For as long as there have been movies, books have served as an inspiration for storylines. From the early days of cinema when The Wizard of Oz and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thrilled audiences, to the modern age where Ready Player One, the Harry Potter series, and superhero flicks rock box offices, the written word has spawned plenty of visual adaptations.
While books continue to provide a vibrant well for screenwriters to pull from, adaptations are not always hits. When fans are heavily invested in an author’s work, the big-screen representation must meet high expectations, or it will nosedive into oblivion. So what makes for a good adaptation? No movie will be perfect, but certain principles can be applied to any adaptation.
First And Foremost: Capture The Spirit Of The Book
The trick with adaptations is being faithful to the book without bringing every line to the screen. Let’s face it: As much as fans love the Harry Potter books, most people wouldn’t sit through a five-hour production of a movie. Most films can’t capture the intricate details that an author can spend pages describing. Time is a heavy factor for movies, as well as budgets, neither of which hinder a book.
A film will have to cut some scenes, trim dialogue, leave out a character or two, or splice together plot threads in order to make a successful and entertaining product, but how this is done is of utmost importance. Get any one of these wrong and the whole ship can go down. When I think on the movies I feel do this right, I see a common thread: filmmakers translate the spirit of the book to the big screen.
Every novel has a flavor. Certain themes are highlighted, characters have quirks, and plots move in creative ways. A beloved novel excels in these areas. The challenge for movie makers is to accurately pinpoint what the “flavor” or spirit of the original work is. Some might take Tarzan, for instance, and turn him into an eco-awareness, anti-colonialism figure. While there’s nothing wrong with exploring those topics, they miss the aim of the original books, which treated the Ape Man as a character at the center of complicated adventure plots. Tarzan can work in this capacity, but he’s at his strongest when he’s swinging through trees and saving Jane from some nefarious foe.
When a film fails to grasp the spirit of a book, it may still turn out good but it will probably be dismissed by fans as an unfaithful adaptation. Often, though, when a film misses the mark, it falls short at the box office as well. Without the charm that propelled the original work, the ingenuity of the screenwriters may not be enough to salvage the movie. Let’s consider some films that failed as adaptations and then applaud ones that excelled.
5. The Count Of Monte Cristo (2002)
I’m slightly hesitant putting this on the list. It’s an exciting work in its own right, but from what I recall in comparing the movie with the book, it failed to capture the emotion behind Edmond Dantès’s revenge plot. As you read the novel, you thrill when the protagonist slowly picks off the prey who wronged him. The adaptation didn’t quite master that spirit in its telling of the story.
Perhaps it should have devoted more time to Dantès executing his revenge, or dove deeper into the ways revenge affects one’s humanity. Instead, it opts for a period-piece action movie rather than a journey through the human psyche.
4. Noah (2014)
While writing a movie based on only a few chapters in the Bible is a daunting task, this movie suffers from too much creative license. These include: rock monsters that are fallen angels (that aren’t in the Bible), a dastardly villain sneaking aboard the ark (also not in the Bible), and a psychopathic hero who may be tripping on drugs (definitely not in the Bible).
Darren Aronofsky explores interesting themes with his characters, but the final product embellishes so much on the original text it fails to reverently honor the spirit of story inspiring it. Creative license can work, but when it deviates too far in its own direction it loses its adaptive punch.
3. The Chronicles Of Narnia Series (2005–2010)
The first film in this franchise, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, fared well enough as an adaptation, even improving on certain aspects of the plot. However, with each successive film, the screenwriters strayed from C.S. Lewis’s original vision. The second film, Prince Caspian, barely passed in this regard, but the third movie (the one that sunk the franchise temporarily), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, added outlandish plot elements and horribly diverged from Lewis’s work. Every film suffered from fan complaints on some level, and it seemed the filmmakers never knew how to properly handle the beloved books.
This makes for a unique challenge in the art of adaptations. How do you improve on a work without upsetting fans? The Narnia series shows us that being divided between fan expectations and the vision of the filmmakers weakens an adaptation and shoots a series in the foot. They should have committed one way or the other. Stay truer to the source material or stick with the vision they had for the long-term.
2. The Sherlock Holmes Franchise (2009–2011)
This is an example of fundamentally changing the DNA of a literary character. The witty observations are there, but the mysteries felt muddled and overblown to add stakes for the world. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective became famous in solving small, puzzling cases around London, not preventing anarchy or a world war. Making this change, the filmmakers lost the heart and soul of the original tales.
1. The Hobbit Trilogy (2012–2014)
Following the surprising success and execution of the Lord of the Rings films, it seemed natural (and lucrative) to also bring the prequel novel, The Hobbit, to the big screen. Unfortunately, pre-production problems hindered the movies from the start. Peter Jackson tried his best to recreate the magic of Middle Earth, but added characters that existed solely for audience appeal (looking at you, Tauriel), a bloated plot featuring elements not found in the original book, and a lack of focus on the central character wash the trilogy in infamy. The fun spirit of the book slowly fades away and the films suffer for it.
Here is another challenge of adaptations, especially of older books. How do you update the source material, without losing its spirit, for a modern audience? It’s mostly testosterone in Tolkien’s book, so it’s understandable that Jackson created a female character to add some variety, but an odd romance subplot bungles her character. His attempts at stringing out the storyline of the book and cramming in modern plot devices also fall short. Perhaps the original plot needed to be streamlined, but the way it’s handled doesn’t do much to honor or improve upon the classic that came before it.
Let’s end on a happy note, shall we? Here are five movies that capture the spirit of their source materials well.
5. Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
This might seem like an odd choice, given it makes major changes to the original Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, but this film captured the fun, adventurous and whimsical nature of the novel and improved upon it by adding outlandish humor. The basic plot remains present, with only a few additions to its major beats (most notably Miss Piggy’s role).
However, this is an example of how an adaptation can take creative license and still remain faithful to the spirit of its source. The filmmakers understood the spirit of adventure behind the original tale and captured the thrill and magic of it. They also managed to adapt it to the Muppet style without detriment to the book.
4. The Harry Potter Series (2001–2011)
Eight movies adapted from seven books is quite a feat. Considering that all of the films enjoyed success on some level and improved in quality as they progressed adds to the impressive nature of this franchise. As adaptations, there are some misses in the group, but the majority grasp the magical spirit of J.K. Rowling’s novels and even improve on some of the books’ weaknesses. They properly trimmed down certain characters and smoothed out bumpy plot points while enhancing the magical world in a way that drew millions of kids into wishing Hogwarts was real.
What they did right was hone in on the central story of the series. They gave fans a faithful adaptation even as they cut large chunks of the books’ narratives. It worked because they stayed true to Harry’s story and didn’t swerve off into imposing their own vision on the series.
3. Ben-Hur (1959)
Having read last year the original novel by Lew Wallace, the 1959 Charlton Heston-led adaptation is a shining example of an adaptation done right. It takes the revenge plot and gives it more heart than the book spent time building, cuts out a couple characters to streamline the story’s flow, and yet remains faithful to the spirit of the novel.
Wallace’s book would be a daunting task for any screenwriter, but the people behind this movie deftly cut away the excess and crafted a story that remained faithful to the book while improving on its weaknesses. Giving Ben-Hur and Messala’s friendship more time to establish itself makes the latter’s betrayal more heartbreaking. It also gave the viewer more sympathy for Ben-Hur and his family. This shows us an adaptation can be better than its source.
2. The Princess Bride (1987)
Most people might not realize this cult classic is actually based on a book of the same name. The novel has many hilarious side stories and exposition that couldn’t translate into a film, but its big-screen brother does well in honing in on the central plot and theme of the book. It helps that William Goldman penned both book and screenplay.
Clearly, he understood what makes a great adaptation. Like the two previous examples, stripping the story down to its roots may leave some uproarious moments or backstory out of the film, but that ultimately leaves a cleaner house for the viewer to live in and enjoy for a couple hours. Books have more luxury with time, movies don’t, and good adaptations know this.
1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (2001–2003)
It’s ironic, really. The Hobbit trilogy is an example of adaptation gone haywire, while its brother books enjoyed greater results. Perhaps Peter Jackson’s heart was more in the sprawling epic or perhaps he had more time and preparation. Regardless, the Lord of the Rings trilogy expertly focuses in on the spirit of Tolkien’s work by focusing on the main plot points and cutting out unnecessary side quests (bye, Tom Bombadil!). It makes some changes that don’t work compared to the originals, but the majority of the films stay faithful and improve on the stories.
While The Hobbit struggled in its modern-day rendering, Jackson had a few more characters to work with and highlight. Thus, Eowyn and Arwen, two female characters that already existed in the books, could be given more to do in the films. Also, with more plot to deal with, Jackson could weave the story in a way that allowed the movies to be faithful to their source without hacking it to pieces. Here we see a king among adaptations.
My limited experience in books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen may not make for the definitive list on adaptations, but I do believe in what makes a movie based on a book work is that it translates the spirit of its source. Understanding the author’s intent and what makes a novel beloved will translate into the film and allow it to share in the success of its source.
What do you think? What are some of your favorite (and least favorite) book-to-movie adaptations?