Oftentimes, the movie industry feeds on literature. From the many adaptations of Stephen King’s books to the recent release of Fever Dream, a psychological thriller film based on Samantha Schweblin’s 2014 novel of the same name—movies based on books abound everywhere. In general, the debates around the subject go over the same questions. Which one’s better? The book or the movie? How well portrayed is this or that character? Is the adaptation faithful to the original?
However, it’s interesting to note that there are other rare cases in which the movie preceded the book. Sometimes, the book is one of several merchandising products, and sometimes it’s an independent work, written by the film’s screenwriter; in some cases, the novel expands the fictional universe, and in others it actually reduces it. Truth be told, the adaptations cater to all tastes.
Some Famous Cases
The Third Man
The Third Man (1949), directed by Carol Reed, is one of the greatest exponents of film noir. Starring Joseph Cotton, Aida Valli, and Orson Welles himself, it received three Oscars nominations—winning one of them: best black and white cinematography. It was also awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
The film, written by novelist Graham Greene, takes place in occupied Vienna after World War II and includes murders, conspiracies, and a complicated web of international intrigue. The curious thing is that to write the movie, Greene decided to make a kind of skeletal novel. Instead of writing the typical film script, dry and in dialogue, he preferred a short narrative text, closer to what he was used to, where it was easier for him to create an atmosphere. The novel, which has a plot that’s quite different from the one of the film, was not intended for publication, and for Greene, it was in fact a rather inferior product. However, partly due to the success of the film, an amplified and corrected version ended up being published under the same name.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) transformed the science fiction film genre. Many of the scenes are truly iconic, and it’s not difficult to find them mentioned in various pop culture products. However, we are now interested in its relationship to literature, which is in itself quite something. The screenplay for the film was written by Arthur C. Clarke, the renowned science fiction author, based on his story «The Sentinel,» where the famous black monolith is introduced for the first time. What’s notable is that, after the premiere of the film, Clarke edited a novel of the same title that goes deeper into that universe (although it has a few discrepancies of some parts of the plot). That novel was the first in a saga—after 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke published 2010: Odyssey Two, 2061: Odyssey Three, and 3001: Final Odyssey. This means that we are faced with the rare example of a series of novels based on a film, which in turn was based on a short story, all written by the same author.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Spielberg’s film was, at the time, the highest-grossing movie in history. The story of the friendly alien had everything it needed to be a success: an endearing plot, a wonderful soundtrack, and an adorable wrinkled doll. The film was such a massive phenomenon that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a novel written by William Kotzwinkle, was published the same year. The series was continued in 1985 with E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet. That second book deviated from Melissa Mathison’s script and focused on telling the adventures of E.T. on his home planet. Although Kotzwinkle was an author of certain talent, best known for Swimmer in the Secret Sea and for his children’s stories, the truth is that the fans didn’t speak highly of these books.
Jim Henson, the puppeteer behind Sesame Street and The Muppets, directed this film based on Brian Froud’s designs. Virtually all the important characters are puppets, except for the protagonist, Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly), her baby brother, and the king of the goblins (played by David Bowie himself).
Despite that explosive combination, which even included George Lucas as producer, the film was a box office failure, and it didn’t recover its initial budget. However, it later became a cult film, and many of its followers know the novelization of A. C. H. Smith, which narrates the same events as the original movie.
Casablanca, Star Trek, and Alien
Before the introduction of the VHS in the 80s, rewatching a movie was not an easy task. In general, after a movie finished its cinema runs, the spectators were left with little more than their impressions. In a few cases, there were reruns and rebroadcastings, but generally, memory had to do. Partly to solve this problem, photohistory was invented. Richard J. Anobile was one of the first authors to devote himself to this technique, and his adaptations of Casablanca, Star Trek and Alien are very descriptive examples of the genre: they are illustrated books, with pictures from the film and fragments of the adapted script. Above all, it’s an ingenious way to turn a live-action movie into something very comic-like, thanks to which fans could relive their favorite movie.
There is another great audiovisual narrative format that is sometimes linked to literature: video games. For those who are not familiar with the subject, the idea that there are books based on video games may seem ridiculous, but the truth is that this type of adaptation is an industry in itself, and it produces universes as rich and complex as the best film sagas.
One of the most remarkable examples, perhaps because it’s one of the first in its genre, is Halo. In addition to 16 video games, there are about 30 novels! They all take place, of course, in the same fictional universe, though in different places and times. The common factors are the presence of supersoldiers and the existence of halos, large ring-shaped structures arranged in outer space.
However, not everything’s about the story. Skyrim, an edition of The Elder Scrolls saga, is an open-world action role-playing video game. This means that players can freely explore a gigantic territory. Among all the things they can find, there are, of course, books. These texts, which amount to more than 300, are part of the construction of the world and range from history books to recipes.
Translated by @florabosch