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From bestseller to blockbuster

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Film also can allow new elements of the story to emerge. Last year's "Chocolat" took the story in ways not touched on in the book, involving the main character, a chocolate maker. The film explored the cultural development of chocolate in Latin America during a time of turmoil, which allowed for vivid visual imagery.

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This was a wonderful idea, says Joanne Harris, who wrote the novel "Chocolat," upon which the film was based. "If I'd have thought about the history of chocolate when I was writing my book, I'd have done it myself," she says.

The British author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, has praised the new film of her first book as being very close to her image of Harry Potter's world. But remaining literally faithful is less important than keeping close to the spirit of the source material, says writer Shawn Slovo.

Ms. Slovo had the task of adapting the British bestseller "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" into a screenplay. The novel tells a complicated story with many characters over a long period of time.

"The book has many more characters than you can possibly put in a film narrative," Slovo says. A final screenplay had to reflect "the purpose and the integrity of the book," but must be allowed to tell the story in its own way.

"If you keep to the spirit of the story, it doesn't matter what goes into [the adaptation]; if the core story is solid, each medium will allow for it," says Paul McCusker, executive producer of audio drama for Focus on the Family Radio Theater, a group that re-creates classic literature for audio.

Mr. McCusker says he feels an obligation to deliver story details that fans of classic works expect, but also cites one of Hollywood's screenwriting gurus, William Goldman, who believed that it's not as important to get the details right as to get the story's spirit.

Indeed, some say that malleability between mediums is inherent in popular tales, especially ones such as "Harry Potter" that contain so many classic elements of the mythic hero's journey - in this case, a young orphaned child, who finds that he has secret powers, sets out to overcome the evil that killed his parents.

"One of the marks of a good story is that it is adapted and retold," says Anne Collins Smith, assistant professor of philosophy and classical studies at Susquehanna (Pa.) University. "The use of storytelling to convey truth is an ancient and appealing mode of expression."

The ancient Greek playwrights, such as Euripides, took the old myths and put their own spin on them, creating large and popular works of theater.

"This engages not only the rational mind, but the emotions and imagination and creativity," she says. "When you're a listener, and the story lives in your imagination, it fosters a desire to express your own creativity, to emphasize or express the same or a different truth."

But there is a cautionary tale in the modern version of this ancient story.

By overshadowing all other versions of a popular story, the marketing juggernauts who support a film or TV show can manage to ruin a good thing.

"Take 'the Hallelujah chorus' from Handel's 'Messiah,' " says Thompson, the media pundit. "It is one of the most exciting pieces of music in the Western canon, but it's been worn out. You can't hear it anymore without echoes of clich├ęs.

"The same is true with Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper' or the 'Mona Lisa.' These images that have surfaced in so many iterations have not been able to withstand overuse."