Movie Adaptations

Dear Wife and I recently went out to see “The Hunger Games” movie, and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about my reaction to the movie, and about how it compares to my reaction to the book.  And this got me thinking about the movie adaptations of books more generally.

One word of warning: as I discuss my thoughts on this subject, I’m bound to offer some spoilers from the movies and books I touch on. 

With respect to “The Hunger Games”, there were things I enjoyed about the movie.  It was certainly, in my opinion, a good movie worth seeing and I’m actually eager to see it again when it’s available to watch at home.  There were elements of the movie that made it superior to reading the book.  But there were elements that definitely made it inferior to the book as well. 

For example: the additional scenes focusing on Seneca and President Snow and Haymitch add a lot to the story – a depth that you don’t get from the book alone.  The scene that shows the reaction of Rue’s father after her death in the Games, and the resulting riot in District 11, was much more powerful on an emotional level than the abstraction of Katniss receiving a baked loaf and realizing it came from District 11.  On the other hand, the use of “Shaky Cam” was so disruptive in the early scenes that viewers never really felt settled in this world.  Even more problematic, the movie treated the relationship between Katniss and Rue in such a cursory fashion that the viewer doesn’t have time to be impressed by that relationship before Rue’s death.  I imagine that the viewer that hasn’t read the books might be a tad perplexed as to why Katniss reacts so strongly: poor Rue only had maybe five or ten minutes of screen time, tops (and that’s being generous by counting scenes in which she appears in the background), before her tragic death.  You really only understand how important this relationship was by reading the book. 

As I contemplated this, I realized something.

The common wisdom among fans of reading books is that movies are never as good as the books on which they are based.  But I think that common wisdom is based on a logical fallacy.  Indisputably, books as a medium have strengths that make them a unique and powerful form for telling a story.  But there are things that books do not do as well as other media.  And among those, film has several particular virtues that it holds out over books. 

My realization, then, was that for me the quality of  a film adaption of a book was not in how faithful or slavish the adaptation was to the source material, but in whether watching the movie adds to the experience of the book.  Necessarily, a movie will leave something out that was in the book.  But a good movie adaptation doesn’t take away from the book – because the full experience and the deeper context of the book is still there, but what remains in the movie still forms a coherent story and resonates strongly with the books.

In the case of “The Hunger Games”, this was mostly the case.  As a movie, it was well-made and pleasant to watch.    But what elevates it as an adaptation is that it adds to the book mostly without taking away from that experience: with the single exception of the short-cutting of Katniss and Rue’s relationship, the movie had a strong, coherent narrative that added to the book some new context and new perspective.

How do others of my favorite book-to-movie adaptations fare?

The “Lord of the Rings” movies are a more exemplary case.  The movies are visually gorgeous and sumptuous.  Considering the films purely as films, they have a powerful, coherent narrative that is both epic in scope and poignant in the particulars.  As a companion to the books, they are extraordinary.  They create a visual and symphonic language for the books that grounds Middle-Earth and makes it more real and urgent.  They do leave things out, gloss over some things, and make other changes.  But for the most part, these alterations make the material better-suited for the film medium. 

As a reader, I loved the character of Tom Bombadil.  But removing him completely from the films was the right decision.  Dropping the so-called “Scouring of the Shire” scene from the end of the books is infamous among Tolkien aficionados, in part because of Peter Jackson’s statements that he always hated that part of the books.  But, although some argue that the scenes are somehow crucial to Tolkien’s themes, the truth is that in a movie adaptation that already has three “endings”, the “Scouring of the Shire” was largely superfluous: after the defeat of Sauron it’s anti-climactic.  And so on.  Some of the changes are more-or-less defensible, from a purist’s perspective, but in translating the book to film, those changes mostly resulted in a superior film.  And they don’t take away from the experience of the book.

The “Harry Potter” movies are an interesting case.  They’re good movies and, like the “Lord of the Rings” adaptation, they create a visual and musical language that compliments the book very well.  But the movies are generally so faithful in their adaptation that they struggle to add anything else.  And the revolving door of directors and and film score composers means that both the visual and musical underpinnings of the movies evolve in a way that isn’t always rationally related to each other.  And taken individually, the movies vary in quality, which makes the experience of watching them uneven.  It’s a mild distraction, and doesn’t take away from the books, but it doesn’t add to the books in the same way the “Lord of the Rings” movies do.

An old favorite of mine was “Jurassic Park”.  I still love both the book and the original movie (though the later movies did their best to cannibalize the first).  The movie was a show-stopper in its day, doing something that until then had seemed impossible: it made the viewer believe in the improbable world it portrayed.  The dinosaurs weren’t just CGI effects.  They were real.

The Jurassic Park movie strayed from the book in a few major ways, and this was annoying to me, as a reader and viewer both.  There were a number of characters who died in the book but who survived in the movie.  Each taken individually, this isn’t problematic.  The stories and characters were portrayed in subtly different ways that made who lived and who died in each version true to that version.  But it became annoying when the movie’s “canon” intruded on the book’s canon: the book’s author, Michael Crichton, went back and wrote a sequel that tried to reconcile the differing realities and justify a movie sequel.  While I’ve never read the book, the result in film was pretty much a failure in almost every regard.

So those are a handful of book-to-movie adaptations, and my thoughts on them.  What do you think about adaptations?  What were your favorite and least favorite, and why?


27 thoughts on “Movie Adaptations

  1. I find that my like for the movie or the book depends on which order that I see them. If I see the movie first, then I tend to have a different mindset when I read the book. I can’t get the images out of my head, and I correspond the two. I usually like which form of media I enjoyed first. LOTR was the only movie that I’ve watched (after the book) and been delighted with because the imagaes in my head match so well with what was on the screen.

    • It’s pretty rare that I’ll see a movie-based-on-a-book before I’ve read the book (and know that I’m doing this – I’m sure it happens more frequently when I don’t realize that the movie is a book adaptation), so I’m not really sure what my reaction to a book would be after having seen the movie first in a general sense. The last example I can think of where this happened, for me, was the very first Harry Potter book and movie. In that case, I was cured of my juvenile delusion that I was too old for Young Adult fiction. Thereafter, I read all the other HP books well before the movies came out. But also, my image of the characters and everything was heavily influenced by their appearance in the book. In most any other cases, I suppose I haven’t felt the need to read the book after having seen the movie…

  2. Isn’t the battle of the Shire in the extended edition of Return of the King? I seem to recall it, including Sarumon resurfacing there. Both the standard and extended versions of the film hold up, though.

    The common wisdom that the book is always better than the movie is silly, of course, because books and movies succeed in different ways. You don’t qualitatively compare cinematography to prose flow, or CGI to illustrations. But generally I’m inclined to say one was better than the other if I was satisfied by one but not the other; Jaws, for instance, is a great movie, but a tedious novel. Cutting out the mob and infidelity subplots aren’t even in the top ten reasons why Jaws clicks so well as a film.

    • I’ll be entirely honest… I own the extended edition, but I haven’t had the opportunity (i.e. time) to sit down and watch it yet, so I honestly don’t know if the scene is there. Hope to find out. (Dear Wife is mulling reading the books before we give the extended edition movies a watch together.) But anyway. I pretty much completely agree with everything else in your comment. Spot on.

  3. I was originally upset that The Scouring of the Shire was left out, but on reflection I’m glad because I think he/they would have botched it. It’s obvious from the first film that Jackson doesn’t “get” the Shire. The hobbits, other than the four main ones (and it sort of applies to Merry and Pippin, too) are buffoons. Tolkien does make fun of some of them at times, too, but with great affection. So, I don’t miss it, and my complaints about the movies are very minor, compared to what was achieved.

    If I’m really moved by a movie, I frequently avoid the book (if it was based on a book). McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a classic case. My favorite movie — why would I need a different version? The same with Let the Right 0ne In from a few years ago. No desire to read the book. My mother was the same way about Brokeback Mountain (in the other direction). She was so moved by the story that she felt she already had all of the images in her head. Why would she need different ones?

    John’s point applies to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also. The movie was forced to cut and streamline a lot, which was almost all for the good.

    I often like “adaptations” where they threw out the book and just made a good movie. I just watched Cronenberg’s movie of Naked Lunch, and it only has a vague connection to the details of the book (it has a plot and characters, for one thing) but it conveys a lot of what Burroughs was writing about — as a movie, not as a retelling of a book. To Have and Have Not is another good example, a great movie that has almost nothng to do with the book it was supposed to be based on.

    • I don’t know… I think Jackson’s treatment of the Hobbits, generally, was a pretty loving portrayal. The Shire seemed like a really wonderful place to live. As for “adaptations” that skew far from the original book, I’ll wager there’s not many book fans who will agree with your appreciation of those… but sometimes I think you’re right: books and film are such different media that sometimes you need to do something radically different to make it work. Let’s take the upcoming “adaptation” of What To Expect When You’re Expecting… (although I must use the word “adaptation” very loosely in this case). I suspect you’re also right that some movies are actually significantly better than the book…

      • An odd coincidence occurred to me after I mentioned Naked Lunch. What does it have in common with Lord of the Rings? There’s no obvious similarity betwen LoTR and a movie about homicidal insect typewriters, gay alien sex, and people who get high snorting bug powder, but what they have in common is magnificent scores by Howard Shore, aided in Naked Lunch by Ornette Coleman.

      • I hadn’t even heard of Howard Shore before “Lord of the Rings”. But his score for the LotR movies was positively sublime. I haven’t run across many other films that he’d done, yet, and certainly nothing near like the same scope. But based on that score alone it’s clear he’s a phenomenal composer.

      • I first heard Howard Shore’s name when he was the musical director on Saturday Night Live in the early days. The first film score of his that really caught me was eXistenZ (a movie I was so obsessed with that I saw it in theaters three times). It turned out that Shore scores pretty much all of Cronenberg’s films (similar to the relationship between Tim Burton and Danny Elfman — though Shore scored one Burton film as well: Ed Wood; I love Ed Wood but I never noticed the score, which is probably a good excuse to see it again 🙂 ).

        I think eXistenZ and Naked Lunch are the only two movie scores that I own on CD.

      • Probably the reason, then, that I hadn’t heard of him before was that I don’t closely follow Cronenberg’s films. I enjoyed both “The Fly” and “eXistenZ” but other than those two films I’m just not familiar with Cronenberg’s oevre. So in that sense, I suppose it’s no surprise that Howard Shore slipped under my radar until LotR.

  4. I am one of those people who usually doesn’t enjoy a movie after I’ve read the book. I think a large part of this has been the inattention to what I deem important details. Some movies handle things well, even improve upon them. I recently reread the first Happy Potter novel to compare Rowling’s descriptions of Diagon Alley with the manner in which it was rendered in the movie. As I noted differences in the movie and book I discovered that she had actually improved her story telling in the movie, changing certain scenes in ways that better communicated the same content. Other attempts at adaptation are so far from the novel that they should be a different story, with different characters, and a different world… similar, but different. If they aren’t going to tell the story, then I don’t think they should use the name even if it is well done as a stand alone story. Probably my biggest pet peeve in book adaptations (and old movies revisited) is the way in which they take truly noble characters and diminish them. I think it is in an attempt to make them more “real” or more “human”, but few things make me more angry. I aspire to nobility and believe that noble people can exist. Eragon, a horrible adaptation in my opinion, was guilty of this with the character Brom. Another example would be Cyclops in the Xmen movies, where he was depicted as weak, jealous and whiny rather than the strong & cool headed leader of the comic books. On one final note, attending a panel regarding adaptations at Midsouthcon, the differences between storytelling mediums were addressed. You cannot tell the story the same way, but to transfer it well is a challenge no matter how you look at it. One successful adaptation mentioned was the HBO miniseries “Game of Thrones”. Michael Stackpole mentioned that they got it right with this one. Right especially in the sense that epic fantasy requires something on the scope of a miniseries. Movie just aren’t long enough to effectively tell the story (unless, like JK Rowling you have such a following that they’ll take each one and make it into an individual movie).

    • You’re getting at what I’m talking about here when you talk about the Harry Potter movies: “I discovered that she had actually improved her story telling in the movie, changing certain scenes in ways that better communicated the same content”. That’s the core at what makes a good adaptation, I think. Changes to the source material are perhaps inevitable. But what makes it good is a change that better reflects the strengths of the new medium. You’ll also fine few arguments about the abyssmal quality of the “Eragon” movie. I saw the movie. It was awful. (I later read half of the first book. It was, in my opinion, not substantially better than the movie. I really should finish it sometime… but I just couldn’t get that into it.)

      • Yes, despite its popularity, it’s not the best of fantasy. I’m finishing the series now. The past two books have been read because friends wanted to talk with me about them. I think the first book was the best of the bunch, but if you’re not getting into it you’re not really missing anything by not picking it up again. Back to the subject at hand, one marked difference is that where Harry Potter is concerned, it was the author making the changes. The sad reality is that most adaptations don’t have much author involvement, and though they may make a good movie, seldom do they make a good retelling of the story in the novel itself.

      • Well, you’re right that most authors don’t get a lot of say in what happens in the movie adaptations. Often, I’d say, that’s a bad thing. But occassionally I do think it’s a good thing. That’s for the reason that novelists are writers of novels and are infrequently expert on the visual media; so that as long as the film team includes some influential folks who love the source material, not having the original author might potentially improve the film adaptation. But it’s often a bad thing, I think, because frequently the directors, producers, and screenwriters working on a project aren’t fans of the source material, and having the original author involved to influence the direction of the film adaptation can counterbalance that. But yes, alas, authors rarely get that kind of influence, unless they’re very popular.

      • Yep, nice point. Michael Stackpole said the same thing about authors potentially being the worst thing for a movie adaptation by failing to understand the medium. Of course most of the authors on that panel also said they didn’t care what Hollywood did with their book. It was good publicity and more money no matter how badly they screwed up the story.

      • Yeah, there are a lot who don’t, and a lot who’ve embraced the notion that novelists are not screenwriters (not like they couldn’t learn, of course, but it’s not going to be for everyone). Me? I fancy myself an auteur, so of course I’d want to have some influence over the development of any (hypothetical) movie adaptations of my own work. Not likely to happen any time soon, or likely ever, but if

      • hehe, one never knows the future. ; ) I am with you there however. I’m far to concerned about quality to simply let them do anything with my story. I’d want to be involved enough to ensure the integrity of the story is maintained even if I’m not directly writing or co-writing the screen play.

      • My reluctance would come largely — in this extremely unlikely scenario — from the fact that I’m not done. I’m still writing about these characters, so I’d be doubly hesitant to let anybody else touch them.

      • A valid concern, I think, and one I’ve considered as well. As a presumptive auteur, I want my works to integrate as fully as possible – for the experience of the book form and the film form both to be fully internally consistent and fully consistent with each other (as touches on my points in this post as to what makes an adaptation a good one, IMO). In the book form there are methods to handle that (story bibles, content editors, copyeditors, etc). But if you start delving into alternative media before a sequence of books/stories is completed, you increase the complexity of this endeavor by I think several orders of magnitude.

  5. “My realization, then, was that for me the quality of a film adaption of a book was not in how faithful or slavish the adaptation was to the source material, but in whether watching the movie adds to the experience of the book.”

    I think that’s a good way to look at it, especially since it’s inevitable that movies will have to cut material and that novels will typically have more space to explore more things in depth.

    Usually I don’t actually read the source material to movie adaptations, lol. Most times I prefer to see things visually instead of in the written word, though besides that it just so works out that I see a lot movie adaptations before I’ve even heard of the book. Even in those cases, I don’t always feel like reading the book after already having seen the movie. It’s rare, in any case.

    Anyway, I’m with Kirk on the X-men movies and Cyclops’ character. (I was just thinking about this yesterday, actually! For some reason…) I just remember that even in the cartoons I watched he was way more appealing than in the movies, one of my favorite characters. In the movie he’s just this brooding, silent type who doesn’t appear to have done anything to earn his cool factor, let alone the relationship he has with Jean (and with the cartoons I always thought he belonged with Jean, whereas in the movie I didn’t even care!). I’ve never read the comics, though, so I can’t really comment much on that aspect, heh.

    I was pretty disappointed with the way they hastily wrapped up The Golden Compass on the big screen, though aesthetically I thought it was spot on. That movie was one of the few that I actually sought out the source novel, just to see if it was better. (Thankfully, it was.)

    • I haven’t seen “The Golden Compass”, and I’ve only read about a quarter of “The Northern Lights” (well… not read really; it was an audiobook that had to be returned before Dear Wife and I finished it). I think you all are right about Cyclops’ portrayal, too. The comparative weakness as a character made the tension between him and Wolverine less meaningful, and that diminished that particular aspect of the storyline. It also made Cyclops death in the pretty awful X3 movie kind of a “meh” moment. It just didn’t matter, except that they had killed off a major character. Or, in other words, it only mattered to fans of the comics.

  6. Let me also chime in about Cyclops (and I go back a bit with Cyke — I remember buying X-Men #1, one of the first comic books I ever bought 🙂 ).

    They clearly didn’t know what to do with the character, though I mostly forgave them because of the characters they got right. But when I was watching the first movie I remember thinking that Cyclops was being diminished so that there was no chance of him outshining Wolverine. Which is wrong on a number of levels.

    One of my (minor) complaints about the Lord of the Rings movies is related, by the way, to Kirk’s complaint about “noble” characters being diminished. Aragorn, in the movies, is given a lot of self-doubt about whether Isildur’s weakness in him, and that’s why he has turned away from taking the throne. In the books, his reluctance to take the throne too soon is tactical, because he understands that they have to defeat Sauron first before he becomes king.

    I enjoy The Golden Compass for a number of reasons, but it’s nowhere near the book. I have some problems with the other two books — storytelling-wise — but the first is really great, and much tougher than the movie (as Tiyana points out about the ending).

    • I’ve heard about the ending of The Northern Lights, and where the series goes in general. (It was hard to miss the very, very religious who denounced the movies and the books because of their basically atheistic worldview. Nevermind that, for myself, I am a generally religious person who is comfortable and okay with other people having an atheistic worlview and I personally have no desire to drown out their voices.) I think you’re right about how wrong “diminishing” Cyclops was simply because Wolverine had top billing. Does diminishing Sauron make Frodo more awesome? Nay, I daresay, it makes Frodo less awesome. As a romantic rival… Cyclops just wasn’t believable, and for that reason the entire romantic subplot of X-Men just fell apart and didn’t work. (The rest of the first two movies was pretty awesome, IMO, but the third movie was pretty much not awesome.)

      • Agree completely about the question of diminishing Sauron re: Frodo. I always think of that in terms of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Do you make Holmes appear smarter by making Watson into a dimwit (as in the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce version)? Clearly that’s not what Doyle intended. No, you show Watson as a normal intelligent man, and then make Holmes that much smarter. This is one thing that the current movie series gets right, BTW (though it generally annoys the Holmes purists). Watson, as portrayed by Jude Law, is obviously intelligent (there’s even a joke about this), and a key deduction at the end is even made by Watson rather than Holmes.

        Ph, and I agree about the first three X-men movies. As I said, I forgave the treatment of Cyclops in the first movie because of the number of things it got right.

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