Books and Films: a battle of forms by Dika Ofoma

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There’s a familiar outcry when a favourite novel has been adapted for film, “The book was better!” This cry is screamed by book lovers who believe that a film can never be better than a book. While nothing trumps originality, sometimes; this bias, however, is misguided because these book lovers pay to see an adapted film hoping to relive images and sequences from the book they hold dear.

This need of wanting a film to remain intact or to satisfy accuracy stems from  the sentiments the book lovers had attached to the book. What they fail to understand is that a film can never be a book and this expectation of having everything on paper transmuted into the hallowed audiovisual spectacle of cinema is totally flawed. The question shouldn’t be which was better. The question should be, “was it a good adaptation?”

Adaptation can be likened to translation. When translating, one does not mindlessly translate word for word lest the core meaning of what is said is lost or watered down. With adaptation, capturing the essence of the book or whatever material is what is needed. This is not to say however that there haven’t been incidences of bad adaptations.

Films are naturally shorter and faster to consume. For instance, while it might take a reader  more than four hours or even days or months to finish the 541 pages of Half Of A Yellow Sun, the film’s duration is barely 2 hours, the same duration for something as boring as a mid-table clash in the Scottish second division. In this disparity lies the challenge for the filmmaker. What should go, what should stay. Adaptation requires a lot of pruning: determining what parts can be malled into film. To achieve this, the screenwriter must be immersed in the story first, only then can he/she determine what would work on screen and if there’s a need for additions for dramatic effect or to help build the story better and be more suited for screen. Because film and literature are two different mediums and art forms, what is written on paper would have to be retold entirely for picture. This does not necessarily mean treating a novel as just a template or a mere idea/inspiration for a film. Why not just write an original screenplay then? The film is based on the literature piece for a reason.

Nollywood’ biggest film adaptation in recent times is Adichie’s Half Of A Yellow Sun by Biyi Bandele. With the film, a lot of trimming than tweaking was done and for most viewers who had read the book initially, it did feel like it was a whole new thing altogether. While there were valid issues of miscasting, what did the story the most disservice was the narrative arch the film chose — Olanna and Kainene’s estranged relationship. Of course the screenwriter is not under an obligation to follow a book’s narrative arch, as have earlier been mentioned, not everything on paper is visual, but Bandele’s neglect of the powerful stories of characters such as Ugwu and Richard led to a failure in understanding some of the main characters and their motivations. Zeitoile Imma in their review of Half Of A Yellow Sun in the Africa is a Country blog writes: . . .with Ugwu as muted houseboy, Olanna’s transformation from upper-class socialite to war-traumatized yet fortified mother-wife is flattened without the mirror of Ugwu’s movement from subaltern domestic servant to politicized writer of the Biafran story. And without Richard’s precious and unfinished book manuscript to burn, Kainene’s tough-love forgiveness of his infidelity exists in a vacuum.

On the flip side, there have been instances where I had seen an adaptation before its literary original and I battled with the same experience like the “book is better” screamers.

The problem with reading novels that have been adapted into film after watching the adaptation, I have discovered, is that it sensationalizes what’s supposed to be a virginal slate of imagination. After seeing the first seasons of Game of Thrones, I got the book and read. I couldn’t read a chapter of the book without thinking of the scenes from the Series or how a particular actor had said their lines. So it was with Call Me By Your Name, The Hate You Give, Simon and The Homo Sapiens (adapted to film as Love, Simon) and so on. I find that with these novels, reading was reliving the scenes in the film and taking notes on what had been removed/added in the film. While there were exciting nostalgia relishing moments, reading after watching, dulled my imaginations as all I did was replay these films and so did not truly enjoy the book.

For me, the original work, the novel, became the adaptation.

For instance, I tried to picture 13 year old Daenerys Targarean but was stuck with the image of 30 year old Emilia Clarke. Do I now advice that one reads before watching? Or completely ignore book after seeing film adaptation?

A good movie adaptation requires an immersion into the story to determine the core of it. A good adaptation keeps to the core of the storyline and discovers elements that would work or not work on screen. A good adaptation does not replicate all that’s in a book scene for scene, dialogue for dialogue. It modifies and adjusts the story to be suitable for screen. But there are parts in a novel (dialogues, scenes) that works perfectly in the screenplay and on screen and should be lifted to screen. It is not criminal if the nostalgic needs of bibliophiles-cum-cinephiles are met in an adaptation. The film is based on the book for a reason. It wouldn’t be an adaptation if audiences see the film and it in no way reminds them of the book.

That said, I reiterate that books are not films and that films are not books. They are different art mediums and serve individual entertainment and otherwise purposes and thus should be treated and experienced differently. If we kept this at the back of our minds, there wouldn’t be need to determine which was better. What we would be asking is if it was a good adaptation.


  1. There’s a level to adaptation. Just like the film, Bamidele focused on the subplot of the book, the relationship between Olanma and Odenigbo, and make it the main plot of the movie. I guess he doesn’t want to shake political table and also the financial constraints.
    He did the best he could at that time with what he had.

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