A Filmmaker's Guide to 5 Horror Novels that Have Been Adapted into Films

by Annie Kapur 2 years ago in how to

Study, Experience, and Analysis

A Filmmaker's Guide to 5 Horror Novels that Have Been Adapted into Films

There have been many novels that have been adapted to films and well, we can't cover all of them. The whole point of this article is to have a look at which books we'll need to read in order to study horror filmmaking and adaptation of horror from literature on to screen. As one of the most difficult genres to "get right," horror is massively underrated in the world of literature but massively over-expectant on screen. What you would want to do is find the "fine line" between having a faithful adaptation and making a highly effective horror. There would be things that get changed and altered to make them more suitable for audiences and more effective on screen.

We're going to cover five books that have been already adapted for the screen and discuss shortly how well they've been adapted and why they have a place on this list. One main thing to remember when you're adapting a novel into a film is not only that there will be things that change, but you will have to have read the novel thoroughly enough that you know each character and their reactions to situations. This is what retains the audience who have also read the novel identifying with the film.

Another thing to remember is that the dialogue between characters will also differ from the novel as the film obviously doesn't have as much "time" as the novel does. With a novel, the audience chooses how much time they take when reading whereas, in a film, it is the filmmaker that decides how long every scene gets and what goes into it. So, you need to make sure you have enough material, but not so much that you find yourself cramming the scene with many things you just find in the novel. A great (and easy) way to do this is to write out the "climactic" scene first and then, cut it down so that it lasts around 10-15 minutes. Once that's done then you can focus on creating the rest of the film in scenes that are either the same length or slightly shorter.

Let's get on with this list then:

5. 'Psycho' by Robert Bloch

Adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1960 film starring Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, Psycho is possibly one of the most recognisable horror films in adaptation studies. When you read the book, you will notice one main thing if you've already seen the film: you'll notice it's in the wrong order.

Now obviously, if the film starts off with Norman Bates acting strangely, it'll give the audience too much time to guess what's wrong with him. Whereas, the book relies on this as the reader will have to read on in order to get interested in other characters and the lifestyle of Norman Bates. When you watch it on the screen, it's much easier to guess and so Alfred Hitchcock decided not to introduce him until around halfway through the film.

It is important to establish what you want from the film. Do you want your film to include the troubled character from the beginning so that the audience become familiar with them, but then run the risk of having them guess the "trouble" with the character?

Or do you want the film to change the structure and bring the character in as a seemingly minor character, having their character become built through the "build up" section of the film?

Why is it on this list?

It is a well adapted novel that has been changed accordingly, but not so much that you cannot recognise that it is an adaptation.

4. 'The Woman in Black' by Susan Hill

One thing that you'll notice about this book is that it's narrated in the first person, which takes it away from the film as the main character (Arthur) dies at the end of the film. This seems like a necessary thing to happen in the film rather than in the book. If you read the book, you'll realise that everything is always happening at a slight distance to Arthur and this is why he stays alive. But, by the end of the book (and still in the past tense) there's a closeness that seems to happen. This method is kept the same in the film, but because of the lack of first person narration, there is much more possibility for tragedy and so, the film steps it up a bit.

If you want to "step up" the tragedy a bit then you don't simply remove the first person narration but instead, you remove the first person narration and then take the story slightly away from the "first person," putting the focus on something else. In this case, the story focuses on the "woman in black" and her backstory. This is where the audience forget about the main character slightly and, in their attempts to "solve" the problem, it simply doesn't do anything. This is when you bring it back towards the main character and have it impact their lives personally.

In the case of the book, it doesn't need to do this because it's already in the first person. In the case of the film, it kills the main character.

Why is it on the list?

This book is a great book if you want to study the way in which the first person narration removes itself in order to change the impact of tragedy. It really changes the way the audience thinks about the story as the climactic point is later on compared to the book. This allows the climax to intertwine with the death of the main character.

3. 'Interview with the Vampire' by Anne Rice

When you look at the film and the book to Interview with the Vampire, you can see that there are several known differences in character design and in the way in which the events actually happen, including how the characters react to certain events. But not all of this can be covered easily in a film. The main thing that stays the same is the feel and atmosphere of the book to the film. There is a certain "air" that the novel creates that is retained in the film. This is because of the design. The design is just as important to adapt as the events and characters. This is to keep the "feel" of the book which is sometimes dropped by film adaptations as an act of compromise.

If you would want to do this with your own film, then you need to make sure your design is historically accurate and accurate to the way in which the book portrays it. In the beginning of the novel, there is an atmosphere of complete uncertainty when it comes to the conversation between Louis and Daniel. The way in which this is done in the film is not only through the isolated location of the apartment, but also through Daniel's (Christian Slater) confusion with the fact he is with a vampire. This is of great importance to the beginning, because the interviewer needs to behave as a normal human being would when they meet a supposed self-professed vampire. It relates it back to the audience and needs to come through just as well as it does in the book through the dialogue between the two characters.

Why is it on the list?

Interview with the Vampire is an amazing book to study when looking at adaptation because of the fact it has many structural and design elements that you can look at. This differentiates from the usual dialogue and character studies that you normally do and should give you a great insight into historical gothic horror design.

2. 'The Shining' by Stephen King

The Shining is probably one of the most watched horror films of all time, but it is not so much like the book as we'd like to think. A lot of the events have changed not only by their place, but have changed entirely for the good of the screen. It is a great example of having to sacrifice and change so much of the story to be able to tell the story in the cinema. I would suggest that if you haven't watched the film that you do that before you read the book because then you'll understand why certain things have been changed, instead of relying on the book so much that you get mad over the fact that they were ever changed in the first place.

The themes and characters stay very similar to the origin material, but the events are the main things that change. Through the adaptation of The Shining it is very important to see that in the book, it wouldn't be as frightening or tense if it was to be adapted faithfully. The fright comes from several parts of the story that were added in on the writing of the script.

If you do this with your own film then this does not mean that you have to change everything. It means that you have to sacrifice scenes that may bring nothing to the audience or not do what you want them too. It also means that you may have to add material in where necessary for the sake of it being shown on a screen rather than being read in a book. It is not just a case of adding material, but replacing material as well; maybe even manipulating material.

Why is it on the list?

The Shining is one of those films that differs heavily from the book that it is based on, but if you read and watch then you may be able to understand what has been compromised and why.

1. 'The Exorcist' by William Peter Blatty

One thing you'll notice about The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty and its accompanying film is that they are pretty similar. In this case, there wasn't much compromise, but instead it is about showing whatever is in the book upon the screen in a way that would potentially terrify people. Just have a look, for example, at this quotation from The Exorcist by Blatty and think about depicting this on screen. There has been some compromise, but the elements of terror remain the same:

“Regan had the physical syndrome of possession. That much he knew. Of that he had no doubt. For in case after case, irrespective of geography or period of history, the symptoms of possession were substantially constant. Some Regan had not evidenced as yet: stigmata; the desire for repugnant foods; the insensitivity to pain; the frequent loud and irrepressible hiccuping. But the others she had manifest clearly: the involuntary motor excitement; foul breath; furred tongue; the wasting away of the frame; the distended stomach; the irritations of the skin and mucous membrane. And most significantly present were the basic symptoms of the hard core of cases which Oesterreich had characterized as genuine possession: the striking change in the voice and the features, plus the manifestation of a new personality.”

This quotation represents the descriptive side of the book, something that can actually be interpreted into film. The reason why some of it is compromised is that apart from condensation, it is impossible to depict "foul breath" without being too obvious. The rest of the quotation is used and retains the terror from the description of Reagan becoming more and more inhuman.

If you wanted to achieve this in your own film then you need a source that is descriptive enough for you to remain reliable. Not only that, but you also need a book that has one main event, built on throughout the text, in order for you to be able to remain faithful to the material. This is because you may think you have quite a bit of time, but in reality, you don't.

Why is it on the list?

This is on the list because it remains faithful to the source material as much as it can. It also has a lot of potential as both movie and TV show as there is enough material to work with. But, even the opening scenes from the book and the film are the same; so I would suggest working with this one the most.


So there are five books that have been adapted into films from the horror genre. I hope you have enjoyed this article and learnt a little bit about adapting a book into a film. It is important to retain the essentials of the source material and then, capture whatever you see fit to be displayed on screen afterwards. If you want to investigate further, you could have a look at the following texts:

  • Carrie by Stephen King
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
  • The Birds by Daphne Du Maurier

Good luck on your next project!

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Annie Kapur
Annie Kapur
Read next: Run Necromancer
Annie Kapur

Film and Writing (M.A)

Writer: "Filmmaker's Guide"

Focus: Adaptation from Literature, Horror Filmmaking Styles and Auter Cinema

Instagram: @anniethebritindian

See all posts by Annie Kapur