Behind the Book: the challenge of bringing books to the screen

In the sea of book adaptations, the upcoming series ‘You’ has the potential to be fresh and inventive. Thanmaya Navada explores the challenges of bringing books to the screen.

You by Caroline Kepnes is a psychological thriller published in 2014. It is told through the perspective of Joe Goldberg, who works in a New York-based bookshop and chronicles his relationship with Guinevere Beck, a young aspiring writer, who walks into the shop one day. Joe seems like a normal guy at first, but as the novel progresses, Joe’s story begins to take a sinister turn. So make no mistake - this is not a love story.

The direct address of Beck as "You” plays a large role in the storytelling, and makes this novel all the more unnerving, so this is truly not for the faint-hearted.

At first, Joe’s thoughts seem out of place, his motivations are still unclear to the reader. When he first sets eyes on Beck, he observes, “… it’s impossible to know if you’re wearing a bra, but I don’t think that you are. You’re so clean that you’re dirty …” The bluntness of Joe’s character becomes apparent even before the end of the first chapter. His obsession with Beck slowly grows as he begins to stalk her through social media, and by watching her outside her house.

“I come in the day, in the night, and whenever I am here, your windows are always open.

This constant direct address places the reader in Beck’s shoes and suddenly, you are the one being stalked. Kepnes plays with the juxtaposition in Joe’s language such as in, You finish sending a text and relax your arms and lower your legs and when animals opens up like that, they want to fuck.” Joe points out several times that he is not as educated, poised, or wealthy the other characters and thus, his language reflects this. His observations come across as much more vulgar than you would expect. From the first page of this book, Joe is firmly cemented as an anti-hero. And despite learning about Joe’s perverse intentions, you find yourself rooting for him. Oddly. You don’t want him to get caught, and you want him to delve deeper into areas that you know he doesn’t have any business in.

But if your own imagination isn’t terrifying enough, the novel is now being adapted into Netflix Original Series, set to be releases in September 2018. But as many of us are aware, adapting written texts for the screen is a hard feat. And I’m not just talking about the original vs adaptation debate.

The power that novels have to allow for individual reader interpretation when it comes to the details is paramount, and one of the reasons why I love reading.

Stories in written and visual mediums create vastly different experiences when we consume them. The physical environment in which we consume them are distinct; an episodic structure allows for more breathing space, but also demands a different kind of engagement to a film.

It is vital to remember that they are both different, and that the storytelling techniques used need to be different in order to express the same notions. The power that novels have to allow for individual reader interpretation when it comes to the details is paramount, and one of the reasons why I love reading. But film and television have the opportunity to harness visual storytelling in a way that novels can’t. Viewer interpretation still exists, but in a unique way - the story is completely different.

The sheer textual inventiveness of this novel is one of the main reasons I am particularly optimistic about this adaptation, but let’s look at the challenges.

For the big screen?

It is crucial to consider which format best suits a story; will a book with the story, characters, and following of this magnitude fit the silver screen?

A film format grants a story around 90 to 120 minutes of runtime in which it must contain at least three acts. Now, this can be the perfect medium for certain stories to be adapted to film, such as the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and recently, Love, Simon.

But this runtime also has the possibility to be limiting given the source material. Certain characters may not be given the depth they need, or may be cut entirely (a moment of silence for Peeves from Harry Potter). Another consequence of film adaptations are the fading of subplots. For example, in the recent Love, Simon adaptation, the extent of Simon’s exploration of his own sexuality is minimised greatly compared to the original novel.

Fans of the books always tend to complain about certain elements being left out from the film when being adapted. And although many would gladly watch a four-hour cut of a film that incorporated each and every aspect of the source material, it just wouldn’t work. Some textual elements are purely textual, like wordplay and internal thought processes.

Or the small screen?

In television, however, you have much more time to explore certain aspects that may take too much time for a film.

The episodic format can allow a story to be told in pieces - like chapters - and gives the ability to delve deeper than film. Recently, we’ve seen the success of novels being adapted to the small screen rather than the big screen (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Man in the High Castle, and Big Little Lies anyone?), and this is perhaps because of the changing nature of the medium in itself. 

The rise of online streaming services provides a unique viewing experience for these sorts of stories. Audiences can pace themselves and watch each episode in their own time, allowing them to comprehend the intricacies of each subplot and character.

Thus, I think it’s a good decision that You is being adapted to the small screen, rather than the big screen. The amount of character depth and development needed lends itself better to this format. The novel covers a fairly tense and suspenseful plot over a large time period, which is better translated to an episode structure.

Changing the bad

Many will agree that despite the medium in which something is being adapted into, staying ‘true’ to the essence of the novel is essential. But this also gives us the power of changing things that just didn’t work in the original novel either.

Though I will forever praise You for its textual inventiveness and engaging storytelling, I can’t ignore its flaws. Without giving away too many spoilers, the end of the novel contains a lengthy sequence between Joe and Beck that lasts all but seven chapters in its entirety. Getting to the end of the novel took me much longer than I would have liked, causing the very end to be slightly predictable in my experience.

Some events seem to work out too conveniently for our protagonist. No one seems to have set a password on their phone, making it incredibly easy for Joe to hack into accounts. Joe also manages to get out of trouble with the police without many questions asked, despite the questioning situations he gets himself into.

My hope is that adapting this story to another medium may make these aspects work better in the overall narrative.

My hopes

If I were to assume creative control over this adaptation, here are some of the things I would prefer to see changed or delved into deeper:

  1. Joe’s childhood: We get a small glimpse into the origins of our anti-hero, but I would have loved to see more of Joe’s childhood before becomes the person we see. Was he different? Or has he always been this creepy?
  2. Beck’s relationship with her family: Beck expresses to Joe that she does not have the best family support, but this is only made evident a couple of times, despite her claiming that it has shaped the person she is. I would prefer a deeper exploration into how she becomes the cynical yet romantic girl we see.
  3. Peach’s personality: One of Beck’s best friends in the novel is Peach. Upon meeting her, Joe has an immediate feeling of disdain towards her - and I don’t blame him. Personally, Peach was not a likeable character, which means her storyline doesn’t pack as big of a punch as I would have liked. Although she is one of the only characters in the book who dislikes Joe - as she should - if she was portrayed kinder and less arrogant, the reveal of her true nature at the end of the story could have held more weight. My hope is that we get to see a softer side to Peach.
  4. The ending: As mentioned before, the novel’s ending was far too long for my liking. I hope the adaptation is able to improve the ending so that is is as shocking as it should be.
  5. Direct address: The use of direct address for acknowledgement of the reader-author relationship may not be as effective in the series, as we can physically see "You" being represented by Beck on screen, thus steering away from the device’s original purpose.

Overall, I am incredibly optimistic about this adaption - I think it has the potential to be a breath of fresh air amidst the kinds of stale TV series that still exist. But in the meantime, I would definitely recommend checking out the novel You by Caroline Kepnes, and allowing it to shake you to the core like it did with me.

Thanmaya Navada is a second-year Journalism/International Studies student at UTS. She describes herself as a film-buff and bookworm, when she's not napping during literally every spare minute she gets. Also cheese. She loves cheese.