Why Book to Movie Adaptations Aren’t Getting it Right

This article necessarily contains discussions of the plots and endings of several recent movies and books including the Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings. Accordingly, readers who have not viewed the movies and/or read the books may be exposed to information which may ruin their later enjoyment of them. Please keep that in mind before reading on.

Hollywood has long had a trend of adapting popular books in to big screen treatments. In fact, the practise goes back at least as far as 1924. In that particular case, a literal adaptation of the novel McTeague by Frank Norris which weighed in at 453 pages, resulted in a monstrous film of more than sixteen hours in length. The film was eventually butchered down to around two hours, but was predictably left bereft of most of the meaning, and was largely considered to be incoherent.

This case really cuts to the heart of the problem. Many books make use of devices that are not able to be translated in to the language of cinema easily; internal monologues, thought processes, subtle descriptions which increase in significance later and more. Also, books frequently cover far more material that can possibly be shown in the space of two, three or even four hours. Therefore, it is necessary for producers to cut down on the material being shown in the film, and adapt what is there to the language of the medium.

The problem is that many of the producers, writers or directors of the movies do not understand the source material, or deliberately choose to ignore certain key points – points which are in fact the essence of the story – in favour of dramatic spectacle or brevity. Certain issues, scenes and even entire plot lines can be excised or adapted without harming the overall theme. At the end of the day, however, for a movie to be true to its source material it must not only represent the characters of the book faithfully, but also the main themes and morals of the book.

As a case study, examine The Lord of the Rings, given treatment recently by Peter Jackson:

In the movie: The Hobbits leave the Shire and have some adventures. Along the way, there is a big war, Saruman is killed, Sauron is defeated and Aragorn is crowned king. The Hobbits return home, live happily for a while and then Frodo goes off with the Elves to the Grey Havens.

In the books: The Hobbits, hopeless, happy go lucky, lazy creatures, leave the Shire and have some adventures. Along the way, there is a big war, Saruman is forced out of Isengard, Sauron is defeated and Aragorn is crowned king. The Hobbits return home, where Saruman has taken over their peaceful lives. The Hobbits band together and use the skills and confidence that they have acquired on their adventures to take back what is rightfully theirs and restore peace to their lives. They live happily for a while and then Frodo goes off with the Elves to the Grey Havens.

In essence, what the film makers did with the movie of The Lord of the Rings was to display all the biggest spectacles; the fights, the weird creatures – and completely neglect the ending: the moral of the story. The Lord of the Rings is not truly about the war with Sauron, or epic struggles between mighty armies. The moral of the whole three books is that the individual has power, and can make a difference. In the beginning, the Hobbits who set out could never have imagined the experiences they would struggle through, and how they would come to prevail. Like their kinsman, they would not have been able to lift a finger to defend themselves should Saruman have arrived then and taken over.

By the end, by performing the actions they did in the Shire, they showed just how much they had grown, how much responsibility they had taken upon themselves and how much faith and confidence they had in themselves. They journey was important, but not critical. Each Hobbit had a different experience along the way. The critical factor is the growth that occurred during the journey. In the movies, they were not given a chance to explore this growth on their own, and this is truly where the movies disappoint.

Similarly, in the Harry Potter series, many of the omissions along the storyline of the movies can be understood in the context of dramatic need or alacrity. An examination of the endings of the books can reveal a critically missing component, however:

In the movie: The final showdown: Harry and Voldemort square off in a lonely, ruined courtyard. Red and green squiggles of light dance about. Harry grits his teeth in a determined manner and the red light shoots forward in to Voldemort’s wand and the dark lord evaporates.

In the book: The final showdown: Harry and Voldemort square off in front of all of Harry’s friends and supporters, and the remnants of Voldemort’s armies. Voldemort tries to get to Harry through hurting his friends. He is powerless to affect them, however. Harry’s willingness to sacrifice his own life for those he cares about, and is turn is cared for by, has protected them from Voldemort’s power. Harry shows mercy for the man who has put him through so much pain, and offers Voldemort a chance to redeem himself by apologising for the hurt he has caused. Refusing to do so, Harry is forced to end Voldemort’s life, with much regret and pity.

Again, the Harry Potter movies do a reasonable job of portraying the hero’s journey from a clueless neophyte to a courageous, humane, just and honourable wizard. Again, it can be argued that the journey is important to the overall plot. It certainly is. However, the ending is again where the movie fails to do justice to the book.

The point of Harry’s journey throughout the seven books is that he learns honesty, compassion, loyalty and courage from the people closest to him. He is not a remarkable or powerful wizard, and has no particularly special talents. His victory over Voldemort comes from having these qualities, in addition to the love of his parents and supporters. Voldemort does not know compassion, or love or honour. Harry uses this lack to overcome Voldemort’s power, and thus “good” attributes win out over “evil” ones such as greed and lust for power.

The final movie completely ignores the moral of the tale for the purpose of providing a spectacle at the conclusion. This in effect cheapens the other movies retrospectively. What is the point of the journey if the lesson is not learned or acted upon?

Film makers should pay more attention to the message, the spirit of the books they adapt, rather than merely the grandiose spectacle. Admittedly, the studios still need to do something to make money and lure audiences in. This should be tempered by faithfulness to the original material. Without the movie containing the spirit of the book, the movie might as well not share the title of the book.

These movies are certainly not the only ones to fall short of the stories and morals that their source books manage to convey. As was recently noted, the Starship Troopers movie (Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein) also falls in to this category along with The Golden Compass (Northern Lights by Philip Pullman) and the Dresden Files TV series (Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher). They are, however, excellent recent examples.

There are also some movies that do some quite close to the spirit of the books they are attempting to visualise. Some examples include The Devil’s Advocate (The Devil’s Advocate by Andrew Neiderman), Dune (directed by David Lynch) (Dune by Frank Herbert), The Men Who Stare at Goats (The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson) and Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick).

Which book to movie adaptations do you feel are the worst offenders, and what specifically makes them so? Which ones would you not hesitate in recommending to other readers as prime examples of getting it right?

2 thoughts on “Why Book to Movie Adaptations Aren’t Getting it Right

  1. Book lovers won’t like my opinion, but I believe a film makers only obligation is to make as good a movie as possible. If this means abandoning the original text, they should do so. I also think great books rarely make great movies. Good books that entertain do better partially because there is no desire to “stay true to the book.” I have seen Greed, the silent era movie based on McTeague you mention. It’s very good. It’s easy to follow the story and full of meaning. It’s popular among some critics and fans to say otherwise, but the shortened movie is very good. Honestly, no one would sit through a six plus hour silent movie. I’ve seen some of the director’s other work, and to be honest, he could use a good editor.

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    • Hi cbjames,

      Thank you for your comments. It is always interesting to get alternate points of view. While I understand your point of view about which books can be better adapted in to movies, I must still beg the question: If a movie is not faithful to the book, then why must it share the name of the book? Does that not create confusion, and also provide false representation of the contents of the movie?

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