Film Adaptations Of Books Essay Writing

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Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays

          — With Discussion Questions and Assignments

      For a list of movies frequently shown as adaptations of literary works, see TWM's Adaptations Index.

Used appropriately, movies based on novels or short stories can supplement units based on the written original, enhance students' interest in analyzing the written work, and motivate classes to excel in completing assignments that teach the skills required by the ELA curriculum. Filmed versions of plays supply the same benefits and often provide an experience that is close to viewing a live performance. Studying a cinematic adaptation of a literary work will show students how words are converted to visual media and allow a comparison of the written original to the cinematic version, permitting teachers to highlight the techniques of both film and the written word in telling a story. Presenting a filmed adaptation with high production values will demonstrate that movies can be an art form which communicates differently, but no less importantly, than the written word. Moreover, when used as a reward for having read a novel, a filmed adaptation can demonstrate that novel-length works of fiction usually contain a wealth of detail, information, and subplot that cannot be included in a movie. For all of these reasons, filmed adaptations of novels, short stories, or plays, are excellent resources for lessons requiring students to learn and exercise the analytical and writing skills required by ELA curriculum standards.

Note that novels and short stories can be analyzed for their use of the devices of fiction. Plays employ most of the devices of fiction but add the theatrical devices of music, sound effects, lighting, acting, set design, etc. Movies employ most of the fictional and theatrical devices as well as a separate set of cinematic techniques such as shot angle, focus, editing, etc. This essay focuses of the literary devices shared by written works, theatrical works, and film. For an analysis of theatrical and cinematic devices, see TWM's Introducing Cinematic and Theatrical Elements in Film.


Usually, a filmed adaptation of a written work is best shown after a novel or short story has been read by students. This avoids the problem of students watching the movie in place of reading the book or story. However, in certain instances, where the written work is hard to follow or when students have limited reading skills, it is better to show the film before reading the written work or to show segments of the film while the writing is being read. Students who have difficulty reading a novel or a short story can often follow the conflicts, complications, and resolutions in a screened version that they would otherwise miss. For example, obscure vocabulary and difficult sentence structure in The Scarlet Letter and Billy Budd make these classics difficult reading for today's students. The PBS version of the The Scarlet Letter and the Ustinov version of Billy Budd are excellent adaptations which can serve as an introduction and make the reading more understandable. Viewing a filmed adaptation of a book by Jane Austen enables students to understand the story and avoid getting lost in the language as they read.

Plays, which were meant to be watched rather than read, are usually a different matter. Viewing a staged presentation with actors, a set, sound, and lighting is an experience more like watching a movie than reading a script. One of the few exceptions are the plays of Shakespeare which are usually better when read and studied before they are seen. Students need to be introduced to the Bard's language in order appreciate a performance.


A film can be segmented, or chunked, and shown before or after the corresponding segment is read by students studying the novel, story or play on which the movie is based. Have students keep up with the reading so that the timing is accurate and the events in the film do not get ahead of their presentation in the written work.

Several of the assignments suggested in Section IV can be modified for segmented viewing. The following assignment will allow students to exercise their analytical and writing skills after a segment of the film has been shown. The assignments can be modified to focus on specific elements of fiction or literary devices.

    Discussion Question: What is the difference in the presentation of the story between this segment of the film and the corresponding sections of the [novel/story/play]? [Lead students into a discussion of any important elements of fiction or literary devices which are present in both or which are present in one but not the other.]
    Assignment:[Describe a scene in the film.] Compare this segment of the movie with the corresponding sections of the [novel/story/play]. Cite specific examples to illustrate how the presentation in the two media either differ or are the same. Your comparison should include: (1) any elements of fiction and literary devices which are present in both or which are present in one but not in the other; (2) a discussion of the tone of the two presentations; and (3) an evaluation of the two presentations stating which you think is more effective in communicating the ideas contained in the story, including your reasons for that opinion. When you refer to the [novel/story/play], list specific pages on which the language you are referring to appears.


Comparing film adaptations with their literary sources can enhance students' ability to analyze, think, and critique the writing, imagery, and tone of a literary work. Differences between the movie and the written work can be used to explicate various literary devices. The discussion questions and assignments set out below, as they are written or modified to take into account the needs of the class, will assist teachers in making good use of a filmed adaptation of a novel, short story, or play.

Before showing the film, think about whether you want to point the students' attention toward any issues that you want them to think about as they watch the movie. This could be the use of a motif or other literary device or changes in theme. Many of the discussion question and assignments set out below can be easily adapted to be given to students before they watch the film, the discussion to be held, and the assignment completed after the movie is over.


Fill in the blanks with a number appropriate to the abilities of the class and the relationship of the written work to the filmed adaptation. To make sure that students complete the assigned reading, the exercises set out below require a thorough knowledge of the written work with references to page numbers of the text.
  • Discussion Question: How is the presentation of [name a major character who appears in both versions] different in the [book/story/play] and the movie? [Follow up with:] Why did the filmmakers change the way in which this character was presented?
    Assignment: Describe _____ characters which appear in both the film and the [book/story/play]. At least one of them should be a minor character. Specify how dialogue, action, and physical appearance in the movie define the individual. Using direct quotes from the written work, citing page numbers, describe the characters using the same criteria. Evaluate which presentation is best in allowing either the viewer or the reader to fully grasp the nature of the characters.
  • Discussion Question: Were any scenes described in the [book/story/play] substantially altered in the filmed adaptation? [Follow up with:] Why did the filmmakers change the scene?
    Assignment: Select at least _____ scenes from the film that were altered considerably from similar scenes described in the [novel/story/play]. Use direct reference to details in order to illustrate the differences. Cite specific page numbers when you are referring to anything appearing in the [book/story/script]. Evaluate the changes in terms of how well the intention of the scene is made manifest in either media.

  • Discussion Question: What elements of fiction appear in the [book/story/play] but not in the film? Did this detract from the quality of the story told by the movie?
    Assignment: Note _____ examples of elements of fiction that have been left out of the film but seem important in the [book/story/play]. Suggest reasons that may justify the elimination of the scenes, characters, subplots, or settings. Be sure to use direct reference, with page numbers, to the written work in order to support the opinion offered.
  • Discussion Question: Did the filmmakers add any characters or events that do not appear in the [book/story/play]? Did this help to tell the story first suggested in the literary work?
    Assignment: Often in movies, the screenwriters will add characters or events that do not appear in the original [book/story/play]. Note _____ examples of these additions and suggest reasons that they may have been written into the film.
  • Discussion Question: How does the tone of the story told in the film differ from the tone of the story told in the [book/story/play]?
    Assignment: Evaluate the tone created in the movie. Cite clear examples of color, visuals, editing, and music that may have contributed to the tone of any particular scene. Compare the tone created in the film to the tone created in the [book/story/play] using the same scene. Cite specific examples, giving page numbers, of the description that created the tone in the written work.
  • Discussion Question: Did this film change the theme or any of the ideas presented in the [novel/story/play]? What were they? Did these changes improve on the story underlying both the written work and the movie?
    Assignment: Ideas are the reasons stories are told. Themes are the major ideas in a story; however, most stories contain other ideas as well. Some films change the ideas presented in the work of literature from which they were adapted. Pay close attention to theme and other ideas in both the written version and in the movie and write about how they were changed. Evaluate the changes.
  • Discussion Question: Which told the story better, the [novel/story/play] or the movie?
    Assignment: Often a story will seem to be deprived of beauty or meaning by the changes made in a filmed adaptation. On other occasions, the experience of the written story will be enriched by watching a filmed version. Write an informal essay stating your opinion of the quality of the story told by the movie as compared to the [novel/story/play]. Justify your opinion with direct reference to both the film and the written work; for the latter, cite the specific page numbers for the passages on which you rely.
  • Discussion Question: Compare the settings of the story in the written work and in the movie. Is the movie faithful to the [novel/short story/play] in terms of the settings used?
    Assignment: How do the settings in the movie reflect the images of place found in the [novel/story/play]? Describe specific details in both the film and the work of literature that support your conclusion. When referring to the written work, cite page numbers.
  • Discussion Question: Compare the use of visual images in the movie and in the [novel/story/play] in the description of the various characters.
    Assignment: Using specific examples of written descriptions in the literary work and visuals in the movie, discuss the presentation of character contained in both.
  • Discussion Question: Describe any important differences in theme between the story appearing in the written work and the story told on screen.
    Assignment: Attitude toward subject, meaning the basic topic (such as war, love, politics) can shift dramatically between a [novel/story/play] and its movie adaptation. Explain through example any changes that can be seen between the attitude toward the subject expressed by the filmmakers and presented by the author of the [book/story/play].
  • Discussion Question: Were any important motifs, symbols, or allusions included in the work of literature missing or changed in the movie adaptation? Why do you think the filmmakers made these changes?
    Assignment: Important motifs, symbols, or allusions contained in a written work of fiction are sometimes missing or changed in the movie. Specify examples of these literary tools that are not a part of the filmed adaptation. Note any replacement motifs, symbols or allusions contained in the movie.
  • Discussion Question: What, if any, were the changes in the plot between the [book/story/play] and the film?
    Assignment: Rising action, an important part in the plots of both written fiction and movies, may be different in filmed adaptations. Note any changes. Describe details which are important in the written work that have been removed from the movie and details which are not in the [book/story/play] which have been added by the filmmakers. When referring to the written work, give the page numbers of any passages or details to which you refer. Justify the changes.
  • Discussion Question: Which ending did you like better, the conclusion of the [book/story/play] or the way in which the movie ended? Explain why.
    Assignment: Compare the ending of the [book/story/play] to the ending of the film. Illustrate how any differences either reiterate or obscure the intention of the original work. Cite specifics and support all assertions.


Movies with screenplays that are carefully adapted from novels, short stories, and plays can be an important part of lesson planning. Using the techniques described above, teachers can make film adaptations an integral part of the learning process.

This web page was written by Mary RedClay and James Frieden. Revised on November 3, 2010.

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Adapting to Adaptations: A Look at the Relationship between Book and Film

When talking about adaptations, a common thing one might hear is “That’s not how it happened in the book!” But surely there is more to adaptations than simply loyalty between film and book. One must delve deeper to understand the relationship between books and films when an adaptation is made. There is bound to be discussion (when examining adaptations) of what novels can do that film can’t and vice versa. Novels are verbal and use words to tell a story, while films are visual and rely on images to do the telling. But there is more to the balance between a book and its film adaptation. Once one fully comprehends the relationship between book, film, and adaptation, one can see that adaptations should be treated as a literary art form of their own. Adaptations are a category of their own and should be treated accordingly.

In order to discuss the relationship between book and film in adaptations and the reasons behind the controversy of that relation, it is important to first look at the history of adaptations in order to understand the background surrounding that industry. By doing so, one can see the way adaptations have evolved throughout the years and the manners in which the opinions regarding adaptations have changed and varied and even adapted to the current era. We will examine the ways in which adapting literature to film is viewed in our society and the reasons behind both praise and critical reception of adaptations.

Although adaptations from page to stage had been done by Shakespeare in the 1600’s, film adaptations took quite a long time to come about. It wasn’t until Georges Méliés began to see film as a means for personal expression that film was even thought of as literary. Méliés was the first to adapt a work of literature for the screen. In 1902, he adapted Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon into the black-and-white, silent, science-fiction film A Trip to the Moon. Named one of the 100 greatest films of the 20th century by Village Voice, A Trip to the Moon was not only widely popular for its special effects and innovative animation, and for being the first known science-fiction film, but also because it did something else, too: it created a domino-effect. Méliés went on to produce many more adaptations over the next years such as Gulliver’s Travels (1902), Robinson Crusoe (1902), and “The Legend of Rip Van Winkle (1905). After him, many French and Italian filmmakers started making their own adaptations of classic books. Americans, of course, followed using novels, poems, plays and short stories.

Adaptations were greeted positively at first, with critics thinking them educational and innovative. Influential film artist D. W. Griffith: “Early movies were met with praise not only for their innovation, but for the promise they offered in educating their audiences.” Film critic Stephen Bush said in the 1911 The Moving Picture World, “An epic that has pleased and charmed many generations is most likely to stand the test of cinematographic reproduction… after all, the word “classic: has some meaning. The merits of a classic subject are nonetheless certain because known and appreciated by comparatively few men. It is the business of the moving picture to make them available to all. Jack London believed that motion pictures could break down the “barriers of poverty and environment” and provide “universal education”. Paramount magazine (1915) stated: “The greatest minds have delivered their messages through their book or play. The motion picture spreads it on the screen where all can read and understand- and enjoy”.

The popularity of adaptations continued to rise over the next years. So much so, that in 1939, nearly every film competing for an Academy Award was an adaptation; adaptations of such classics such as Of Mice and Men, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights. Between 1927 (when the awards were created) and 1977, three fourths of awards for “Best Picture” went to adaptations. Some of the most popularly adapted authors included Balzac, Hugo, Dickens, and Sienkiewicz. Film adaptations remained popular in the following decades.

Nowadays, film adaptations aren’t strictly literary classics but rather span across a broad range of genres such as mysteries, thrillers, horror, and romance novels. Some of these more modern adaptations include Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, Carrie, The Godfather, and Pelican Brief. According to 1992 statistics, 85% of all Oscar-winning “Best Pictures” are adaptations. And it’s no wonder; there are countless film adaptations that virtually defined their ages and provided catch-phrases and concepts significant to the popular culture. Some of these include Slaughterhouse-Five, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catch-22, The World According to Garp, and Being There, among many others that addressed important and controversial contemporary issues.

Despite the growing popularity of adaptations, there are a lot of concerns and arguments against adaptations, and they’re not all for the same reasons. One such argument is that adaptations work against the uniqueness of film. Film is its own creative art form and using other works to adapt them to film stifles that creativity and prevents original work from being produced. This growing popularity of adaptations not only dissolves the barrier between literature and film, but it creates a stigma that film is there to serve as another medium for which to display literature, rather than existing as its own separate entity capable of narrative merit.

But the disdain against adaptations doesn’t seem to stem simply from the viewpoint that adaptations shouldn’t be made at all, but rather, that they shouldn’t be made into film. “It does seem to be more or less acceptable to adapt Romeo and Juliet into a respected high art form, like an opera or a ballet, but not to make it into a movie” (Hutcheon, 3). So the concern is not that adapting will reduce the quality of the original work, but that it is actually the form or medium it is being translated to that matter. In this case, a film is thought to lower the original, causing the general disdain for adapting works of literature-particularly classics-into film. Director Alain Resnais once claimed he would never shoot an adaptation because “the writer [had] completely expressed himself in the novel and wanting to make a film of it is a little like re-heating a meal.”

There are certain authors that actually enjoy adaptations of their work such as William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, who, although he liked aspects of the film, deliberately chose to stay uninvolved with the process. Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five, thought that Universal pictures created a “flawless translation” of his book, but said that ultimately, he doesn’t like the how “clankingly real” and “industrial” film is.

This is not always the case, however. Another argument against adaptations is that combining both mediums could only end up harming them both. Virginia Woolf (1926) in “The Movies and Reality” claimed that alliance between cinema and literature was “unnatural” and “disastrous” to both films; but the short end of the stick would ultimately be the original work since adaptations hurt the books that are being adapted. Hannah Arendt claimed that the problem with adaptations was that films used novels as material to appeal to the masses when it ran out of ideas of its own and that the real issue is that the “material…must be prepared and altered in order to become entertaining”. It is these alternations that are detrimental to the original work and the reasoning behind opposition to the practice of adapting classic literature to film.

Consider the case of J. D. Salinger’s story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” was made into a 1949 film called My Foolish Heart. Except for a framing story, there is little resemblance between the film and the book. The story was transformed from an exposé of the suburban society into a sentimental love story with a happy ending. He was so traumatized by the experience that he decided never to get involved with adaptations again. My Foolish Heart remains, to this date, the only authorized adaptation of Salinger’s writings to film. And now the world will never see a film adaptation of Catcher in the Rye because of it. Then there is the case of Willa Cather, whose novel A Lost Lady was adapted very loosely into a film in 1934. The film did not live up to the novel’s reputation and is now generally regarded as nothing more than mediocre. As a result, Cather stated in her will that she would not release any rights to any of her literary works.

With this overwhelming amount of negative reception for adaptations, one has to wonder how they’re still alive and kicking in this day and age, full of cynical and hyper-critical audiences and critics. Hutcheon theorizes that the explanation behind this is that even though adaptations are thought of as inferior and secondary creations, they are familiar, and people derive pleasure from the familiar. “Part of this pleasure” Hutcheon explains, “comes simply from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise” (Hutcheon, 4).

People are innately attracted to the familiar, what they know won’t let them down is comforting. This is the reason directors and producers keep churning out adaptations, because they know they will sell. Adaptations inherently come with a pre-established fan base. If the original work has already gathered a following, then the possibilities of making money are greater than with an original script. There is, of course, a variety on the reasons behind this audience’s attendance. There are some that will attend an adaptation simply because they want to remember their original experience with the book fondly. There are also those who will want to uphold the standards of the original by scrutinizing every detail and comparing it by evaluating its faithfulness to its source. There will be the people that are so against adaptations that they just want to watch an adaptation crash and burn (which ironically, supports the adaptation with their presence regardless of their intent). And then there will always be those who have never even read the original work, but feel like they should have and will therefore use this adaptation as a means to stay “in the loop”. Whatever the case, there is no denying that adaptations sell. This gives some further insight into the phenomenon of the popularity of adaptations despite their reputation as lesser and inferior art.

Despite arguments such as Virginia Woolf’s, adaptations can actually end up being mutually beneficial for the original work and the film adapting it. Books helped by adaptations: reprinted books with a picture from the movie with the slogan “Now a major motion picture”. There are many instances of “forgotten” books or literature that has slipped through the cracks- whether it is old or new- that film adaptations actually bring back to life, so in a way, adaptations give those books an audience and got them noticed. By the same token, a film can benefit from not only the pre-established fan-base of a book, but also from using its name as a marketing strategy. Such is the case with films such as Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and Emma.

Then there’s, of course, the relation of book to film in terms of how faithful the adaptation is to its original source. Many critics’ views are that faithfulness is not a matter for textual analysis but rather for work on the way adaptations are received; faithfulness matters if it matters to the viewer. Strictly following the original source to the letter only becomes an issue when the intended audience is expecting it or demanding it. This is especially important when dealing with iconic works such as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserablés or with works that already have a very large and faithful following like Twilight, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or Lord of the Rings. There are also many critics and reviewers that put themselves in the role of the viewer who has not only read the book, but is expecting the film to be faithful to it. This is a mistake. Critics should not pretend to be the fan-base of the original work and in turn analyze (and criticize) an adaptation on the basis of its faithfulness to the original book. They should instead view the adaptation as an art form in and of itself and judge it accordingly, focusing instead on its literary and cinematographic merit apart from its “source”.

One thing adaptations should never do is pretend that they’re not adaptations. This is to say, that there are instances in which a film is not recognized as an adaptation because this is never acknowledged or perhaps the book is not well-known. Although this may be the case, adaptations should strive to be recognizable to anyone who is familiar with the original work, regardless of whether the adaptation is faithful to the source or not. As Catherine Grant stated: “The most important act that films and their discourses need to perform in order to communicate unequivocally their status as adaptations is to [make their audiences] recall the adapted work, or the cultural memory of it…there is no such thing as a ‘secret’ adaptation” (Grant, 57).

Recall; this is an interesting notion that often goes unmentioned when discussing adaptations. But it’s actually what, ultimately, the audience, as both readers of the original work and film enthusiasts long for when watching a film adaptation. Author Christine Geraghty focuses less on the way books are adapted and the process involved, and more on the ways in which the film adaptations cause us as viewers to recall things by watching them. Her book Now a Major Motion Picture, delves into the mental and emotional aspects that adaptations have on the audience, specifically for those who have read the original work before watching the film adaptation. She claims that adaptations often carry emotional weight, and that “familiar stories and generic references fold into one another, one setting can be seen through another” (Geraghty, 11). However, this is not to say that film adaptations shouldn’t be treated as autonomous works in their own right.

Barbara Tepa Lupack, author of Take Two: Adapting the Contemporary American Novel to Film has a similar train of though. She claims that the reason adaptations have so much controversy and criticism surrounding them is because “when we assess an adaptation we are not really comparing book to film but rather interpretation to interpretation- the novels that we ourselves have recreated in our imaginations out of which we have constructed or own “movie” and the novel on which a filmmaker has worked on a parallel transformation” (Lupack, 10). So we’re really comparing our own experience of the book to the director’s experience of the book. The reason it is imperial to keep this in mind, is that once we put into perspective our own personal reasons for judging a film adaptation roughly it becomes more clear that there are some unreasonable expectations set for adaptations that are almost impossible to fulfill without leaving at least one malcontent critic. One is far better off enjoying the memories that adaptations stir-up from the original source, or letting oneself be transported to a new unknown word (if one is not familiar with the original work). And if an adaptation is regarded as an art form of its own, then this process becomes simpler and more enjoyable for all.

Whether one is for or against adaptations, disregarding them as lesser art is a mistake because we will ultimately be closing off on the opportunity to experience both cinema and literature in a different light, one that only adaptations can provide. “An adaptation is always, whatever else it may be, an interpretation. And if this is one way of understanding the nature of adaptation and the relationship of any given film to the book that inspired it, it’s also a way of understanding what may bring such a film into being in the first place: the chance to offer an analysis and appreciation of one work of art through another.” (Lupack, 61-62). It is important to give credit to both the adaptation as well as the original work; although it is true that an adaptation wouldn’t exist without the original work, an adaptation should be respected as its own work as well.

Cited Works

Hutcheon, Linda. A theory of adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Geraghty, Christine. Now a major motion picture: film adaptations of literature and drama. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008. Print.

Lupack, Barbara Tepa, ed.. Take two: adapting the contemporary American novel to film. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994. Print.

Grant, Catherine. “Recognizing Billy Budd in Beau Travail: Epistemology and Hermeneutics of Auterist ‘Free’ Adaptation” Screen 34, no.1 (Spring 2002):57.


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