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?