Can Terrible Books Make Great Movies?

And.... don't cut.

And…. don’t cut.

Yes, of course they can!

We tend only to talk about the great books we know which were assassinated by bad films, but we forget that there is another side to the coin.

Filmmakers are always looking for ideas, and screenwriting tutors will tell you that it’s a hell of a lot easier for an unknown writer to sell a script if it’s based on a published book (and you have the permission to do so, obviously). If the book is popular it obviously helps, but sometimes, all you need is a good screenwriter to identify the kernel of a good story, even if it is atrociously written, and rescue it by turning it into a screenplay.

A badly-written book can still have a great story, or at the very least, a story which is made great by virtue of its popularity. No book would be popular if it didn’t strike some chord with readers. In order to become a bestseller, there has to be some hook which lures all those thousands to millions of readers into its net.  Of course, if it’s that badly written, it may not become a bestseller at all, but let’s face it, we all know dozens of examples to the contrary. And why argue with popularity? If readers  find something to like, there no use in despairing over the opinions of the majority.  Art is not always about execution: it is very often about the idea.

Film Action!A great team can take a book which veers between repetitive and bland prose to downright awfulness, find the nugget of the story within it, extract that, tart it up, eliminate the silly peripheral stuff, augment the attractive insightful stuff, and make a bloody good film.  It should be every novelist’s dream, because nothing else will make a person richer than a good movie based on a poor book.

There are several examples brought to mind. I’m thinking about Twilight and 50 Shades first, obviously. Whatever you feel about the stories, the prose is so dodgy it could offer to fix the guttering on your house for 800 quid. In the case of 50 Shades, the first publicity shot with Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson is an indicator that the movie might not be as stupendously vomit-inducing an insult to language as the written version.  And loads of terribly irritating chick-lit characters make me want to punch them in the face until brought to life on screen by talented actresses who manage to turn them into acceptable humans (Bridget Jones, Shopaholic et al)

And it’s not all down on the authors, either. Sometimes a book can be published that just isn’t at the author’s best. Perhaps if they had just waited a while, and re-edited, or had a better editor, or a more understanding publisher, their book could have been better – or at the very least, the way they would have wanted it to be. A movie can make it into what it should have been in the first place.

Books and movies are perfect bedfellows, and we should be sleeping around. Authors, make eyes at screenwriters. And screenwriters, take an author out on a soppy date. When we’re all in the family way, we could be making beautiful art and literature together. And perhaps a living.

Film The EndHave you ever seen a bloody awful book turn into a great movie? Or for you, is it the other case – that books you loved were ruined by boring or cringeworthy films?

  8 comments for “Can Terrible Books Make Great Movies?

  1. johanna buchanan
    December 3, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    I’m not sure if a terrible book can make a great movie and I’ve certainly been disappointed with the movies of books I’ve loved but I do know that a good book Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers can be made into TWO great movies – Mary Poppins and Saving Mr. Banks


    • December 3, 2013 at 3:57 pm

      Whereas P.L. Travers might have said that Mary Poppins was a terrible movie based on a good book! We’ll never please some of the people even some of the time…


  2. December 3, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    I think it’s entirely possible to go either way. But to credit your post, I’d say that it’s more possible to make a great movie out of a good book, only because it’s another set of eyes on the prose. Like you stated, a book can be made much better by having another round of editing; so turning it into a screenplay or movie would serve that purpose.


    • December 4, 2013 at 8:56 am

      And of course there is the odd case of the writer who didn’t think they needed editing at all… The dissection of a screenwriter is exactly what they need!


  3. December 4, 2013 at 3:53 am

    I have read some books that really stunk and yet those books had a core of story that could have been great if handled differently – so, I agree! A badly written book could be tarted up (as you say) to be a good movie. It’s all about the story.


    • December 4, 2013 at 8:58 am

      I might give out about badly written prose now and then, but really I take my hat off to good stories every time, no matter how they’re written. You can throw all the intellectual styling you like at a poor story but it’ll never make it loved.


  4. Mary Patterson Thornburg
    December 5, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    As you say, badly-written books DO find publishers (and often self-pub companies), and are sometimes popular despite their atrocious prose. If they’re NOT popular, how do screenwriters find them? (In fact, if they’re well-written and still not popular, having been badly or not-at-all promoted, how do screenwriters find them?)


    • December 5, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      That’s the quandary, isn’t it? They have to be popular to be renowned. But if the story is good enough to make a great movie… Well. That’s 90% of the recipe for success full stop.


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