Posts Tagged ‘Jack Reacher’


Popular books and video games, especially franchises, are commonly adapted into movie versions. Books include Harry Potter, Twilight, and the new Jack Reacher film. Video games include Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, and Resident Evil. There are many, many more.

Sometimes the movies are considered good but more often the adaptations are not as popular as the book or game the movie is based on. Here’s why:

In the movie-making industry, there is a general belief that movies are the highest form of art. This belief is rarely stated out loud but many surely hold this view and that’s where I believe most movie adaptations fall flat.

Because this is no longer true. It probably was once, but this is no longer the case.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When consumers are given a choice of mediums only one will be considered canon.  

Video games that provide the player with only 10 or 20 hours of entertainment are considered short. Role-playing games (RPGs) are expected to contain 40 to 60 hours of gameplay. Other genres vary, but all contain enough content for many hours of entertainment. In comparison, most movies come in at a paltry 2 hours of running time and thus simply can’t compete with other forms of a given story for dominance. 

One of the reason popular books and movies get adapted in the first place is that they have a built-in fanbase. The fans become the first set of movie-goers but they always expect to see their beloved story dramatized on the big screen. In the case of video games, which are already in a visual format, there is simply so much more content, so much more depth, that any movie will always feel small or rushed in comparison. Additionally in the case of books, the reader’s imagination is employed to visualize the story which is inherently personal and subjective. More often than not, the high expectations of the fanbase (which grew up around the original format for the story) are not met and sometimes they are virtually dashed to pieces.

Unfortunately for Hollywood, the highest form of art is a preference chosen by the consumer. Thus fans of the franchise, having spent much more time with the original version, of any given material will, when faced with the choice of two competing interpretations of the same story, usually choose the original.

Lastly, while books are almost always linear (the Choose Your Own Adventure series is a notable exception), video games excel at creating custom stories tailored to the choices of the player which usually result in very non-linear stories. Movies are purely linear (with notable exceptions like Clue (1985) which included 3 different endings). Thus movies simply can’t compete with the detailed, multi-dimensionally-rich stories available to players of a video game.

Avoiding these traps is simple. Make sure your movie isn’t trying to compete with the source material for dominance. Shape this dynamic as a both-and scenario rather than letting it devolve into an either-or competition. This means the screenplay must either tell the exact same story (exactly matching the source material or be very, very close) or tell a side story (something that can stand alone but adds to the mythos or the world of the franchise but is not required knowledge for engagement with the source material). Fans are usually not lenient of excessive creative license. And since a movie rises or falls based on the perceptions of its fanbase, it’s first viewers, it’s best to keep them happy. If they don’t like a movie, they will tell their friends to stay home.

Let’s apply this dynamic to two well-known franchises: Harry Potter and Twilight.

Which Harry Potter Movies get this Right?

The 1st through 4th Harry Potter movies get this dynamic right along with 7A. Watching these movies is essentially reading the books although book 4 is notable for being so long that a lot of details had to be left out and the plot simplified.

Movie 7B gets this dynamic wrong. Book 7 ends quite differently with all the loose ends nicely tied up. Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, decided to make changes to Rowling’s great ending in an attempt to give us something different when what the fans wanted to see was the book’s ending. My viewing of 7B was … disappointing.

By the way, Harry Potter 5 is a special case (and the primary exception to this dynamic) in that the source material wasn’t conducive to the big screen. Book 5 contains a lot of introspection by Harry which is difficult to visualize so the movie strays a lot from the book. The beginning and ending are essentially the same but everything in between had to be completely restructured to be suitable for a movie. (This movie also breaks continuity when the walls to the Room of Requirement are destroyed, an event that does not happen in the books and is depicted as being impossible. That room remaining intact is required for book 7’s plot so lots of problems here.)

Harry Potter 6 was, in my opinion, another exception to this dynamic. I think the movie was an improvement over the book version which I felt wandered a bit. In the movie version of book 6, the sides and stakes are made much clearer than in the book.

Which Twilight Movies get this Right?

Twilight 1 is like Harry Potter 6. The existing content from the book was restructured to make a stronger story. Except for a few scenes in the book that didn’t make it into the movie, I prefer the movie version.

Twilight movies 2, 3, and 4A get the dynamic right. They essentially provide fans the movie versions of the same stories from the books without much creative license.

Twilight movie 4B, however, pulls a fast one. The movie breaks continuity by putting us into the mind of the villain as he watches the future unfold from touching Alice. This is a neat visual trick but like Harry Potter 7B it is played for the shock value of offering something different. The chapters in the book corresponding to the final battle are highly introspective on the part of Bella (like Harry Potter 5) making this perhaps the best choice. I think they get away with it even though it breaks continuity regarding Alice’s gift.


Screenwriters, Directors, and Producers: Meet the expectations of the fans by telling them the story they already love, the story that was strong enough to convince you to make the movie in the first place. If this isn’t possible, craft a completely new story to supplement the source material. The fans will love you for expanding the story universe and your movie will be popular because it will be the only place they can get this new content.

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Fiction is about characters in conflict. In this column, I’ve talked about many different kinds of conflict over the years, but there’s one kind that I don’t recall ever discussing.

It’s the conflict that comes when one character changes the rules of the game. Changes them so radically that it’s suddenly a completely different game.

To understand this kind of conflict, let’s look at an extreme example. Imagine that you challenge your buddy to a match at the tennis courts. Whoever loses has to buy the pizza for dinner.

You show up at the courts with your tennis racket and all your other gear.

Your buddy shows up with a chessboard, sets it up on the sidelines, and sits down behind the white pieces.

He hasn’t got a racket. He’s not dressed for tennis.

He isn’t even on the court.

You wait for him to get his act together, but he’s paying no attention to you, so finally you serve an ace to an empty court.

Your buddy moves his king’s pawn forward.

You serve another ace.

Your buddy moves his queen out to the fifth rank.

You ace him again.

He moves his king-side bishop out.

You miss on your next serve, but you aren’t worried, because he still isn’t on the court. One more serve, and you’ll have him nailed for this game.

He moves his queen down to the seventh rank, takes your king’s bishop pawn, shouts, “Checkmate!” and leaps out of his chair, doing a victory dance.

What just happened there? You were winning, weren’t you? But he thinks he’s winning, because you’ve been playing different games.

This is an extremely weird kind of conflict. A meta-conflict. A conflict over what the nature of the conflict is supposed to be.

You might think this can never happen in real life. But in fact, it happens all the time. Here’s an example that’s a little less extreme:

Bossbert walks into Wally’s cubicle. “Wally, have you got the report done for the Gooberheimer project?”

Wally blows his nose loudly and tosses the Kleenex at Bossbert. “Wow, I’ve got the worst cold you ever heard of.”

Bossbert leaps back from the germy tissue. “I asked you a yes or no question. That means I need a yes or no answer. Are you planning to give me one or not?”

Wally coughs into his hand, then wipes it on his pants. “I should probably go home, if I didn’t have so much work to do.”

Bossbert’s hands are curling into fists. “Would you like me to fire you?”

Wally puts his hand to his forehead. “I think I’ve got a fever. Maybe it’s the flu.”

What’s going on here? Why is Bossbert getting madder and madder?

What’s going on is that Bossbert is playing one game and Wally is playing another. Bossbert needs information, so he’s asking simple yes-or-no questions.

Wally has no intention of giving an answer because he hasn’t done his work. Instead of playing Bossbert’s game (which he would lose), he plays a different game — “feel sorry for me because I’m sick.”

Only an unfeeling brute would fire a worker who has the flu. Bossbert can’t win at Wally’s game, and Wally refuses to play Bossbert’s game. So Bossbert loses.

You can introduce conflict like this in any category.

In GONE WITH THE WIND, Scarlett meets Rhett Butler in the library and learns that he’s been listening to her throw herself unsuccessfully at Ashley Wilkes.

Scarlett is upset and tries to insult Rhett by calling him an eavesdropper.

Rhett takes this as a compliment and happily informs her that he’s an experienced eavesdropper.

Scarlett gets more angry and tells Rhett he’s no gentleman.

Rhett is unperturbed and agrees with her. He tells her she’s no lady, and that’s what he likes about her.

Now Scarlett is furious. She tells Rhett that he isn’t fit to wipe Ashley’s boots.

Rhett thinks this hysterically funny, since Scarlett has just told Ashley she would hate him all her life.

Scarlett and Rhett are playing different games.

Scarlett is playing the insult game, because she believes that words have the power to hurt. Rhett is playing the game of court jester. He accepts every insult with a grin. Scarlett can’t win, because Rhett isn’t playing her game. Rhett wins simply by refusing to play.

This works even in the most direct of all conflicts –hand to hand combat. Every street fighter knows that the easiest fight to win is the one that’s over before your opponent has even begun.\

In Lee Child’s novel, ECHO BURNING, our hero Jack Reacher is lured into a bar by a couple of toughs who are being paid to beat him up. They’ve even called an ambulance in advance to make sure he won’t die if they get too rough.

They make the mistake of telling Reacher what they plan to do — how they beat up another guy once before, how they cut him up so bad, he almost bled out. They’re trying to scare him, to weaken his resistance. This is an intimidation game, part of the larger game of provoking a street fight. It would work on most people.

Reacher knows this game and he’s not worried. It’s been a long time since he lost a fight in a two-on-one battle. So he lets them know he thinks they’re full of beans. Matter of fact, he tells them that he’ll be happy to fight them right now if they’ll step outside with him. He heads toward the exit and they follow.

Reacher now has them playing the game he wants them to play, the game of “We’ll start an unfair fight out in the parking lot 30 seconds from now.”

But that isn’t Reacher’s game. His game starts 25 seconds before theirs, the instant he reaches the rack of pool cues. He grabs one, spins around and lays into Billy first, then into Josh, while they’re still thinking about what they’ll be doing half a minute in the future.

They’re unconscious before their game is even due to begin.

Why? Because Reacher refused to play their game. Because he chose to break up the timing of their game.

In most scenes of your novel, your characters are all going to be playing the same game. It might be tennis. It might be office politics. It might be verbal jousting. It might be a fist fight.

It’s not WRONG to let your people all play by the same rules. That’s the way most of life is played. You can have a nice conflict where everybody plays fair.

It’s just a whole lot more interesting when one of the characters decides to play a different game — a game the other characters aren’t expecting, aren’t prepared for, and can’t win.

If you want to try taking one of your scenes up a notch, see if you can find a way to get one of your players to change the game. He can either change the rules, change the turf, change the timing, change the definition of winning.

Whatever this rogue character does to change the rules, it needs to massively tilt the game to his advantage.

Try it and see what happens.

What have you got to lose?


The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine
Randy Ingermanson (“the Snowflake guy”)
April 5, 2011
Volume 7, Number 4

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Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 25,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

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