Page to Screen: Characters and Narrative (Week 1)

This is the first week in a series of articles, you can read Joe’s introduction to this series right here. Go on, I’m sure he’ll wait.

By Joe Strange


Film characters and book characters are very different creatures, that much is abundantly clear. Even when, with all good intentions, they’re meant to be the same character, the two mediums can give us completely different versions of our favourite heroes and villains. And often that throws the viewer through a loop, with a whole lot of ‘well that’s not how I imagined them’ being muttered.

The reasons behind this difference are actually fairly simple but that doesn’t make it an easy problem to solve, there are a lot of people in both industries far smarter than myself and if I could right all the wrongs in one internet article then the chances are someone would have done it in Hollywood already. I’m just here to get the idea going and maybe come up with some kinds of ways around the issues at hand.

The first issue is of the temporal kind; think of the time you’d dedicate to reading a book, versus that which you’d put towards watching a film. A book is much more of a commitment, and with that time you gain a deep understanding and affinity with the characters that you’re reading about. You could be reading the same book for weeks, even months if you’re one of those busy people who only have time for a score of pages a night. Authors know this and so the development of their characters is a gradual and natural progression. Characters grow slowly, the roots of their virtues and flaws deeply embedded in the verse and structure, and you see this as a reader, but more importantly you also experience this with them.

Compare this to the average 2 hours of run time for a film, as a viewer you are often thrown unceremoniously into the world, action or characters and are told to take what’s given to you as fact, without the gradual introduction to the world that a book allows. What this often leads to is lengthy exposition dumps in the form of the age old mentor, or introductory narration which more often than not rips you from the immersion and reminds you that you’re watching a world, instead of convincing you that you’re experiencing it. It’s worth noting too that to fans of the source material these dumps are somewhat unnecessary because they already know the world.

This dumping of information can also apply to the characters themselves. In the more lacklustre adaptations a character’s development comes down to a single scene that is apparently poignant to them, and causes them to change their ways or views. This is an understandable technique but somewhat of a double edged sword, the slow build to a change in perspective is difficult for a film-maker because they have to establish the pre-revelation character thoroughly before having the character change and then give the audience enough time with this new character to get comfortable with them. Doing a gradual shift poorly can lead to the criticism of murky and undefined motivations, so they rely on this one poignant scene to do the heavy lifting that chapters of ordeals would have done in a book.

So what can film makers do to combat this? Aside from balancing the dialogue between being natural and informative, films do have a slew of techniques for world building that we’ll talk about next week when we address setting, and focussing on crafting the world outside of dialogue gives the characters more speech time to define and develop themselves.

The second issue that films have to deal with when taking a novel as a source is the fact that books leave a lot to the reader’s imagination; while character height, hair colour and skin tone may be referenced in the text it’s your mind that does the work by constructing all the important parts of these characters. Even Graphic Novels, which give you images to work off require you to decide for yourself how a character sounds, which is a huge defining feature to have to build.

Obviously one of the best things about films is seeing the characters you love being built and the adventures they have put in front of you in an exciting cinema experience, but the downside to that is that everyone imagines everything a little differently. Some people will build their characters from scratch, others will base the protagonist off of someone they’ve seen before; the important part is that everyone’s imagery is often radically differently and as I mentioned earlier, we each put a lot of time and effort into realising these characters and any difference to what we consider the norm seems insulting.

And then there’s the moments when creators ignore character design out right, like giving Harry blue eyes instead of the green ones that were mentioned in literally every single book in the series.

There are films that do these characters justice, I’m not sure if anyone has any major issue with Rupert Grint’s portrayal of Ron in the Harry Potter series, but plenty have issue with Daniel Radcliffe’s perfomance, stating that it was characterless and bland. But what many forget is that the reason for this is that as protagonists in young adult books (as most of these adaptations tend to be from that genre) characters are required to be somewhat two dimensional at first to allow readers to impose themselves onto the protagonists for empathy’s sake. As series go on the main character gets a chance to grow and develop, but obviously if the film version isn’t top notch there’s a chance we don’t get to see the subsequent growth in future films, I’m looking at you Eragon.

The second part to this is the narrative voice of the novel. Films are almost exclusively shot in third person, often cutting away from our characters to the wider world. This is more relevant because of the recent introduction of first person novels such as the Hunger Games and Divergent and their adaptations. Many people questioned Katniss’ motives in the Hunger Games film as it’s not always clear why she’s doing what she’s doing, and frankly in the film she does come across as confused and a bit indecisive. The film suffers from the lack of internal monologue that the book has. Readers of the book will know that Katniss has a major internal struggle throughout the series that just can’t be addressed in the film half as well. But the film also gets the chance to make more of a point about the wider world and the effects of this one girl on society, so we see a focus shift from the book’s meaning to the film’s adapted meaning, which I think works in the film’s favour.

There’s a whole lot more we could discuss when it comes to the pitfalls and upsides to characters in films, but I’ve gone on a little long for this week. Hopefully you’ll join me next week when I tackle the ways in which films adapt setting and pacing from the books, and who knows, maybe later on we’ll come back to this topic, because there’s still plenty to talk about.

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