Like most people, I see a lot of movies. In fact, I probably see more movies than read books. Oftentimes, especially lately, it seems like all Hollywood does is make books (and comics and literally every other type of media) into movies. I have seen my fair share of “based on” movies. Some are literally the best adaptations I’ve ever seen. Others are simply terrible. Why is that? I have a few theories that I’ll share here and a suggestion to help you get through the terrible ones.
- The definition of “adaptation”: Logically, ‘adaptation’ means taking the source material changing it for a different form of media. From book to film. This should mean that the plot is simply adapted for viewing on a screen rather than reading on a page. Because of the nature of movies, things are often cut out or shortened.
- The writing: Not gonna lie, it’s a big part. Dialogue is changed, characters are altered, plot takes an entirely different path. This has never made sense to me because all the good lines are already written, in the source material! Why write something else when it’s already been done for you?
- The director: Though we should not speak its name, I know we’re all thinking of the Avatar: The Last Airbender adaptation by M. Night Shyamalan. Travesty of epic proportions.
As readers, books are very near and dear to us. We get emotionally attached to characters, and we get excited at the thought of seeing those characters on screen, just as they’re written in the books. That rarely happens. In order to get that kind of dedication to an adaptation, you have to find a director that loves the books as much as the readers do. It’s not unheard of, and that is what creates some of the best adaptations, like Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games, every adaptation of Pride & Prejudice ever.
The changing of plot and characters is usually what makes me the most upset. Why not just write an original screenplay if you’re simply going to use the names and change everything else? I am one of those people get have troubles separating movies and books, especially when they’re supposed to be the same, but that is the suggestion I present to you. My friend Kate often tells me to do that when I get mad at an adaptation. The Harry Potter movies are nowhere near the capacity and complexity and interest level as the books. I could read the series over and over again but I can barely get 30 minutes into any of the movies before getting bored.
A few weeks ago, I was on a plane back from Canada and lucky enough to get a movie screen. I watched a movie called The Duff (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), and I really enjoyed it. It’s a cliché, high-school-y type movie, but I am not above that kind of entertainment. To my surprise, when I googled it later, I found out it was a book first! (surprise!) So I immediately went to GoodReads to read the summary and reviews. Half of them were complaining about the movie being so different than the book, and since I’d enjoyed the movie, I thought I had to read the book to see if it was just avid fans complaining or if they had a point. I’m nearly finished with the book, and I have to say that I really like it! It’s super cliché and like reading fanfic, but I love it. It is very different than the movie, but I like them both!
Now, this is probably because I saw the movie first (that does help if you’re trying not to hate an adaptation), but to me, they are two separate things. The movie is good, though the plot is almost entirely changed, and the book is good too although some of the dialogue is more cliché than even I can stand. See! We can have the best of both worlds. I’m sure for fans that were excited for the movie, it was like me watching Harry Potter for the first time and being super disappointed at literally everything. But as a newcomer to the book and movie, I have a more objective perspective. Just luck, I guess.
It’s hard to separate your feelings, and I can only hope, if I ever write a book that is optioned for movie rights, that the director chooses to honor the source material. Until then, watch the movie first. (I promise you I will probably never follow this rule so long as I know beforehand that the movie was based off a book. But hey, doesn’t hurt to try.)