Why Some Book-to-Film Adaptations Fail

Twitter is abuzz right now with news about the cinematic Marvel Universe bringing Spider-Man into the fold, which naturally led to some passionate discussion about film adaptations. Some books-to-film adaptations are fantastic, some are emphatically “meh,” while others are staggeringly bad.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what divides the classics from the clunkers, and I have a few ideas:

Film adaptations can suck when they’re mostly in it for the money. There are some adaptations that you know arose from an executive conversation around a giant conference room table. “What’s that book that’s so popular? Yeah, we’ll make a movie out of that. No wait–we’ll make three movies out of that! And grab up some Oprah books, too.” These meetings give us bloated, soulless adaptations with all kinds of “Hollywood” changes that cause the story not to make sense. Fundamentally change characters to shoehorn in a romance? Sure! Turn thoughtful sci-fi into a shallow action film? Whatever sells tickets this week!

Adaptations can also fail if the film-maker does connect with the material, but is way off. The task of bringing to life a story that thousands, maybe millions, of people have each imagined clearly and uniquely in their minds would be daunting as hell. What happens when a director envisions it totally differently?

And, I’m gonna be real: artistic arrogance sometimes plays a part here. I’m thinking of Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby and Tim Burton’s Alice and Peter Jackson turning a 300-page book into nine bleeping hours of feature film. These directors in particular have a habit of going into source material and trying to “improve” on it (sometimes even bragging to the media–I recall both Jackson and Burton doing that, and Robert Zemeckis with Beowulf as well). I think it’s fair enough if you’ve been inspired by source material to create a new vision that aligns with your own artistic viewpoint, but putting the name of the source on your project creates a whole lot of baggage if you go too far off into left field.

The adaptations can use too much of the source material or be too ambitious. When I saw that Stephen King’s thousand-plus-page tome The Stand was slated to be made into four feature-length films, I bitched about it for two days. Film writing is not the same as book writing; it needs to be leaner and to say a lot more with less. Stephen King in particular does scene-setting and character-building that make epic reads but don’t always align with the tight writing needed for screenplays.

When you boil down the basics of The Stand, it’s not a long story: plague, migration, good vs. evil, taking a stand. I personally think they should go the series route instead of four movies that may not have complete individual story arcs; deep character development seems to work better in TV form. A page-for-page adaptation isn’t necessary or even good unless you have really cinematic writing, like in No Country For Old Men.

Some books don’t adapt easily, but are forced due to their popularity. Film is made for visuals, dialog, and action. Books are really good at getting into characters’ heads. Film is (usually) short and economical; prose can be languid and lush, dawdling over scenery and setting, luxuriating in the abstract. Books can also be far more sprawling in their plots and subplots- too many to cram into a film. Knowing what to keep or edit out to make a cohesive, faithful story must be a nightmare. I especially see “literary” films fall prey to the “Well, this is popular so let’s adapt it” mentality; you end up with a limp dishrag of a film that has nice cinematography and not much else. (Looking at you, Memoirs of a Geisha and Love in the Time of Cholera.)

What do you think are the best and worst film adaptations of books?

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