Books vs. Films: a love/hate relationship with ‘creative license’

Later this year (actually right around my birthday), a new Tim Burton film is coming out. Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiars.

Based on the Ransom Riggs hit 2011 novel, ‘Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children’, there’s reason to be excited. I loved those books. The first I downloaded in an airport, not expecting much, but the story and the photography captivated me from the first page. To know there’ll be a film version with an excellent cast and one of my favourite directors sounds like the perfect match. Like the Wes Anderson version of Fantastic Mr Fox.

However as excited as I am at the prospect of a movie version, I’m also nervous that Burton might destroy it. Not because of those jokes flying around the internet – X-Men for Emos yada yada – but because the trailer reveals there have already been some significant changes to the characters.

When Directors Change the Story

Now I don’t want to give away anything significant about the books – I want you to go read them – but you might notice there’s a floating girl in the trailer.

In the books, this is a character called Olive. She’s a side character, interesting but not central. In the film, however, she quite clearly appears to play a more prominent role.

As The Mary Sue pointed out, Burton seems to have swapped the book characters, Emma Bloom and Olive. In the book, Emma is a feisty young woman with power over fire. The same age as Jake, the protagonist, they’re a pair of protectors for the other children and their budding friendship – later romance – is of equals. The film has swapped her role, however, for the whimsical image of the floating girl.

It’s very Burtonesque. But it’s also a strange change.

Changes aren’t anything new on the part of directors – they like to make things their own, to match their vision and make the most of what they’re working with. Baz Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby was like that; though it was also such a complete deviation from the manuscript that the relationship between text and screen barely scans.

In this case, then, why do it? Is there a purpose other than imagery? Air is a far more passive power, what was wrong with fire? How is this going to impact the relationship she has with Jake? That thing with the rope – Jake holding on to her because she can’t control her floating away – there’s troublesome connotations to take from that. Whatever Burton and the creative director’s reasons, it doesn’t set me at ease.

Should bookish hearts be worried?

Book-t0-film doesn’t always go horribly wrong. On occasion, the  omissions and additions make the story stronger. The problem is when visuals become more important than the narrative.

As a bookworm, I’m first to say that in many book original blast their movie versions out of the water.  There’s a peculiar and particular magic to a book – a freedom to imagine, a deepness to passing time, an immersive quality that can’t be replicated on screen.

Yet you only have to look at the stop-motion adaptation of Coraline to see that some films are genuinely more developed than the novel. And there are plenty of movies do more than justice to their source material. Not every adaptation can be Watchmen but a fair few can be The Hunger Games.

The problem is stories can be lost in translation.



You know how it goes – there are nuances to writing, insights to the characters, subtleties to the plot that often don’t translate in film. Remember in The Lord of the Rings series where The Return of the King was pretty much reduced to long, lingering looks between Samwise and Frodo as they climbed up the same mountain for three hours we’ll never get back? There were some great fight scenes to cut it up but the book with all its intricacies and detail fell to the side of visuals.

Film’s limited story time necessitates cuts in detail, faster action, scenes and dialogue rather than exposition or narrative. Prose allows variations in the narrative time, created through shifts in dialogue, scene and narrative etc, with the writer’s pen following close or distancing itself from characters at their own leisure. On screen, these shifts are harder to render. Usually relying on the camera’s zoom, expository dialogue, and scenes because narrative doesn’t quite work the same way. It’s not bad, per se, but it is different. And it causes issues when directors want to translate text into image.

With non-linear and fragmented novels this is trickier. The Amazon translation of The Man in the High Castle impressed me for the way they handled such a text. They managed to take Philip K Dick and make his bizarre novella consumable as a series albeit a very different to the original. Similarly with The English Patient, the dreamy visual medium of the movie replicates Ondaatje’s lyrical prose, but does so at the expense of the non-romantic plots central to the novel.

The fact is a movie has to do in maybe two-hours what a book does in three hundred pages. And that’s hard. It’s why you end up with characters being cut. Like Peeves in Harry Potter or Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings.

Although this still doesn’t explain why Olive and Emma have had their powers switched around in Burton’s upcoming film.


Is it all for the sake of some pretty, whimsical visuals? 

I don’t know why Burton has switched Olive and Emma except for the visuals. My concern is that sometimes films overdo those visuals and the story loses something as a result, this is particularly the case in films like his with such a specific aesthetic.

Reading allows you to become part of a world, to build and create it yourself. Watching, observing, in film that ability to immerse is lessened. You might sympathise but you don’t empathise in the same way. Visuals do a lot but remain limited.

Books hold unique magic. There’s a reason why games give players more and more freewill. Why virtual and augmented reality is so exciting to publishers looking to extend the reach of the literary. Books give power to the reader to piece the story together using their imaginations and immerse themselves in their own visuals. The imagined but unseen is powerful. The blank spaces are where we’re free to fill in the details ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Books vs. Films: a love/hate relationship with ‘creative license’

  1. Jack Binding says:

    Always a nervous moment when a book you love is adapted. I’d say with good novels, it’s hard to better them. There’s something about the depth you can mine from the printed page. I think this is why Stephen King adaptations are notoriously bad – characterisation is wonderful to read, but it’ll hit the cutting room floor in a movie. Although, I must say that I prefer it when the stories are drastically changed – American Psycho or the recent Hannibal TV show, for example. When this happens, you can see them as separate works of art and the mishandling of one has less impact on the enjoyment of the other.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Scribble Bug says:

      Absolutely agree. Hannibal is genius. Even though some ‘adaptations’ are sometimes thinly veiled fanfiction, I don’t necessarily mind when they’re unique enough stories. It’s when a book is really, really good and they change small but important things that I get most irked.

      Liked by 1 person

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