When books become movies

With The Hobbit and Life Of Pi recently out in theatres, I’ve been thinking about how books translate into movies. It’s especially relevant for Life of Pi, which has been called “unfilmable”.


I definitely agree that the novel Life of Pi can’t be transcribed into a movie with 100% accuracy. Beyond that hooky “kid in a lifeboat with a tiger” premise, it’s a very reflective story that talks about Pi’s spirituality and emotional reactions — which are difficult to put into a movie. You pretty much need a narrative voice-over or some expositional conversations between characters, both of which can come off clumsy. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it’s rare that visuals can capture a character’s most articulate thoughts. So I do want to see the Life of Pi movie, but I’m not foolish enough to expect the exact book experience.

I think that’s the main thing to remember about movie versions of books: they’re adaptations. The movie is “based on” the book, not intended as a perfect equivalent. Books and movies have very different skill sets, so it’s not likely that a story will translate exactly from one medium to the other. Action-filled stories might be better in movie form. Books with good concepts but flawed writing might benefit from being filmed. But the beautiful prose of a literary story? Not so much. And some stories lose run time when their POV character can’t monologue internally, so new material needs to be added for the movie — Coraline is an example of this.

In the movie, this kid suddenly existed and was a big deal.

In the movie, this kid suddenly existed and was a big deal.

I’ve thought about whether my stories would make good movies. Just for the sake of wondering about it, not because I have a movie deal in the works or anything. The Aligare world would certainly make for some gorgeous visuals, with all the interesting-looking races, natural vistas and colourful magic. (I wouldn’t want the place to look too clean and perfect, though. There’d be some realistic dirt.)

As for the stories? Remedy would do well because it relies a lot on conversations between characters; the scenes that got cut would probably be people’s angsty internal monologues, which don’t have to be there word-for-word. Ravel would need some adaptation, but since Llarez is a storyteller by trade, I’m sure he could voice-over his own chapter to good effect. And the way Render is panning out … hmm. Rue spends a lot of scenes thinking the opposite of what people around her are saying. That book would be tricky to adapt faithfully. I guess Rue could exposit to her dog.

"What's that, Feor? Timmy was pushed down the well by ravenous wolves?"

“What’s that, Feor? Timmy was pushed down the well by ravenous wolves?”

So I don’t think the potential to be a good film is something that should be taken for granted, or even expected. It’s just one more quality that distinguishes a given book from every other story out there.

How science helps fantasy

I had a bunch of VHS-taped cartoons when I was a kid. One of them was The Flight of Dragons, an animated fantasy movie that came out in 1982. It was from the golden age of family viewing, when moviemakers could use ten-dollar vocabulary and mention hell in front of The Children.

The Flight of Dragons used a lot of stock fantasy ideas, namely a rag-tag group of adventurers journeying to stop a dark wizard because destiny says so. They receive some magical artifacts with very specific uses. Oh, and one of the adventurers is a 20th century man dragged magically into this realm he doesn’t fully understand. These were well-worn storytelling tropes even at the time, but my kid self wouldn’t have known. And those tropes are just a base to support the more interesting themes of the movie.

As I watched and rewatched, one really interesting concept sank into my young self’s imagination. In the The Flight Of Dragons, the magical world is being weakened by the onward march of science. Magic exists by its own mystery and people’s faith. Science, on the other hand, seeks out unknowns and exposes them. The two schools of thought can’t coexist. And yet, science does need magic. As Carolinus the Green Wizard tells it:

“The world, though it does not realize it, cannot do without magic. For example, man hears of the dragon’s invulnerable skin and lo, he makes armour, battleships, tanks! A fairy flies, and furiously jealous, man himself defies gravity with machines he will call airplanes. A magician looks into his crystal and sees and hears halfway across the world. Ah, says man! If only it could be so! Centuries from now, he conjures up miracles and calls them radio and television. If man is to surmount the unsurmountable, there must always be magic to inspire him. The world needs magic! Magic cannot die.”

It’s true. Science makes its greatest discoveries when humanity is trying to achieve a goal. When someone imagines a better future and tries to build a path there, science can make our fantasies a reality.

The scene that stands out most for me is when the 20th century man, Peter, has been accidentally merged into a dragon’s body. So the dragon Smrgol needs to teach him to be a dragon, including how to fly.

Smrgol: [After directing Peter to eat gems and limestone:] It makes the fire in your belly that gives you lift.

Peter: Hmm … Limestone is high in calcium. Calcium, when mixed with stomach acid, would form hydrogen. Hydrogen is lighter than air, thus giving the lift you talk about, something like a blimp!

Smrgol: What? [Sighs.] You got fire inside you when you go up. That’s all you need to know.

Peter: No, that’s not logical. How could my ribs contain fire?

And then Peter makes Smrgol explain anatomy and “dragon-fire” so he can draw a diagram, all the while getting excited that dragon flight makes scientific sense. It’s a more interesting premise than “dragons can fly because they just can”.

I didn’t specifically remember this scene until I rewatched the movie as an adult. But I think it has played a major role in my storytelling tastes. Fantasy and science can work together even when the story is firmly rooted in fantasy ideals. In fact, science can lend credibility to a fantasy story. Among strange spells and prophecies and kingdoms, it can be a pleasant surprise to find that our modern Earth physics and thermodynamics still make sense. It suggests that this fantasy world isn’t so strange we can’t understand it.

When I think of inspiring fantasy stories, I actually don’t think of many books. Which is weird for a writer, I’m sure, but some messages are bigger than the media they come from. And marrying concepts — such as science and fantasy — can make for more thought-provoking tales.