Adaptations are Not Your Enemy

A fan’s train of thought takes a certain journey when it is announced that a favourite work of theirs is getting a movie of it. First, it sets off at a happy chug down the track of excitement and joy. At last, your adored series or book has gotten the recognition it deserves and the awesomeness it contains shall be displayed upon the silver screen to be embraced by a wider audience! You’re going to see all those great scenes come to life, those characters you love become three-dimensional in front of you, and the world and setting be mapped out visually in all their splendour.

And then with a clunk the track shifts and the course diverts — what if they screw it up? What if they leave out important bits? What if the characters don’t appear like you had them in your head? What if it gains a less cultured movie-going fanbase who don’t appreciate the intricacies of the book? The horror!

Note: I have never had that final worry, but for many it’s a legitimate fear. (Just look at all the Hunger Games fans weeping over the newcomers who have only seen the movie and have no idea who Madge is.)

We’re seeing a lot of adaptations lately. I dare not suggest that Hollywood are running out of ideas, and lean instead towards the possibility that many good books are simply being recognised as just that, and so the story is lifted from the page to become a good movie.


This is on my mind because the first instalment in The Mortal Instruments saga, City of Bones, is getting a film adaptation and a string of casting announcements have recently been made. I overheard a conversation wherein a lover of the book was complaining about the actress hired as the main character, Clary, because she didn’t fit the description in the books.

This is a fair enough concern. Everyone who reads a book forms their own mental image of a character and it can be jarring to see it contradicted in the form of someone else’s casting choice. But here is something else to consider.

Let’s use The Hunger Games adaptation again. This is Jennifer Lawrence.

This is Jennifer Lawrence in her lead role.

It’s remarkable what a bit of dye, makeup and solid acting can do.

(Of course, some fans still muttered bitterly about the tone of her skin, but that was largely up to interpretation in the books only being described as ‘olive’, and really that debate is a different issue and a different story that I am not delving into here.)

But still, all power to the overheard complainer, for they illustrated a point. People get very possessive of books that they like and eye any adaptation with sometimes unjustified scrutiny. They will get up in arms about the slightest defect from the original and rant and rave while the newcomers look on in bewilderment.

The thing is, attached as we may be to a book or series, we as fans have to get our boiling brains into the following mindset:

  • Books pack in a lot of detail. They can do that as they have many pages. Movies do not and cannot and are limited to a 2 hour (and by then you’re stretching it) timeframe and a stricter law of conservation of detail has to be applied. When things are cut out, we must be forgiving.
  • The movie will never match the picture we had in our heads. This is simply due to the fact that every person’s imagination is different and as long as the characters fit the basic description, and more importantly, are portrayed truthful to their personality, we should be content with that.
  • When things are changed, we must try to refrain from reaching for the torches and pitchforks. In some cases it is the author asking for a tweak in the new version, in some it is, like the cutting of scenes and details, an artistic decision that was considered by many people. Do you think a film company would set about making an adaptation and make a conscious effort to enrage and irk the fans?
  • Most importantly, we must accept that the book and the movie are separate and individual pieces of work, and one will not change the other.

Unfortunately, a lot book-to-movie adaptations end up shoddy simply because the filmmakers couldn’t do the original justice. It’s a sad fact because there are also many amazing and well-loved adaptations. Like most things, it all comes down to the individual.

And then there are movies like The Last Airbender… which the fans of the original deny even happened.

Aang from the live action The Last Airbender film

Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony… then everything changed when they made that crappy live action movie

Then of course there are the movie adaptations of classic books, which have a bigger problem on their plate because they have generations of fans and scholars to please. As with all film-of-the-books, the filmmakers make an attempt to show the work to a fresh audience as well… and this can lead to, well, notable tweaks to make the story more appealing.

Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I recently watched for a class. The director obviously felt that despite it being a gothic horror novel it wasn’t horrific or dramatic enough. Or sexy enough. So they made artistic tweaks and upped the melodrama, the gore and the romance, leading to a concoction that wasn’t quite as true to the original as the title may have made viewers think (So really it should have been called Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which let’s face it just doesn’t have as nice a ring to it).

The same thing, I believe, happened to the most recent screen adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray starring the delectable, though not exactly golden-haired as dear little Dorian is described, Ben Barnes. It was rated MA15+ for sex scenes. I’m sure Oscar Wilde is chortling somewhere in author heaven about how Victorian prudishness has not chained down his story after all, but I wonder if something is at work here. People feel as though classical times were simply not racy enough with their literature, being bunched up in their corsets and starched collars and all, and so to give the stories (which already have enough magic in them to reach classic status and survive this long, mind you!) any kind of appeal to modern audiences we have to ramp up the drama, sex and violence.

Dorian Gray 2009... with ladies

“Subtext” is for l0serz

So what’s going to happen with the new The Great Gatsby movie that is coming out at the end of this year? Is it going to fall into the category of yet another classic book deemed too dull for today’s audience with their newfangled Apples and Blackberries and short attention spans? Critics have already sneered at the trailer for seeming “too flashy”. Well gee, we certainly wouldn’t want that for a story about decadence and corruption of a sequin-spangled, champagne-soaked era now would we? All snarkiness aside, it will be interesting to see what is done with the story beloved and acclaimed by so many. Watch this space.

There will always be war over book-to-movie adaptations. It is one of those unfortunate facts of life. I for one am very much looking forward to both The Great Gatsby and City of Bones, even if only to see how they stand as films and adaptations. Because you can have a great movie and a lousy adaptation, and vice versa too. The bottom line is, we all just have to give them a chance, enjoy them for what they are and bite our tongues if we feel like screaming “That wasn’t how it happened in the book!” and upsetting the good patrons of our local cinema. Save that for when you have it on DVD.


Filed under Pop Culture Ponderings

2 responses to “Adaptations are Not Your Enemy

  1. The problem is when companies such as Hollywood do make the decision to adapt a book often the end result, to the book’s fans anyhow, appears to be more concerned with the mass audience rather than the story itself. The mindset is not ‘This book is good and I want to make it art in another medium’ so much as ‘This book is popular and I want to make money’. Now, the director, producer, cast, make-up crews and their pet hamsters may be part of the project may be diehard lovers of the book themselves, but the executives are the ones with the final say, and they’re the ones with currency signs in their eyes. Their attitudes reveal themselves in the fundamental changes to the plot and characters, both in adding and taking away. Take King Solomon’s Mines, for instance. Several live action productions over the past century, but not one sticks to the original premise of three men on an adventure. Quatermain is never the elderly occasional coward Haggard describes, instead he’s always devilishly handsome. One of them invariably becomes a woman and thus a love interest, since obviously Captain Good’s mixed-race relationship with Foulata is unpalatable.

    They can bring a new audience to the books themselves – I probably would not have tried Lord of the Rings Jackson’s films not come out – but I tend to be skeptical when it’s a major production company behind it. They, more than anyone else, want profits, and that more than anything else causes the ‘dumbing down’ or ‘beautifying’ of a story.

  2. Pingback: The Age of Heroes | The Afictionado

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s