It’s the clarion cry we all hear (or say) as we’re leaving the theater. “The book was better,” “Oh, well, in the comics this character…” and “What did that even have to do with the game?” It’s all summed up by the old adage: “The book is always better”.
Of course, it’s not so simple as all that, otherwise we wouldn’t live in an age where almost all successful movies are adaptations of something. I pulled up this list of movies adapted from books (just books, not comics or anything else) coming out this year alone, and there were thirty-five of the damn things.
So why are adaptations so prevalent? Well, money, obviously, but there’s more to it than that. I would like to take a moment to delve into what makes an adaptation good, where they tend to fall flat, and why certain things work better than others. Not necessarily in that order.
Why Adapt At All?
It’s really easy to answer this question with “money” and move on like it’s not even a question, but is that really the answer? Sure, in a lot of cases that’s probably the only reason, and for those examples you usually need only pick out which books/movies/etc fall under the heading of “follow the leader”, such as the Divergent and Maze Runner following the success of the Hunger Games. But I believe there are other, legitimate and artistically valid reasons for adapting.
If you can get passed the cynical view of adaptations being studio-mandated cash grabs (which is hard, I admit, especially with how many of them are) and think of the people doing the work, there’s something beautiful about the very idea of an artist (be they a director, actor, writer, what have you) being so inspired by another’s work that they want to share their vision of it.
And that sort of ties into why we flock to adaptations, why no matter how often we complain about nothing being ‘original’. People by nature have two seemingly-mutually exclusive mindsets when it comes to their entertainment; we want something familiar that we have already invested into, but we also want something new. Adaptations hit a sort of sweet spot between these drives. So when we see the the journey from the idyllic Shire to the desolated Mordor come to life, it becomes something new despite being something we may be familiar with, and it’s awe inspiring.
When Do They Work, and When Don’t They?
It’s no secret that changes happen in adaptations. Even the best stories lose something in the retelling, like an expensive game of telephone. Harry Potter in the films is a lot less snarky and sarcastic than his book counterpart, and a great many character- and world-building moments were lost, but we still love those movies like we do the books. The film adaptations of Lord of the Rings don’t beat us over the head with the mind-crushing depth of the world’s history, but we still adore the film trilogy. Game of Thrones made composite characters of a great many roles, and eventually diverted entirely the source material before overtaking it, but it’s still awesome.
So what sets those examples, and others like them, apart from the other end of the spectrum? If both deviate, why do many of us adore the later seasons of Game of Thrones, but call the Dark Tower movie an abysmal pile of shit that not only gives no joy, but sucks it right out of your life? (Or maybe that’s just me?)
What I’ve found is that the first thing that makes or breaks an adaptation is the ability to capture the spirit of the original. Going back to Harry Potter for a second, if you watch Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone, you get the same or similar sense of the magic and wonder that you get from reading the book. Throughout the series, while the specifics vary between versions, there is still the understanding of the bonds of friendship between the main trio, the struggle of good against evil, the sense of wonder and discovery in both the books and the films.
Conversely, the Dark Tower: The books feature a grand journey across a magical yet dystopian land, bonds of friendship that transcend everything, the struggles of addiction and obsession, and a sense of dreamlike progression. Do you know which of those were in that abysmal movie? I’ll tell you, reader: Not a fucking one of them! There are people who make the argument it wasn’t meant to be a direct adaptation, but the fact of the matter remains that nothing in that movie even elicited the general feelings of the books. None at all.
The second, yet equally important, factor in a good adaptation is its ability to convey the story without relying on your knowledge of the original. The biggest pitfall many adaptations fall victim to is the assumption that everyone watching/reading/playing it was a fan of the original. While some fans might overlook it, most viewers will notice how jarringly out of place things are. This was not the worst part of the Eragon movie, but one of the few things I can clearly remember from when I sat through that dumpster fire of a waste of money was a scene where the heroes walk into the rebel stronghold and are immediately accosted because one of them “… is the son of Morzan the traitor!” Now, I knew who Morzan was, because I read the (first three) books, but am pretty sure at no point before or after that scene did they explain the significance of that little nugget anywhere in what I would only tentatively call a film.
Closing Thoughts and my Top Ten
It should be no surprise to anyone that despite how terrible some adaptations can be, they aren’t going anywhere any time soon. And to be honest, I’m actually glad for that. Speaking as both an avid reader and a major cinephile, I love when my favorite books are adapted well, partly because I enjoy the new perspective, and also because it gives me the opportunity to share what I love with those friends who, despite my best efforts, have to be blackmailed to even crack open a book.
And for every Dark Tower and Super Mario Bros., we also get a Harry Potter or a Lord of the Rings, and that’s what makes it all worth while.
My top ten: (*Note: To make this list, I need to have experienced the source material, hence the lack of some of my favorites like Stardust, the Princess Bride, The Godfather, or the Beauty and the Beast)
10) The Witcher – Books to Video Games. This one is pretty low on the list, only because technically the games are continuations rather than straight adaptations, but damn it all, they capture the spirit nicely.
09) Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith – Film to Book. (so much better than the movie)
08) Sweeney Todd and the Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Serial novel to Musical Theater to Musical Film.
07) The Black Cauldron – Book to Disney Film. (inaccurate, but fun)
06) The Amazing Spider-Man: Comics to Film.
05) A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones – Books to TV Show.
04) Aladdin – Story-in-a-Story to Disney Film.
03) The Hogfather – Book to TV Miniseries.
02) Harry Potter – Books to Film
01) Lord of the Rings – Books to Film