The relationship between films and books is undeniable. According to a 2018 report from Frontier Economics, 55% of the 20 highest-grossing films of all time are based on books, comic books, or fairy tales (so yeah, on books).
The same research shows that book adaptations generate globally, on average, 53% more revenue than original scripts or screenplays. Even though the percentage of films based on books varies every year, you can always be sure that at least a few book adaptations will be on the big screen.
Moviemakers keep using books as inspiration because they know that famous books and authors already have a fan base that can be summoned to the cinemas with little effort.
But the best book adaptations not only aspire to invoke already loyal fans, but they also want to call a new public. That means that generally, movie posters of films based on books will try to be recognizable enough for the fans of the book but also attractive enough to a new oblivious audience.
Book and Movie Poster Design Differences
How does this problem translate in terms of design? Let’s dive into some examples of books that have become films and analyze how the book covers changed when transformed into movie posters.
In both books and movies (at least in the best examples of both media), you need to use your brain to figure out the higher or hidden meaning of certain words, the motivation of certain characters, the symbolism behind some scenes… but movies give you so much already served: the appearance of the characters, the way the background looks, the aesthetics of the objects and clothes, the music to set the mood, the sound of everybody’s voices.
The thing with books is that they heavily rely on your imagination in order to work, so it makes sense that book covers leave more to the imagination than movie posters. That is the first difference in design, metaphors versus literalism.
While both book covers and movie posters use a combination of typography and visual art to promote the story they’re trying to sell, they don’t usually do it in the same way. Also, I should note that there are about 7 different types of movie posters that have somewhat different marketing goals.
Both book covers and movie posters can give the name of the author or director a preferential place in the composition, but when it comes to the characters, things are different.
When oriented to a new public that knows nothing about the story, movie posters can simply show off the actors and actresses in the cast.
But book covers don’t always want to force a representation of the characters on you because you’ll get to imagine them while reading anyway, so these covers will rely more on vague illustrations, aesthetic details, and type.
This is a good time to mention that I will be talking in generalizations. There are tons of different styles of movie posters that leave a lot to the imagination, like typographic movie posters for example.
Sure, you can get a drawing of a kid with glasses and a scar in the book cover too, but even that is way less determining than a picture of Daniel Radcliffe when saying, “this is what Harry Potter looks like.”
Time Plays a Role in Design
The posters of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone series (2021) (which I worked on) portray the main characters and some objects that are relevant to the plot, while the book cover barely shows the silhouette of a palace. Metaphors versus literalism: book covers suggest, and movie posters display.
Good design in book covers means that the potential reader will become an active participant in the composition, trying to decode the symbolism behind what is merely implied.
But books can afford that kind of coded design because people in bookshops and libraries feel like they have all the time in the world. They can focus their attention on this particular design to decide if opening the book is worth a shot.
Movie posters don’t have that privilege. People see them in movie theaters while they rush to the popcorn stand or to the toilet before the movie begins.
Or they see them in the street while driving a car or going to work. Movie posters need to make their point immediately; otherwise, they’ll be forgotten. So they need to be more literal and more explicit. I discuss in detail 9 things that make movie posters effective here.
This probably explains why some movie posters become book covers in new editions that are published after the film. Still, book covers never really get to become movie posters without suffering design changes.
After all, using the movie poster as a cover is the fastest way of saying to the newly gained public, “Hey, you saw this film, what about reading the book now?”, even though it is not particularly fashionable.
Devoted book lovers are known to hate this trend, but sadly, the design doesn’t always need to be classy to be effective. Even all-time classics as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles Of Narnia, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot or F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby have suffered such a fate, with their timeless covers being replaced by unsentimental movie posters.
But what happens with the rest? Bestsellers or lesser-known books that turn into blockbusters or indie films? They all share the same fate: it’s a full circle in which books feed a new audience to cinemas that then reciprocate by sending new customers to bookshops.
The posters for Coraline (2009), Water for Elephants (2011), Life of Pi (2012), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), Cloud Atlas (2012), On the Road (2012), and The Book Thief (2013) for example, even though they represent widely different stories, they all were recycled as book covers.
Honestly, the trend of poster-like book covers spares no one. But were these posters at least inspired by the book covers that came before them, and they ended up replacing?
In some cases, yeah. The poster for Cloud Atlas was clearly made by a designer who had paid close attention to the book’s US and UK covers.
But this is a very complex story. The movie narrates many intertwined storylines about multiple characters in different timelines, so the poster needed to be more convoluted than any of the covers.
Readers expect to have to figure some things out in the process of reading a novel. Still, movie spectators normally don’t expect anything too intricate unless the poster and the trailer let them know beforehand.
The movie Fight Club (1999) wasn’t exactly born out of loyalty for the source material… I mean, they changed the ending of all things.
But the poster, oddly enough, seemed to be inspired by the book cover too. In both cases, the designer in charge thought that the title carved on a bar of soap was the best synthesis of the essence of the plot.
In the book cover, that element was enough on its own. For the movie poster, I guess they couldn’t resist putting Brad Pitt and Edward Norton’s beautiful faces behind it, and can you blame them?
Sure, designing a movie poster of a complex story such as Cloud Atlas or Fight Club is a challenging task. But it’s nothing compared to the challenge of presenting to the world the movie adaptation of possibly the most remarkable novel about the American Dream.
The transformation that the book cover of The Great Gatsby had to go through to become a movie poster is not unlike the change that James Gatz went through himself in order to become Jay Gatsby: the book cover had a soul, but it was also blue (in every sense of the word), and it was simple but full of promise; the movie poster, on the other hand, is exceptionally flashy and golden, it shows luxury and power, but no one in it seems authentic or happy.
Both the cover and the poster capture some vital aspects of the story, which went better with the media they represented.
The Interesting Cliches
There are good and bad designs, clichés, and conventions in book covers and movie posters that will help indicate which genre the advertised work belongs to.
Sometimes those conventions remain the same in both media; for example, movies based in young adult books will often have handwritten fonts in their posters, just as they had in their covers.
These are all coming-of-age stories, in which the feelings of the protagonist are everything to the story. So handwritten, intimate, and personal fonts are great for both the posters and the covers.
The main difference is that these handwritten fonts are more than enough for a book cover, but then in the movie poster, they need to be accompanied by pictures of the protagonists.
But sometimes, those conventions change. The film Submarine (2010) (it’s also a coming-of-age story based on a young adult novel by the same name.) But the concept of a self-absorbed teenager is presented in very contrasting ways in either media.
The movie poster is very minimalistic: Craig Roberts appears alone against a white background, looking up while a blue plane seems to be about to drown him. He’s almost underwater, like a submarine.
The book cover is as far from minimalism as it gets, with a collage of overlaid illustrations, that as a whole, present the landscape of a twisted teenage mind.
Both things are recognizable as a product targeted towards young adults, but the ways of communicating that to the potential customers are quite different.
Major Design Successes
Sometimes both the book cover and the movie poster are a huge success; that is certainly the case with A Clockwork Orange (1971). The poster created for Kubrick’s film is a masterpiece of poster design created by Bill Gold a top 11 poster artist of all time. Truth be told any collector would love to have it…in fact, this poster made it into our 10 Most Desirable Movie Posters to Have in Your Collection.
But the original book cover represented the story just as well because you could also perceive the violence and madness that you were about to experience if you decided to follow through with that story.
Sometimes the cover design is strong enough even to resist the impact of a film adaptation that becomes a blockbuster, which is the case with big franchises such as The Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games.
When the films are that famous and the books that beloved, making a cheap edition with a poster replacing the cover would be a loser move.
And then sometimes, let’s be fair here: the movie poster is simply overwhelmingly better. That is the case with another Kubrick film, Lolita (1962).
While the book has had many different covers through history (and none of them has been particularly successful), the movie poster that portrays Lolita with sunglasses eating a lollipop is now the default imagery of the character.
The movie poster was simply too iconic. But in most cases, both the cover and the poster have something relevant and fresh to bring to the table, so both schools of design have a lot to learn from each other.
Movie Poster Design in Your Future
Chances are you have figured out this website is dedicated to movie poster design, (plus NFTs) and perhaps you are interested in becoming one. The cool thing is that we are currently producing an online course dedicated to movie poster design.
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Oh yeah, read this article too!