Book to Screen: The truth about film adaptations

Film | Opinion

Written by: Benjamin Ferrarini

From the beginnings of cinema there have been adaptations.  Big screen versions of classic works go back to silent films based on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in 1911 and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in 1914.  Novels also got adapted with two of the most famous being released in 1939.  The first was Margaret Mitchell’s 1937 novel “Gone With the Wind” which lost academy award for best picture to “The Wizard of Oz” based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel.  Since then there has been a steady stream of adaptations some of which have ranked in the top tier of the best films ever made.  “The Godfather” (1972),  “Silence of the Lambs”(1991), and “Schindler’s List” (1995) are all academy award winning films based on prior works.  For many having a work adapted to film is the pinnacle of success.  To others it seems a final insult.

Of course for every successful film that masterfully adapts it’s source material there are films that fail miserably. “Sphere” (1998), “Along Came a Spider (2001), “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (2005)  For one reason or another films like these simply do not capture the essence of what they are built on.  “Sphere” and “Along Came a Spider” eject to much of what made the original stories work.  Meanwhile it can be argued the dense commentary and irreverent satire which made up the “Hitchhiker’s” books simply couldn’t be translated to screen.  Zack Snyder’s take on Frank Miller’s graphic novel “Watchmen” was as competent an adaptation as it could be but still left a lot of fans cold.  So it’s easy to wonder what makes a good adaptation form a bad one?  Why do some work while others do not?  Is it in the eye of the beholder?  Or is there some objective measure we can apply?

One of literatures greats strengths for readers can become a liability when it comes to adaptations.  When you sit down to read “The Hunger Games” or “Lord of the Rings” you begin to imagine the world it is set in.  To create what the characters look like and sound like.  Very often those expressions of our imaginations are not met by those of a distant screenwriter and director.  For instance I am not a fan of the “Hunger Games” films.  The production design, art direction and casting just didn’t match up to what I wanted out of an adaptation of Susan Collins novels.  They hit most of the main story points sure, but too often “The Hunger Games” films felt like they were going through the motions without enough of the context that gives the books their emotional weight.  That judgement is apparently subjective as the film series was a critical and commercial success.

But, subjectivity aside a defining attribute for a film adaptation is that it stands on its own apart from the source material.  This is an important but often overlooked precedent.  There is a fine line between sticking to source material and creating something tailored for a different medium.  Some adaptions have trouble because they stick too close to the source material others because they deviate too much.  There is no hard and fast rule on this so let me demonstrate with some examples.  The Tom Clancy novel “Patriot Games” was developed into the 1992 film directed by Philip Noyce.  The film retains some elements from the book but is also very different.  The main source of conflict in Clancy’s novel is between a rouge IRA faction attempting to terrorize British royalty.  Most of the political intrigue and complicated plot dynamics are dropped in the film.  Instead they introduced a subplot that wasn’t in the original.  The main character Jack Ryan kills the younger brother of one of the IRA terrorists while thwarting one of their assassination plots.  The older brother, Sean Miller played by Sean Bean (“Game of Thrones”) becomes obsessed with getting revenge.  This works by taking a couple hundred pages of dense plot and boiling it down to a conflict between two men.  It gives the story a more personal note with different stakes that can easily translate to a two hour film.

Conversely Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Hobbit” is perhaps too tied to it’s source material.  This proved to be a problem because Jackson and New Line Cinema wanted to stretch out the novel into a trilogy of films.  They padded the films talking material from the novel as well as some other Tolkien’s writings.  It was done in the name of “world building” but whatever you call it the result was a diluted meandering mess that didn’t work.

Sometimes adaptations are so successful they become more popular and better known.  “The Wizard of Oz” is more widely known then the novel its based on.  Many don’t know the Sci-Fi films “Bladerunner”, “Minority Report” and “Total Recall” are all based on stories written by Philip K. Dick.  In as much as each of these films have accumulated cult status they can be considered to be successful films even if they only faintly resemble the written sources from which they sprang.  Perhaps there is a distinction then between good films that are also good adaptations and good films that are bad adaptations.


Perhaps the matter is mute because as stated before art is subjective and art based on art even more subjective.  Some will always prefer novels over films while others will always prefer celluloid over paper and still others will land in the middle.  Which ever group you find yourself Hollywood will continue to adapt novels and plays into films.  In 2017 two of Steven Kings novels “The Dark Tower” and “It” are coming to theaters while an American live action version of the Japanese comic “Death Note” will premiere on Netflix.  Time will tell if these adaptations will succeed or fail but you will find reviews with my thoughts on them right here on the Glitch.


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