From page to screen: Challenges of book to movie adaptations

hunger-games-instagram-catching-fire-book-third“The movie was OK, but the book was so much better.”

This is a comment I often hear whenever Hollywood comes out with a new book-to-movie adaptation. Books have long been a favorite source of inspiration for film makers, from the classic “The Maltese Falcon” to the recent box office blockbuster, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Many of the all-time highest grossing movies have been based on novels, such as the “Harry Potter” series (that list grows even longer when you include films based on comic books, such as “The Avengers”).

Many times, however, fans express frustration about how Hollywood chooses to adapt well-loved books: favorite characters are left out, plot lines are condensed, events are altered, etc. The original book almost becomes a sacred text, and directors fear to veer too far off the page.

I used to be a stickler when it came to book-to-movie adaptations (I can probably still name all the places where Peter Jackson deviated from “The Lord of the Rings” novels in his film series). But I’ve become more lenient recently, and I think sometimes fans are a little too tough on the film versions of books. Film as a medium has different needs than a novel, and what works on the page doesn’t always work on the big screen.

Even if a film’s runtime is longer than normal, like the 3+ hours in the “The Lord of the Rings” movies, there’s only so much content you can pack into one movie before it becomes overstuffed. Subplots that work just fine on the page can clog up a film and slow down its pacing. Some characters, details, etc. simply may have to be cut out to keep the film moving.

For example, Peter Jackson cut a chunk out of the ending of “The Return of the King.” In the original novel, Frodo and the other hobbits return to the Shire to find it has been taken over by the wizard Saruman (in the movie version, Saruman is killed early on in the story, and the hobbits return home without event). This used to bother me, but I think Jackson probably made the right decision. Even though I liked this part in the book, it would have extended the film’s ending and would have changed the tone Jackson was trying to build. If you had to pick a part from the book to leave out that would make the least impact on the overall narrative, that was likely it.

Trying to stick too closely to a book can cripple film makers, especially in the case of good books that may not translate as well to the big screen. This is the way I felt about “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” While I loved the previous two Narnia films, I felt “Dawn Treader” was the weakest of the series, even though it was my favorite of C.S. Lewis’ original novels. The book’s episodic nature didn’t bother me on the page; the format was fun to read, with new adventures on every island during the characters’ voyage. However, on film the plot seemed a little too disjointed, and the plot device the film makers added to link the film’s events together fell a bit flat.

That’s why I’m really glad director Francis Lawrence was brave enough to make some changes with his adaptation of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” I enjoyed the book version, but I felt the first half of the book focused too much on the Katniss-Peeta-Gale love triangle, which is one of the weaker elements of the series. In the book, the brewing revolution in Panem remains more in the background.

I liked that Lawrence was willing to play around with the format: he brings the revolution to the foreground and shifts the love triangle to the background. He turns the first half of the movie into a taut political thriller, and this bumped the movie from “good” to “great” for me. I’ll even venture to say I think that as a finished product, the movie is actually better than the book (don’t hate me!) 😉

For me, the most important part of a book-to-movie adaptation is getting the characters right and capturing the overall tone and feeling of the book, even if some of the details and plot points have to be changed along the way. For example, Steven Moffat made some very dramatic changes in his modernized version of “Sherlock Holmes” with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, but the characters felt authentic, and the adaptation captured the quick-witted spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original writings. I think a film maker’s respect for the original source material, even if they decide to change it, makes a difference, as well.

So, what do you think? Are fans sometimes too tough on book-to-movie adaptations? Or do you think Hollywood alters too much of the original content when it turns books into movies?


9 thoughts on “From page to screen: Challenges of book to movie adaptations

  1. Great question!

    I think it depends on the project. The second Hunger Games movie is fantastic, and at least equal to the novel. Maybe better. The first movie wasn’t quite as good, especially not compared to the book.

    In general, though, I think you’re right. Adaptations are best when they keep character and theme but give up (or even take liberties with) the plot. Faramir taking Frodo and Sam to Gondor is such an example. As seen in the extended cut, it keeps Faramir’s intelligence and longing for fatherly affection, and also inserts some interesting conflict into a section of the book that has very little. In the extended cut’s version, this plot variance works.

    In the theatrical release, however, it doesn’t. Because too much of Faramir’s struggle is cut. Which means it loses Faramir’s wisdom, and, until the resolution anyway, makes him a carbon copy of Boromir.

    On to another film: this, I think, is also why the Ender’s Game adaptation lacks greatness. It keeps the book’s plot, but loses its subtext and characters. Which isn’t, in my opinion, the right thing to lose.

    • I’m glad you brought up the example of Faramir in the LOTR movies. That was something that bothered me too in the original theatrical cut. Faramir was one of my favorite characters in the books but I felt he didn’t come across as very likable in the movie version. I was really glad they added some extra scenes in the extended version, and I thought that came closer to the feeling of his character from the books.

      I also agree about Ender’s Game. It was a fun movie to watch, with great special effects, but you’re right, it does fall short of greatness, and I think some subext and character development was lost in the translation.

  2. Great topic. You bring up a lot of good points and considerations. What got me hooked about BBC’s Sherlock is the character and his friendship with Watson more so than the mysteries. A critique I’ve read about The Watchmen is that it followed the comic book too closely and didn’t translate as well was it could have on the screen. I personally enjoyed it alot. I haven’t watched Hunger Games yet but I’d be excited to see if it can bring out and exceed the best elements in the book and downplay the less interesting bits.

    • Thanks! 🙂 I also really love the BBC Sherlock show, and especially how Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman portray the characters. I like that the characters and their friendship are really brought to the forefront in that adaptation.

      I hope you enjoy the Hunger Games movies. I liked the first one, but I really loved the second one. 🙂

  3. Trying to put every aspect in from Dan Brown’s book, The DaVinci Code made for a boring film. I think Angels and Demons was a more enjoyable film but people complained they left out parts – I’m not a fan of films over 2 hours. Film is a different medium and should be told differently.

    • I think sometimes film makers are a little TOO faithful to the source material. 😉 If they try to follow a book too closely, it can end up a little flat on screen even though it worked really well on the page.

  4. I’m much the same as you, I used to care about changes, but now I realize its not a big deal. Just because a movie is loyal to the book doesn’t necessarily mean its a good movie. It needs to be judged on its own merits, and I’m a lot better at doing that now.

    • There have been a few times where I was upset about book-to-movie changes, but most times when I think about it more, I realize the film makers were probably right to cut or change that detail. As long as they care about the source material and try to capture the spirit of the original book, that works for me. 🙂

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