Is the Pen Mightier than the Screen?

Is the Pen Mightier than the Screen?

by Harsh Kichambare

As an amateur reader at fifteen and just having received a broadband connection, I was scrolling through countless listicles that would help me reach my end goal of being ‘well-read’. In most of these ‘100 Books to read before an untimely cardiac arrest’ or ’10 books that your favourite celebrity is reading’, one book always came to the front. It was ‘The Hobbit’ by J.R.R Tolkien. Like other mainstream books, there was always a slight peer pressure to read this one. So, I grabbed my keyboard, mouse, and my father’s credit card to order this piece of literature everyone was talking about. A few days later, when it arrived, my pre-unboxing excitement turned to disappointment, realising that I had received the Movie Tie-In Edition. Gone were the mysterious yet simple black cliffs and the red sun, replaced with Martin Freeman doing a ‘half-arsed superhero landing’. 

CHECK OUT: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

‘The Book is better than the Movie?’ is an age-old question always asked when an adapted film is released. The consensus seems to be that, more often than not, the book is better. But then still, why are books still adapted time and time again to the big screen? Is the Pen Mightier than the Screen? Or is it the other way around?

Literary Adaptations Through History

As the word suggests, literary adaptation is adopting a form of literature (novel, short story, poem) to another medium such as a film, stage play or video game. In other words, it is about taking a written work and reimagining it for a different medium. These often involve changing the story, the characters or the setting to suit the newer format.

The earliest instance of a literary adaptation comes to us in the form of a silent movie. A pioneer in the early days of cinema, Georges Méliès adapted the story of Cinderella (from the Grimm Brothers story) and King John (from a Shakespeare’s play of the same name) and released them in 1899. Apart from that, in 1900, there was a film called ‘Sherlock Holmes Baffled’. It was a 30-second film, only meant to be released in Mutoscope machines, which were hand-cranked projectors. The movie is said to have dealt with Sherlock Holmes intruding upon a supernatural burglary. What started as a half-minute featurette has now resulted in more than 250 screen adaptations of the resident at 221B Baker Street.

ALSO READ: 7 Movies Way Better than the Book (is that possible?)

The first movie that saw significant commercial success was a film adaptation of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ in 1925. The film was adapted from the Gaston Leroux 1909 novel of the same name. The film was a huge success and is still considered a classic of the silent film era. In the 1930s and 1940s, film adaptations of classic novels became increasingly popular, with an adaptation of works by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare being released. Notable adaptations from novels, plays and short stories were ‘Gone with the wind (1939)’ & ‘From Here to Eternity (1953)’, ‘Casablanca (1942)’, ‘Streetcar Named Desire (1951)’, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)’ & ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)’.

A notable work during the time was ‘Ben-Hur’ in 1959, based on the novel by Lew Wallace. The film won 11 Academy Awards. Throughout time, more literary adaptations emerged, inspired by the authors of J.R.R Tolkien and Stephen King, becoming hugely popular. The trend of literary adaptations has continued, with adaptations of works by authors such as Gillian Flynn and Margaret Atwood being released. 

The Good

Literary adaptations have been a staple of the entertainment industry for centuries, and good reason. There are numerous advantages to adapting a story from one medium to another, and these advantages can profoundly impact both the original work and the broader world of literature.

One of the most significant advantages of literary adaptations is their ability to reach new audiences. From my personal experience, more people have watched the ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (2005) movie than have read the book. And in doing so, the story has reached more people and people who are not typically interested in reading. Moreover, the film adaptations also help bring a new audience to the original work and introduce people to new ideas and perspectives.

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Another advantage of literary adaptations is their ability to preserve and reinterpret classic stories. As time goes by, stories can become lost or forgotten, but literary adaptations can help to keep them alive. By adapting a story into a new medium, the story can be brought back to life and given new meaning for a modern audience. It also provides a unique and relevant perspective on the original story. For example, movies such as ‘Easy A’, ‘She’s The Man’ & ’10 Things I Hate About You’ are loosely adapted from ‘The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne’, ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘Taming of the Shrew’ by William Shakespeare.

Furthermore, by taking a story and adapting it into a new medium, filmmakers, playwrights, and other artists can put their own unique spin on the story and explore new creative avenues. This can lead to fresh interpretations of classic works and help keep the literature world vibrant and exciting. Literary adaptations can also be a source of inspiration for new works of literature. Switching genres and narratives can lead to a more decadent take on the source material.

Authors also receive some benefits from the book-to-film adaptation. Apart from increased exposure and ugly book covers, adaptations can help bring financial benefits to the writers by selling book rights and royalties. In 1993, John Grisham made history by selling the rights of his unreleased book to Universal Pictures for a whopping 3.75 million dollars.

The Bad

Despite what it sounds like, the literary adaptation also comes with many disadvantages. One of which is the Loss of Control over the Source Material. Authors may feel they have lost control over their work when it is adapted into a new medium. They may think that interpretation of their story needs to be revised to their original vision or that critical elements of their work have been changed or left out. This is one of the reasons why people say that books are better than the movies. For example, the Percy Jackson series was hated by the writer of the original series Rick Riordan. Even fans of the series despise the movies and feel that the entire series was disappointing.

A lot of times the adaptations of the books take liberties with the stories themselves to fit the constraints of the medium. The medium of film is notorious for this reason. Where a normal screenplay would be roughly around 80-100 pages, the length of a book is more than 250 pages or so. Hence, there is less time to expand your world upon. This often makes it difficult to follow the source material to the T. For example, the 2005 movie ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ was criticised by the fans of the original series by Douglas Adams for its lack of humour and delineation from the source material that missed out on the unique tone of the book.

As was with my book anecdote earlier, the movie tie-in edition is one of the most cruel ways to brandish a literary piece of work under a multi-million dollar film deal. Though it does nothing to change the contents of the book, a glossy corporate cover wipes any memory of the book’s original form. It seems to scream that the cover of its adapted form supersedes any pre-existence.

Misrepresentation is another issue with literary adaptation. Often, filmmakers misrepresent the film's tone, or they need to be more accurate in the complex themes and characters of the book. Dilution of the message can often lead to the adapted media coming across as less authentic or ingenious. Moreover, there are also shady financial practices that are carried out in the adaptation process. Authors may be paid a one-time fee for the rights to their work rather than receiving ongoing royalties from adaptations. Smaller authors are at the receiving end of this more often than relatively well-known authors. Predatory contracts also exist within multinational media conglomerates. This is Financial Exploitation for people who have built these worlds up.


So, is the pen mightier than the screen? The answer is quite complex.

Any adaptation should be judged on the faithfulness of the adaptation of the original work, the quality of the adaptation, the compensation received by the original author, and the impact of the adaptation on the public perception of the original work.

On the one hand, literary adaptations can bring new life and exposure to classic works of literature, allowing them to reach a wider audience and be appreciated by generations. They can also generate significant financial benefits for the adaptations' creators and the original authors in some cases. On the Other hand, literary adaptations can also lead to the misrepresentation of the original work and a loss of the unique vision and voice of the original author. They can also result in financial exploitation of the original author and dilution of the public perception of the original work if the adaptation is of low quality.

In short, literary adaptations can have advantages and disadvantages, and it is essential to carefully consider these factors when assessing the impact of literary adaptations on the world of literature. Ultimately, the success of literary adaptation will depend on the approach and vision of the creators, as well as the quality of the final product.

Happy Reading!

- Harsh Kichambare

To read more article written by Harsh Kichambare - CLICK HERE

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