Film adaptation is the transfer of a written work to a feature film. This includes the use of fiction, non-fiction, journalism, autobiography, comic book, graphic novel, scripture or plays. In some cases, musical lyrics have been used as a template for a cinematic premise.
Academic theorizing on the subject of film adaptation splits the practice into three categories: strict, loose, or free. Film theorists often distinguish between classic or well-known works where audiences already have some knowledge of the original and expect to see a faithful reproduction. Many critics accept a compromise in the case of adaptation; if the essence of the original is preserved and not deliberately distorted, then other changes are acceptable. The opinion that a successful adaptation should be rethought in terms of the filmmaker's own creative approach and not hampered by inappropriate adherence to literary or stage technique is also commonly held.
The hardest task for a film-maker is to take a classic or currently popular work and present it in a way that avoids alienating those who have a loyalty to the original, while simultaneously producing something that works successfully in its own right. It could prove to be difficult for a short novel to be adapted word for word within the confines of the length of an average film. This process normally involves suppression of minor characters and subplots, though these may be among the aspects of the book loved most by fans and readers of the original novel.
A more common resource has been to take works that, for reasons of literary style, plot, or characterization, are more amenable to being altered and are less complete or self-sufficient in their original form. This could involve literary genres such as detective or gangster fiction, thrillers, westerns, or science fiction, which are often considered to be marginal in terms of literary respectability. This type of film is less likely to arouse mainstream indignation if it is betrayed in the process of a print to screen adaptation.
Adaptations of short stories can present many other problems, as even a long story has to be expanded to fit the minimum 90 minutes of screen time. As a result of this, incidents barely referred to in the story may be expanded or others invented, new characters might be introduced, plot elements concocted and brief conversations lengthened or new ones created. It is generally considered by critics and academics of cinema that few stories survive this treatment without severe distortion of the original work.
The work of almost every classic English novelist from Daniel Defoe onward has been filmed at least once. Charles Dickens has been the most frequently filmed of classical English novelists, followed in the 1990s by Jane Austen, Henry James, Thomas Hardy and E. M. Forster. The same is true in the United States, from James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. The team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were frequent masters of adaptation, with a list of credits including novels by E.M. Forster and Henry James.
Other classic authors whose works have frequently been adapted to film include Emily and Charlotte Bronte, while Thomas Hardy has been well served by Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess, and Jude. Authors such as Graham Greene have had their movies adapted for film on multiple occasions, with both Brighton Rock and The Quiet American receiving two adaptations apiece. The works of Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence have frequently been adapted to film. The most notable of these adaptations is Francis Ford Coppola's re-envisioning of Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a central narrative of his 1978 Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now.
Celebrated author Stephen King has witnessed movie adaptations of his works throughout the last four decades. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, and Frank Darabont's Shawshank Redemption and the Green Mile have all won awards or been noted amongst film-fans and critics as outstanding pieces of adapted work.
Dan Brown's novels the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, along with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series are two present-day authors whose work has been adapted to the screen with varying degrees of financial or critical success. One of the most highly acclaimed examples of an adaptation that has managed to please both die-hard admirers of the original books and to be accepted as a cinematic masterpiece is Peter Jackson's version of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.