Harry Potter and the Book to Film Adaptation

July 18th, 2007

Adapting a book to film is not easy. There are not many succesful examples around, and what few there are (Blade Runner, for instance) drift a very long way from their source material.

The five books of the Harry Potter film series so far have been a distinctly mixed bag. Why? In my opinion, because they’re trying to stuff increasingly more book into less and less film. Consider:

  • Book 1: 223 pages, 152 min: 1.5 pages/minute

  • Book 2: 251 pages, 161 min: 1.6 pages/minute

  • Book 3: 317 pages, 142 min: 2.2 pages/minute

  • Book 4: 636 pages, 157 min: 4 pages/minute

  • Book 5: 766 pages, 138 min: 5.5 pages/minute

There’s a rule of thumb that one page of a book corresponds to around one minute of screen time on average. So even the first book required tremendous cuts. By the time of the adaptation of Book 5, realistically only about 20 per cent of the book can make it to screen.

The recent book to film adaptation with the most critical acclaim, the Lord of the Rings series, which runs to around 1000 pages excluding appendices, was given 557 minutes in total (683 in the extended edition), or slightly better than 2 pages of book per filmed minute.

Which is not to say that more is better. The first film was criticised at the time for sticking overly to the book, and not allowing the plot to really come through. The film plods along making sure to check off every scene in the original book.

The most recent film, Order of the Phoenix, by contrast feels like nothing more than a ‘greatest hits’ of the book – a few disconnected scenes that mainly make sense if you’ve read the book. I’d love the opinion of someone who hasn’t actually read the book of the film, if such a person exists…1

By far the strongest film so far was Prisoner of Azkaban, which felt far less compunction than any of the others to stick closely to the design of the book. It probably helped that it was directed by a truly singular artist, Alfonso Cuaron.

But as the books grow ever longer, I’m not sure there’s a good solution to adapting them to film. They would probably be a lot more interesting as a mini-series or even full on TV series. But as it is, there is so much plot in the last few books that it’s difficult to fit anything but that into a couple of hours of screen time. Which means that the real strength of the series, the characters, gets lost.


  1. The film has fantastic visuals, though. I think it’s best thought of as some kind of illustrated adjunct to the book.