Stop Whining About Book-To-Movie Adaptations

I’m going to see The Maze Runner tonight, and I’m sure the chorus of voices saying “it’s not as good as the book!” has already begun. Yet despite being a writer and reader, I feel there are plenty of times where movies are good, if not better, than the books. Perhaps it’s because I’m both a novelist and a filmmaker, but to me, they’re all just stories.

And we know this stems from some readers being elitist, right? That whole “I’m better than you because I read” nonsense? Even though each medium has both trashy stories and fantastic stories and NEITHER MEDIUM IS ALWAYS BETTER?

Also, Harry Potter spawned a generation of people who feel entitled to closely executed adaptations. Because let’s be real, before/during the HP craze, most adaptations used the books as a starting point and then ran in another direction with the concept (a la every Disney movie ever). I can’t think of any scene for scene adaptations before HP. But HP movies were direct adaptations, if you can look past stuff like Hermione getting Ron’s lines.

Anyway. I think people who go into book-to-movie adaptations with buckets of reluctance, or who put the source material on a pedestal, are massively overthinking this. And often, they’re just looking for something to complain about.

Yes, some movie adaptations are sub par. There’s nothing wrong with the movie Never Let Me Go…except for the fact that it’s a movie. This is one of the few stories that I advise people read the book instead/first, because the process of reading it is the best part. You’re thrown into a conversation with the narrator who assumes you know her world, and she slowly peels back the layers. The movie played it straight, as it had to, even giving away the book’s secrets in the bloody trailer.

Equally, Deathly Hallows Part 1 was a cash grab of wizards camping, so fans had a right to be irked.

And on rare occasion, literal adaptations work. True Grit the book could have been the shooting script for the Coen brothers.  But they’re the Coen brothers. They weaved trademark Coen humor into the source material, making it their own while still doing a line-for-line remake. They also picked a project that catered to their style in the first place. This is a rare accomplishment.

But sometimes the film can fix stuff about the book because books are not infallible tomes of sacredness. I love the writing and the story in The Time Traveler’s Wife, but the characters are such poorly drawn hipsters. In 2009, the movie with Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams came out…and I prefer it over the book. Sure, cutting out the pretentious weirdness made it more “mainstream,” especially because some of the novel’s crude elements vanished in the PG-13 movie. But I think it was for the better.

In the same way, I’ve seen a few people with their fingers crossed that the Mockingjay movies will “fix” some of the problems the book had – even going as far as not killing….well, you know.

More detail in the books =/= inherent quality. I’m not a huge fan of the Lord of The Rings movies, but I think they cut to the chase a lot faster than the books. Hilariously, The Hobbit has the opposite problem.  See, there’s no formula for this. Some work, some don’t. We shouldn’t generalize.

And remember how much it sucks when they stick too closely to the source material. Hey, remember Watchmen? That movie no one knows how they feel about? One of the biggest complaints is that it was too literal an adaptation. I mean, it’s a shot-for-shot remake of the graphic novel, save for that plotline about a Black Freighter. Most critics complained that Snyder was trapped by his loyalty to the source. He forgot he was making a film instead of a graphic novel with moving panels.

Movies should be an opportunity for new vision. I liked the book The Princess Diaries. I REALLY liked the movie. They’re incredibly different, and only similar in premise and a few character names. To me, that’s whatever. If I want to experience the storyline from the book, I’ll read the book. I’d be pretty bored sitting through an exact rehash in the movie theater. I like what the story became in Gary Marshall’s hands because it was surprising and entertaining.

In fact, some of the greatest movies ever made were based on books. Gone With the Wind. Wizard of Oz. Fight Club. The Shawshank Redemption. All based on books. Due to their lasting effect on popular culture, we’ve got to admit that these movies are at least as good as the source material, if not better. Back in the day, I doubt anyone scorned these films on the principle that they were adaptations, or whined that “they didn’t include my favorite scene!”

Finally, just have some perspective about how movies work.  Ender’s Game, as a flick, seemed empty compared to its source. While entertaining, the film washed away the darker, deeper themes from the book. But understandably, the studio did not want an R-rated Ender’s Game for adults. The most marketable thing to do was to release Ender’s Game as a pre-Christmas sci-fi epic for the family. Especially considering that most people read Ender’s when they’re children. For all intents, it’s a children’s book. Despite that, Disney’s animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is about as thematic as you can get in a film aimed at younglings. Books have a lot more wiggle room with content because they’re non-visual, but nudity, violence, and lust are things are nonexistent in movies that a 10-year-old is going to see (save for The Road To El Dorado which was…proof that the 1990’s were kind of weird). It might not be the most savory fact, and you don’t have to like it, but marketing concerns are something you should at least acknowledge.

Artemis Fowl fans are mad that the upcoming movie will be a combo of books 1 and 2. Even though that’s my favorite series, I ain’t even mad. They’re short books, much like A Series of Unfortunate Events. Because 2 resolves a lot of the seeds that 1 planted, I can easily see how they could be combined. I’d be less eager to combine other books in the series, but if I was the one writing the Artemis Fowl script, I’d probably do  the same thing. And unlike many readers who feel protective over their cherished books, and who feel like people who get into fandom because of the movie are “posers,” I’m psyched that millions more people may be exposed to the Fowl universe.

Overall, books have to be marketable towards readers, but movies are advertised to the general public. Due to the visual, fast-paced nature of film, we are unable to get inside the character’s heads and we gloss over some details. But often, this isn’t a huge loss. I prefer that The Hunger Games movie shows us the bigger picture than just Katniss’s perspective. And I certainly don’t mind that Peter Jackson skipped over all that Tom Bombadil stuff in Fellowship of the Ring. I see movies as a great shortcut to experiencing stories I wouldn’t waste 8 hours on (like The Maze Runner), or for sharing obscure stories with a wider audience. The key is to remember that movies are different for a reason, and that source books are nothing more than a starting point. They aren’t meant to be a stencil.

9 thoughts on “Stop Whining About Book-To-Movie Adaptations

  1. I always try and remember this when I watch a movie based on a book I’ve read. At the beginning of the year I read Jane Eyre after having seen a few adaptions of the movie several years back. I loved the book so much, but then I watched probably four movie/tv mini series and I was so irritated with the way they didn’t follow the book. I found myself criticizing them rather than just enjoying them for what they were.
    The one movie I’d watched that followed the book word for word was The Princess Bride. I’ve read it a bunch of times and it’s almost identical to the movie. There’s more to the book that’s not in the film of course. But I have nothing bad to say about the movie. :)

    • You know, I almost mentioned The Princess Bride in this post, because I was *pretty* sure it was a word-for-word transition – one of the few that came out pre-2000! But I wasn’t sure, especially with how Mel Brooks-y the movie is. Fascinating, how the director put his spin on it while still keeping true to the story, as the Coen brothers did with True Grit. We’re talking about some legendary filmmakers though, which unfortunatly, most directors of YA adaptations are not.

      It’s also interesting that with something like Jane Eyre, which has been adapted many many times, none of the movies are satisfying to you :) That’s something else I almost talked about – how sometimes movies not only have to stand out from the source material, but other movies that have been made previously! A lot of people didn’t like the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice, but I know Joe Wright had a battle with that one. I’m sure he didn’t want to be compared to the 1990’s miniseries or any other incarnation….but how unique can you really get with P&P aside from throwing in zombies? :P

      • Yeah, The Princess Bride is nearly word-for-word. I love it!
        I personally did not like the Keira Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice. It’s been years since I last watched it so I can’t really say how close it is to the book, but I remember feeling disappointed. I own the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle version which is about six hours long and that has been my favorite by far. And I’ve seen just about every version ever made. But I agree about the zombies!! ;)

  2. I always enjoy seeing the movie version of a book, and I’m not let down if they change it up a bit. Well, not usually, anyway. Sometimes a new spin is nice. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with “Gone Girl.”

    • I think a new spin keeps the audience guessing, even when they’re familiar with the story :) The only time I was let down by a movie is when Prisoner of Azkaban left out all the background about the Marauders.. But taking a step back, the movies are more of “Harry’s story” and it’s really not that relevant. All the movie audience needed to know is that Sirius, Lupin, Peter, and James used to be friends, and that becomes clear enough over the series’ run.

      Rarely do I refuse to see a movie before I read a book – because as you can tell, I do not hold books anymore sacred than film – but Gone Girl is one of these times. I haven’t read any Gillian Flynn yet, and I’m really excited to. I’ve managed to remain unspoiled for Gone Girl up to this point, and I think figuring out the end will be more satisfying via a book. I’m sure the movie will be excellent though. Most of David Fincher’s movies are based on books, and they’ve all been showered with awards.

      • I want to see the movie “This is Where I Leave You,” but my book club is reading the book for next month’s session, so I think I’ll hold off until I’ve read it. I usually like the book-then-movie order too.

  3. This is something I’ve felt but have never been able to put words to. While I have my own taste preferences about books to movie adaptations (specifically that City of Bones stunk and that I liked Catching Fire better than the book), but I think the idea about more people getting to experience the stories I love is what I keep coming back to. Yeah, people getting into a series because of the movie sometimes irks me (I have the knee-jerk reaction of “But I’ve loved this series FOREVER!”) but if it ultimately helps authors find a wider audience? Great!

  4. Great post! I think the trouble we have with book to movie adaptions, it that we go into them thinking that everyone else had the same perspective of the book as we did, which isn’t always the case. You and I will not read a book and walk away with the same thoughts, images, etc. So when a movie comes out and the visual effects come from a different perspective, then it’s hard for some of us to like it, because it’s not what we envisioned. I hope I’m making sense here, as I’m hurrying (and at work). Like you, I’ve found both books and movies that I preferred over the other. An example that stands out to me is The Lovely Bones. The movie was weird and somewhat strange to me, and nothing like I envisioned in the book. That was my perception. I’ve read reviews and talked to others that felt it was spot on. Again, sorry for the ramble. Have a great day!

    • I agree! I think books leave a lot more to the imagination and everyone has their own vision. I know I was a little dissapointed in the Inkheart movie because I pictured Basta as this young, suave general. They cast an old dude instead and I’m like “huh?”

      And also, with Artemis Fowl, my favorite part of those books is the slighty sexual-tension-y relationship that grows between Holly and Artemis. But I know it’s not something they’ll tackle in the movie, because the age difference between the actors will probably be too great. Even though they actually kiss in one book and that whole book is devoted to dissecting the possibilities between them, I know it’s not going to translate well, so I’m not anticipating it. So, bummer, but I’m still excited that the Fowl-verse is gonna have a wider audience now. And there are certainly plenty of fans who won’t miss the Holly/Artemis dynamic at all.

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