selfish woman. With only the camera lens reifying Daisy’s character, the audience quickly rejects her, refusing to connect with her in the same way Fitzgerald had intended. There appears to be no rose colored lens for the camera.



In contrast to this unfortunate occurrence, film adaptations can also show the strength of the objective observer, examining one particular person’s or group of people’s interpretation of the text. In some instances, adapting a text to film can actually improve understanding of the text, as long as the film is followed by intense discussion on the changes and subtle differences between the two media. For example, the film created from the book Sea__Biscuit stayed true to the essense of the text. The text was written from a narrative voice, not from any one character's point of view, and thus a film version can easily embody this style. In addition, the film version creates differences to increase dramatic effect, which can be a good discussion topic for students. Gettysburg is also a third person narrative perspective. The book focuses on the dialogue among around twelve different soldiers. The film version is able to maintain that ambiance. In addition to maintaining the overall feel of the book, the film is able to incorporate images that actually increase the audience's experience of the Civil War. In this way, film can actually improve the students' understanding of perspective and also make their experience more vivid.


Teacher Resources For Film Adaptation


The Grapes of Wrath: This film adaptation deviates from the book's ending in particular when it omitts Steinbeck's final scene of dispair. The film's likely decision to censor the final portion of the story creates a disconnect between Steinbeck's original intention and the film's impact on the viewer.

Lesson Plan Possibilities

Discuss the impact of experiencing the final scene in a visual mode as opposed to through a literary mode. Talk with students about how the differences between these two ways of viewing affects their overall interpretations of the novel and as a side note is this censorship?


Cold Mountain: This film adaptation increases dramatic conflict between the main character and his adversaries. Also, there is larger emphasis on romantic ties and an overarching love story existing in the film than in the novel. As such, the viewer of the film encounters a story of an entirely different nature when watching the film as opposed to reading the book.

Lesson Plan Possibilities

Look at how popular media's tendancy to highlight and value certain themes over others. For instance, in the book the main character comes across in a fairly cowardly fashion and the book is considered by many to be quite dull. However, when Hollywood transfered this story from the page to the silver screen there were dramatic changes made to the main character and the themes of the story. These changes elevated the entertainment value and had a greater pull on the emotions of the audience.


The Wizard of OZ: The film version of this story downplays Frank L Baum's economic criticism of the industrialization of the United States. The changes, although seemingly minor, remove much of the metaphor found in the text. For example, changing Dorothy's slippers from silver to ruby red, though more visually appealing, eliminates Baum's preference for the silver standard over the gold standard as represented by the yellow brick road. Also, creating an actual Emerald City as oppossed to the perception of the Emerald City found in the book through the use of special glasses further deteriorates Baum's social commentary.

Lesson Plan Possibilities

Examine how making something more visually appealing can detract from meaning in symbolism. Although Dorothy's story takes place in a dream there are many Hollywood features that both contribute to that dreamlike state yet limit it at the same time examine this phenomenon. Watch the movie's trailor below and use this as a starting point for discussion.



Troy vs. The Iliad: Troy is losely based upon Homer's original work and does little more than include some of the same characters that he made famous. While major events remain the same between the two, a great deal of dramatic license is taken when producing the Hollywood piece. For instance, Hollywood requires a hero so Achilles is given the role, somehow surviving until the end of the movie. In the Iliad, Achilles does not last nearly as long.

Lesson Plan Possibilities

Dissect the Greek version of the hero as well as the American version of the hero. Outline the enormous cultural differences between modern America and ancient Greece. How have values, morals, goals, and life in general changed between time periods? Or watch the clip below and discuss how the film making techniques discussed have changed the original narrative.



Helpful Links


This is the Wikipedia page listing and talking about some of the important adpatations made between literature and film.


Follow this link to view the Yale library of research on film and literature.


On this site you can view Blackwell Publishing's "Companion to Literature and Film."


This site gives a great overview of the steps involved when adapting literature to film. Use the information here to guide your own students through creating their own screenplays.


Here is a list of some of the top adaptations from literature to film.


Use this link to view articles from past and current issues of Literature and Film Quarterly.



Examples of Student Work with Film and Literature Adaptation

Here is an example of students producing their own film version of a portion of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings."


This film explores the various representations of Julius Caesar.

Clips from Adapted Works


"Of Mice and Men"


"The Great Gatsby"

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