Translating Literature to Film: Pure Imagination

Posted: October 30, 2013


by Sara Flores

Writing Center Consultant


Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) and Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) are both adaptations of the children’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. So how did the same text produce Willy Wonkas in the form of the whimsical, mercurial Gene Wilder and the insecure, slightly frightening (let’s not even mention the severe bob, porcelain skin, and immaculate teeth) Johnny Depp? Imagination. Ultimately, the directors’ unique visions resulted in the two Wonkas.  

Plot, setting, characters, narrator, and dialogue can all be found in literature and film. Despite identical narrative components, not all stories on the page are easily translated to the screen (Don Quixote, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Twilight, etc.). According to Desmond and Hawkes, authors of Adaptation: Studying Film & Literature, “Even when the adapter attempts to transfer the original story to film as closely as possible, film…[has] its own conventions, artistic values, and techniques, and so the original story is transferred into a different work of art” (2). Literature and film are two different story-telling mediums, each intended for a different purpose; literature is meant to be read, while films are meant to be viewed (Desmond 159). To be clear, this article is not about why some film adaptations of books are less than “Oscar-worthy”- as a friend of mine rightly said, “Twilight is not a bad adaptation”- but rather, why imagination causes controversies in translating literature to film.

Speaking of Twilight, several scenes that captivated readers on the page were hilarious to watch on screen. Arguably, scenes that are adapted from passages such as “His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface,” would induce a few chuckles no matter whose skin was shimmering (Meyer 260). Literature has an advantage when it comes to scenes like this: imagination. As a reader, even though we have a description of vampire skin, the ultimate image is conjured by us. We can read that a character is tall and thin or short and stout and come up with several unique possibilities of what this character might look like.

Filmmakers face the challenge of actually bringing these scenes and characters to life. In the case of fantasy epics, such as The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Harry Potter, and The Chronicles of Narnia, technology has to compete with imagination. Fortunately, today’s technology with special effects, CGI, color correction, and animation, is fantastic; entirely new worlds can be brought before our eyes. But these worlds, unless we are the director, are not the worlds we imagined while reading the text. In literature, imagination creates a personalized version of the text for the reader. In film, it is the director’s ideas that rule.

The director’s vision can please or repulse a viewer for many reasons. A common complaint deals with how “faithful” an adaptation is to the original text. We can divide level of faithfulness into three categories of adaptation: close (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), intermediate (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), and loose (West Side Story- inspired by Romeo & Juliet) (Desmond 3). Certainly, good movies do not always equal good adaptations, if by “good” we mean “close.” A director cannot possibly satisfy every single die-hard fan; some details may have to be cut. Details, including the time and setting of a story, do not have to be retained for a film adaptation to be well-done. Even though Troy can be more easily linked to its original text (Homer’s The Iliad), than O Brother, Where Art Thou?  with The Odyssey, O Brother is the better film. There is a question that remains: Can a film be faithful without including every detail? Well, it depends on who you ask. Judging a film based on our own interpretations of a text is easy, but not fair. It is too subjective. Literature can yield numerous interpretations;how I imagine a story to unfold, my interpretation, is not necessarily better or worse than what anybody else imagines.

With all this in mind, the next time you are watching a film adaptation, perhaps Catching Fire, remember that what you are viewing is someone’s unique interpretation of a story. As for the future New York Times bestselling authors: embrace interpretation. Writers have to accept interpretation as an inevitable part of art. While we can write descriptions as vivid as “sparkling skin,” there is a chance some reader’s imagination will create an interpretation that does not exactly match ours. Imagination is limitless; the amount of interpretations of a single work, whether we consider them to be right or wrong, faithful or unfaithful, is limitless. And that’s okay.


Sara Flores is a sophomore English major and music minor. She loves good stories, jazz, and being outdoors, even though you will most likely find her indoors, reading or practicing. Witnessing clients gain confidence in their writing is her favorite part about being a writing consultant. To make a Writing Center consultation appointment with Sara click here.

Works Cited 

Desmond, John M., and Peter Hawkes. Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2006. Print. 

Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight: A Novel. New York: Little, Brown and, 2005. Print.