Film Translation: Movies Made From Books

Is the book always better than the movie? Or Different?

Are movies meant to be the book we imagine, like this woman who is levitating above a couch while books float around her? Massimo Barbieri, 2007, via Wikimedia Commons

Are movies meant to be the book we imagine, like this woman who is levitating above a couch while books float around her?

Massimo Barbieri, 2007, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s one of life’s conundrums: we get so excited when a book we love gets made into a film, and then we get angry and disappointed when it isn’t exactly the way we imagined it OR the book actually gets changed around in ways we don’t like. The reason why has to do with the type of film translation.

Then again, it can work the opposite way. Have you ever read a book after you saw the movie, and suddenly things you didn’t quite get made sense?

There are lots of different reasons for this.

Sometimes, especially in older movies, the ending had to be changed. Major stars HAD to get the man (or woman) in the end because the image of the star the source material. In addition, the Hays Code, which controlled the content of American movies, meant that no one could be shown benefitting from a crime. If you did something wrong, you had to be punished.

Obviously, books have to be cut because it’s impossible to “act out” an entire novel in a 2 hour film, and anything that is internal in the book…such as thoughts…have to be depicted somehow. So all of this is complicated.

The best thing to do is to look at the reviews of the film and try to figure out the intention of the director, and from that try to determine how similar the film is going to be to the book and from that, what your interest is.

First, it’s important to understand that a film is a “translation” of a book. The filmmakers, led by the director, read the book and translate what they read into a film, which is a visual and aural representation of what they read, tempered by lots of people’s ideas and interpretations…sometimes even an audiences.

If you think that the interpretation of a book that is in your mind is the same as everyone else’s, try taking a descriptive passage from any book…the more detailed the better…and have people draw or otherwise represent what is written. You will be surprised.

Having said that, according to the college level text Literature into Film, there are three main types of translations.

1. Literal Film Translation

In a literal translation, the filmmakers try to recreate the world of the book and the action of the book as exactly as possible. We’ve all seen the miniseries that the BBC and PBS do, right? Unless it’s a miniseries, a film still can’t reproduce every aspect of the story, but in a literal translation, the filmmakers try to get as close as possible.

If you like watching movies base on your favorite books in order to relive them, this is the type of translation for you.

A recent example of a literal translation that I enjoyed is HBO’s Mildred Pierce, based on James Cain’s novel of the same name. When the original movie was made in the 1940’s, the novel was considered “unfilmable” because of the unpunished crime(s), among other things. The ultimate film is also really good…Joan Crawford won her only Academy Award for her portrayal of Mildred Pierce…but between the Hays Code and Joan Crawford’s star status, the book was considerably altered. The HBO version, on the other hand, takes about the same amount of time to watch as reading the novella, and I for one enjoyed seeing a world that is a bit challenging for me to picture on the screen.

If you really want your books into film traditional, try looking out for films made from short stories or novellas. With far less material to cover, short stories and novellas are easier to create literally.

Read more about the different versions of Mildred Pierce here.

2. Traditional Film Translation

In a traditional translation, the filmmakers try to tell the same story that the book does, with plot, character, and stylistic details consistent, but with some things changes as the filmmaker sees fit.

If you are watching a traditional translation of a book you loved, you might find yourself frustrated or disappointed with the changes. Try to keep in mind that some things just don’t play as well on the screen as they do in a book, or they are too hard to represent visually, but if it really bugs you, check the reviews carefully for any hint of change.

A good example of a traditional translation is the film The Age of Innocence made in 1995, based on the Edith Wharton novel. Many of Wharton’s characters, members of American “high society” during the Gilded Age, where depicted as living in gilded cages…but what cages they were! The film deprives the audience of none of it.


The Age of Innocence is in the public domain. The Lois Level recommends downloading public domain materials from Project Gutenberg. Click here to learn how and why. Click here to download The Age of Innocence, and click here to access all of Edith Wharton’s work available on Project Gutenberg in ebook and audio formats.

3. Radical Film Translation

In a radical translation, the filmmaker uses the book as a springboard but reshapes the source work significantly. The point of doing this might be to present an interpretation of the book, rather than a literal recreation of the book, or it may be to create a work that stands independently of the book.

If the source text is what we call “straight nonfiction”, the less narrative there is in the source material, the more radical the film is probably going to be. And example is Nomadland. One radical thing the film does is to combine elements of a narrative film, such as the invention of Frances McDermott’s character, with elements of a documentary, in that the film included some of the individuals who were interviewed for the original book appearing as themselves.

I personally love this type of translation because to me, the film augments the book rather than simply recreating it in some way. I’ve described the book and the film Nomadland as companion pieces, which I feel is the way to go.

When you are deciding whether to go see a film based on a book, especially if you really love the book, do your homework and read the reviews carefully for code words that imply how closely the filmmaker followed the book, and then make your decision as to whether to see the film on that.

After you see the film, of course you are allowed to have any opinion that you want, but it’s kind of pointless to complain about how closely the film interpreted the book when the film has obviously never set out to interpret the book “closely”. Mainly, you will just prove to everyone that YOU missed the point.

You will sound far more sensible if you make the point that you disagree with how something is interpreted rather simple that “it isn’t in the book”.

One example that comes to my mind is the scene in the store in the Greta Gerwig’s 2019 Little Women. Obviously that scene is not in the book, but there is a lot of stuff in that movie that isn’t in the book that doesn’t bother me. I knew going into it that it’s a radical translation and also that the filmmaker plays with the line between fact, author Louisa May Alcott’s life, and fiction, the novel she wrote based on her family life. What bugs me about it is that 2019 intruded on the film’s 186-something’s world in a way that struck me as anachronistic. Also, Louisa May Alcott served as a nurse for the Union army HERSELF during the Civil War. Alluding to that made a lot more sense to me that the clumsy scene they had.

As a point of comparison, if you want to see a traditional translation of Little Women, stick with Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film, or for a literal translation, try the PBS miniseries.

So before you head out (or to your sofa or media room, you lucky duck) to see your next “movie based on your favorite book”, do yourself a favor and figure out what you are likely to see before you start. Then judge the film on that…or spare yourself the frustration.


Little Women is in the public domain and is available on Project Gutenberg. Click here for Little Women and here for all of Louisa May Alcott’s work available on Project Gutenberg in ebook and audio formats.