Film adaptations of novels, as well as other sources, have existed almost as long as the medium of film itself. Trilby was a best-selling novel in 1895 that was quickly adapted into an 1896 motion picture short entitled Trilby and Little Billee. In 1901 and 1902 a number of notable literary works were adapted for film, including Gulliver’s Travels and Robin Crusoe. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was adapted seven times as a silent movie before the first talking-film version, Scrooge, was released in 1935.
While many critics and moviegoers agree that the original source material is typically superior to film adaptations, there have been many exceptions to this rule. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is considered a landmark film, while Peter Benchley’s novel is not discussed beyond its connection to the movie. Chuck Palahniuk, author of the novel Fight Club, went so far as to say David Fincher’s film adaptation made him “embarrassed of the book” because of the improvements made to the story’s plot structure.
Of course, not all authors share this sentiment. Novelist John le Carre described the book-to-film adaptation process as “seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.” J.D. Salinger’s experience with Hollywood is emblematic of Carre’s take: after seeing the film version of his short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” Salinger vowed to never sell the film rights to any of his works, including his famous novel The Catcher in the Rye.
Some authors have had mixed experiences regarding film adaptations of their work. For instance, Bret Easton Ellis has seen five of his novels adapted for the screen, including American Psycho and his debut novel, Less Than Zero.
Speaking about American Psycho, Ellis cited a large gap between the themes of his novel and those presented in Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner’s screenplay for the initial critical reception of the movie, which largely centered on the movie’s graphic violence, sex, and excessive social satire.
On the other hand, his views on the movie version of Less Than Zero have shifted from one extreme to the other over time. Ellis initially refused to watch the film due to the number of liberties taken by the filmmakers. More recently, Ellis has warmed to the on-screen depiction of his semi-autobiographical novel, praising the performance of Robert Downey, Jr., and stating that the cinematography and soundtrack provide a compelling snapshot of a particular moment in American culture.
In fact, rather than becoming disillusioned by the adaptation process, Ellis has expressed interest in Downey Jr. reprising his role in an adaption of the sequel, Imperial Bedrooms, and worked on a Hulu series adaptation of Less Than Zero.
On rare occasions, audiences praise both the source material and adaptation. The Godfather by Mario Puzo is regarded as the definitive gangster novel, while the film adaptation is consistently praised as one of the greatest films ever made.
A number of novel and short story adaptations have been celebrated at the Academy Awards. The first Oscar for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) was awarded in 1929. Recent winners include adaptations of Christine Luenen’s Caging Skies (adapted by Taika Waititi as Jojo Rabbit) and The Descendants, adapted by Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, and Jim Rash from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel of the same name.