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Debate – “Based on the Novel By” – Is Film Indebted to Literature?


Posted July 9, 2014 by

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“Based on the Novel By” – Is Film Indebted to Literature?

With Hollywood’s ever-growing attraction to adapting the works of literature, we ask, whatever happened to originality?

Despite the much advancement in cinematic technology, it seems that certain avenues of contemporary cinema are in fact, running in reverse. As opposed to the fresh minds of talented screenwriters, Hollywood, for many years, have found their ideas rooted amongst the musky pages of already established books, or just in any books for that matter; we’ve all been into Waterstones and seen the ever-growing category entitled ‘Now a major motion picture’. As the boundaries between filmmaking and literature become increasingly blurred, we ask, is Hollywood finally running out of ideas?

Cinema history has allowed itself to be dictated by age-old stories that have already been told in some way or another. Glancing over the filmic timeline, we are met with countless regurgitations of fairytales, comics, historical biopics, period dramas and even Shakespeare to name a few. Living in the contemporary age where reboots (The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight, Godzilla) and remakes (The Italian Job, Mad Max) are becoming increasingly popular, it seems that Hollywood screenwriters are struggling to come up with just a little originality.

Although we are subjected to more and more of this “falling on literature” way of operating in contemporary filmmaking, film history proves that this is in fact nothing new to the cinematic world. The list of classic novels turned classic films is infinite: The Godfather, The Shining, Trainspotting, The English Patient, Silence of the Lambs, Shawshank Redemption, so on and so forth. Said movies, inclusive of its many alike, have indeed contributed to the way we view cinema today. So are we correct in thinking that this says more about literature than it does about film? In frequently hijacking novel narratives and churning out some Hollywood-made product for the masses, does that mean the vast filmic empire owes a debt of gratitude to its literary cousin?

Literary scholars would argue superiority here, simply because novels have generally always provided the basis for which film could grow. However, film theorists would counter that by arguing, it is in the reworking of a novel’s narrative into a filmic narrative that helps to keep its pages alive, as it renews its stance in the mainstream; you only need to look as far as a book’s revised filmic front cover to see that this is true. For the man on the fence, to declare inter-dependence would also be valid. Global franchises such as James Bond, Lord of the Rings, Twilight, The Hunger Games and Harry Potter are all indebted to their source material because without it, there would be no film franchise. Likewise, its source material is similarly indebted to the film that precedes it. Cinema has the power to give works of literature time in the spotlight and the recognition that it may not garner on its own strength.

Over the years, Hollywood has learned, or perhaps has always known, that there’s a certain box office assurance that comes with claiming a film to be based on a novel, especially when dealing with bestsellers: Shutter Island, Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Woman In Black. Whilst inviting this literary stigma to be attached to a particular release, the potential fan base is maximised, as followers of its neighbouring medium are essentially hoodwinked. Moreover, in enforcing high-concept advertising strategy, there even lies the possibility of persuading one that the filmic version is in fact the superlative; Harry Potter – book or film?

When a novel or piece of writing endures success, production studio vultures, suddenly with dollar signs for eyeballs, are quick to push for a cinematic release date, ergo 50 Shades of Grey. This can only ever be one-way traffic though, as who ever heard of a novel “based on the film by”?

With the general consensus now being that cinema is dry of original ideas, more and more of us are acclimatising to the quick spreading notion that the best storytelling, in the here and now, belongs to television. However, what people don’t necessarily realise is even hit T.V programmes leech off literature. Dexter, Homeland, True Blood, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire and Bones all derive from literary works. So, again we ask, what ever happened to originality?

Yes, the majority of our box office and television titles are in some way tied to literary source material, but is it acceptable to believe that we find absolution in the fact that film and television can offer us something that literature can’t? In the meantime, we continue to wait for the next original screenplay (most likely out the Tarantino or Nolan camp) to come along and blow our minds; and blow our minds it will, simply because we are no longer used to it.

Just pay attention to how many films you see are based on books – I dare you.


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Anthony Lowery
Freelance Contributor

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One Comment


    It could also be argued that the best storytelling can be found on Youtube. Many talented writers/producers, who would normally be excluded thanks to the racism and sexism prevalent in Hollywood, have found an outlet through Youtube to present original stories and create web series and reach an audience that is often forgotten about by the major motion picture industry (and quite weary of the rehashed and unoriginal nonsense peddled by Hollywood of late). Also, by creating these web series, these writers have more control over the content and message sent out to their audiences, among the many other aspects of producing a film. The planning, creativity and persistence required to make a web series a success contributes greatly, at least in my opinion, to the richness and originality of the content. Look at the case of Issa Rae, who started with the Awkward Black Girl series, who is now set to produce a tv series for HBO. She has also helped along other independent writers to find an audience. A similar grassroots movement for creative and original content could be what is need for Hollywood.

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