31 Mar THE BOOK IS (ALMOST) ALWAYS BETTER
Like most avid readers of fiction, I have often said that the book is always better than the movie. In the past few years, however, my course readings have driven me to engage with films in my spare time (mostly because I can’t stand the thought of reading another word at the end of the day). This transition has given me more of an appreciation for films and more specifically, for the art of the adaptation. Yes, adaptations can sometimes be nauseatingly bad, but when done well, they can also serve as a vehicle that transports important stories to audiences that might not otherwise be willing or able to engage with them. In providing an alternate medium, film adaptations are an important tool that promotes accessibility and education.
In order to achieve this, however, they need to be done well. When directing the first Harry Potter movie, Chris Columbus’s ten-year-old daughter acted as an advisor of sorts. As a faithful reader of the books, she would tell him which parts of the story and characters were important to readers. He would then ensure that these were included in the final cut. While readers still found points of criticism with Columbus’s work (Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets for those wondering), this advice helped him remain relatively faithful to the source text. While not every director or screenwriter has a ten-year-old superfan on their side, this story emphasizes the most crucial part of an adaptation is considering the source text from the readers’ perspective.
That said, movies and books are obviously very different mediums. When adapting a book, directors and screenwriters need to consider what the medium of film can bring to a story that cannot be conveyed by words on a page. This might involve instilling an added sense of wonder through directorial decisions, such as the switch from black and white to colour that was used to differentiate Oz and Kansas in The Wizard of Oz. It could also involve an epic soundtrack or score that heightens the audience’s emotions.
An ideal adaptation is faithful to the book, but it also needs its own sense of purpose. Without further ado, here’s my list of the best and worst book to film adaptations.
First, the worst:
When I was preparing to write this article, I asked some of my friends about their favourite and least favourite adaptations. One of my friends responded immediately: Percy Jackson obvs. They provided no other context, but they didn’t need to. If you read Percy Jackson as a kid, you will remember the heartbreak that came with watching the film adaptation. These books had so much potential to be a great movie series. They centre on Percy Jackson, an average young teen who discovers that his dad is Poseidon, Greek God of the sea. The readers follow Percy as he learns about his identity as a demi-god and tries not to get killed by monsters. Thrilling, right? Unfortunately, the Percy Jackson screenwriters clearly didn’t talk to any fans of the book. The film adaptations made major changes to the storyline, taking plot points meant to happen much later in the series and placing them early on. While these changes were meant to make the movies more exciting, they really just disrupted the flow of the plot and angered faithful readers. (Oh, and don’t even get me started on brunette Annabeth.)
Okay, so this is kind of cheating because it’s not a movie or a novel per se, but I feel like a conversation about bad adaptations wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Riverdale. Not only is the show just objectively bad, but it also broke the cardinal rule of adaptations. If the goal of an adaptation is to remain relatively faithful to but enhance the source material, Riverdale ignored the first rule completely. I think the only similarity between the comics and the show are the character names. Almost everything else is different. Archie sleeps with Ms. Grundy? Jughead’s dad is in a gang? The Blossoms are drug dealers? And that’s just from season one. If they wanted to write a high school murder mystery, they could’ve done that without taking the rights to a much-beloved comic series.
The Hunger Games
This series is an interesting example of adaptation because people are so divided on it. When I was brainstorming for this article, some of my friends recommended it as an example of a good adaptation and some felt the opposite. The Hunger Games certainly brings some elements that help to enhance the content of the books: the costumes and production design are eye-catching, the music that was created for the film is haunting. In my mind, though, the casting was hit and miss. Woody Harrelson (Haymitch) and Elizabeth Banks (Effie) were stellar, and my friends will attest that I adore all of Stanley Tucci’s (Caesar Flickerman) performances. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, though, fell a little flat. This isn’t entirely her fault; Katniss is supposed to be closed off to others, but because of this, the complexity of the character simply didn’t translate to screen. Considering that understanding of Katniss’s emotions and thoughts was crucial to understanding the story, the adaptation fell short.
The Princess Bride
This movie is so iconic that many of its fans are surprised to learn that it was actually based on a book. Written in 1973 by William Goldman, it wasn’t until 1987 that this novel became a film. Goldman writes in a witty, quirky way that absolutely translates in the film, perhaps because it was Goldman himself that wrote the screenplay. While some details, such as the backstory of a few secondary characters, were omitted for the sake of time, the film stays relatively true to the original. That said, there is one major change: the ending, which is left ambiguous in the book, is left strictly happy in the movie. This might have been frustrating to some readers, but for others, the film provided some much-needed closure.
Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
Little Women is a classic novel by Louisa May Alcott that follows four sisters, Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy March, as they grow up together in 19th century Massachusetts. My grandma made me read this book when I was really little, and to be honest, I hated it. As a result, I wasn’t super motivated to go see the latest adaptation, but its cast, which included Saoirse Ronan, Timothee Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and Meryl Streep convinced me to watch it. In some ways, Little Women breaks my rules for what makes a good adaptation, as there were some big changes from the initial plot. However, these changes help engage a new audience. One of the reasons that I hated the book was that it depicted Jo, a young, independent woman who had expressed a dislike for the institution of marriage, wind up married. This plot point had not been the initial intention of Louisa May Alcott, who had wanted to leave Jo unmarried until her publishers intervened. In her adaptation, Gerwig follows through with Jo’s marriage makes it clear that this plot point was something pushed on Alcott by her editor, thus providing an explanation for the film’s ending that makes it more palatable to a 21st century feminist audience.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Typically, I watch film adaptations after having read the book, but with If Beale Street Could Talk, the film encouraged me to pick up the book. This film, set in the 1970s, centres on Tish and Fonny, a young Black couple, whose lives are torn apart when Fonny is wrongfully accused of rape. The story highlights the systemic racism that existed and continues to exist in our society, in an honest and heart-wrenching way. Through this adaptation, director Barry Jenkins, brought new life and a new audience to the Barry Jenkins novel, which was written in 1974. When considering adaptation as important to education, this film comes to mind as it personally encouraged me to engage more with Jenkins’ work, much of which focuses on the theme of racial injustice.
So no, the book is not always better, but film adaptations need to be done carefully, considerately, and most importantly, purposefully. When this happens, film adaptations can aid accessibility and education while breathing new life into the books we love most.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/09/how-my-first-novel-became-a-movie/539430/