Adaptations that Work, and the Work of Adaptations


Suzy and I just finished watching The Hunger Games on Netflix, and it got me to thinking about adapting work from one form to another, and when things make the transition successfully, and when they don’t, and what the purpose of an adaptation is, and all that jazz. 

Of course, “All that Jazz” is from the musical Chicago, which is a brilliant movie, which was based on a play, which was based on a non-musical play, which was based on the real-life criminals that a 1920s reporter encountered in her work. Sorry, my Theatre degree is showing. 

For some of us, the adaptation is the Holy Grail (not Monty Python’s Holy Grail, or Spamalot, to mention a couple of other adaptations), and for some of us one type of adaptation or another is just another piece of the puzzle. Obviously, a major motion picture adaptation means a huge jump in recognition for a writer’s work, maybe even enough to move them from “writer famous” to “legit famous.” Find me in a bar and I’ll explain the difference. But while some folks are fortunate enough to get TV shows and graphic novels and maybe movies, most of the time there’s one shot to get it right when a work is adapted from the page to the screen (small or large). So what makes it “right?” 

Like everything else, at its heart it has to serve the story. Now we can argue from book to book about whether it’s a character-driven story or a plot-centric story, but in the end you have to have both, and an adaptation from a book to a film or TV show has to not only tell the story of what happens, but it also has to make us love those characters as much as we did when they were on the page. 

The Hunger Games, in my mind, was an excellent adaptation. I thought that there could have been more backstory and more focus on the bits leading up to the games, but the killing is what everybody was there for, so may as well dive right in. I thought there was a good blend of dialogue and visual clues to tell us what we needed to know about the characters, and that the creative team did a good job of using visual shortcuts to tell us who to love and who to loathe. 

We got the flavor of the book and we benefited from the visual medium by getting to see the amazing costumes and the brilliance of all the Capitol clothing and hair, in stark contrast with the beaten-down coal miner look of the District 12 people. We didn’t have to be told who the official types were in the opening scenes – they were the clean people. And we were rooting for the dirty people. No need for paragraphs of exposition, we got it in just a couple of scenes. You make the Peacekeepers look like Stormtroopers and create a few images that take us back to 1963 Birmingham, and we know instantly where our sympathies are supposed to lie. I would have liked a little more backstory, and there were some things added either in later cinematic release or to the DVD/Netflix release that I thought were excellent. When we saw the movie in the theatres, there was nothing explaining the Reaping and the tributes (or maybe we were getting popcorn). But those things were added to the beginning of the home release, and it took care of my biggest gripe with the film when I saw it – I felt it assumed that you’d already read the book. 

You see, there’s a very fine line that adaptations walk between repeating every little thing for the millions of people who’ve already read the book and alienating the core audience, or not telling enough of the backstory and alienating new fans who get lost and have no idea what’s going on. Obviously this is only an issue with adaptations of hugely popular works, anyone who would like to adapt my work for the big screen can use as much backstory as they like. Unfortunately for me, my publisher and my mortgage, far fewer people have read my books than have read The Hunger Games trilogy. 

Y’all get on that, would ya? Thanks. 

But there are different tools that each medium has to work with, and it’s incumbent upon the person doing the adaptation to take the best of the source material and then apply the tools of the new medium in the way that best serves the heart of the story. I think The Hunger Games folks did a fine job with it, as did the folks who adapted 300, which I thought captured very well the stylings of a graphic novel on the stage. 

Here’s a few other adaptations that I loved – 30 Days of Night – another brilliant adaptation of a graphic novel into film, using the visceral visuals that you only get in film coupled with the off-panel scary stuff of a good comic. 

The Walking Dead – probably the most famous right now, and I think it gets as close as you possibly can to the bleakness of the comic, which is one of the most unrelenting series of gut-punches I’ve ever read. 

Blindness – I actually liked the movie better than the book, which may be as much a response to Saramago’s lack of punctuation as to the excellence of the film, but I did think they did an awesome job of capturing the degradation in appearance of everyone in the movie. After all, who fixes their hair when the whole world is blind? 

There are plenty of failed adaptations out there, but I want to hear from you what are your favorites, and what worked or didn’t. And we’ll give a general pass to the fact that Karrin Murphy was written as a blonde and that Jack Reacher was written as 6′ 5″. Tell me what was awesome, and tell me what was awful. Was it a failure of the medium, or of the adaptor? 


17 comments to Adaptations that Work, and the Work of Adaptations

  • The Princess Bride is probably the best book-to-movie adaptation I’ve ever seen. Rob Reiner clearly read the book and understood what made it work.

    The only movie I ever liked better than its book was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I thought the book was horrible. Mikhail was a complete d(*#, and I almost hoped he’d be killed by the end, just to put me out of the misery of having to read about him. The movie, however, rewrote him as a reasonably decent person.

  • Leaving fantasy for a moment. The Hunt For Red October. Worked as book and movie for me.

  • A lot of people disagree with me, but I enjoyed the 1984 adaptation of Dune, the director’s cut. Just enough was put into the film so that it didn’t bog down. By comparison, other people liked the newer version that I think played on the Sci-Fi channel and I didn’t care for that one as much. It felt like they tried to put too much of the book into the adaptation and it bored me.

    I’ve never read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep so I can’t give much of a comparison, but Blade Runner is up there on my all time favorite films list. Also haven’t read Battlefield Earth, but I kinda dug the film and it did make me want to pick up the book eventually. And even with the cheese of The Govenah, I still loved the older Total Recall compared to the newer. The newer version had more holes than a block of big-eye Swiss.

    Going back to comics/graphic novels, Hellboy was a fun assault on the senses, but the adaptation of Jonah Hex was kinda poop, and I don’t say that about a lot of films.

  • Razziecat

    In contrast to Daniel, I thought the Dune movie was awful. Granted, the book is huge, and so much of it would be difficult to adapt at all (at least with 1984 technology), but to me it seemed disjointed, confusing, and it tossed in things that never happened in the book (which seems odd when there is so much that does happen–why add unnecessary stuff?). If I hadn’t read the book I would not have known what was going on half the time. But trying to condense a book like that into one film is fraught with problems, I suppose.

  • In the book Goldfinger, the antagonist expected to really steal the gold from Fort Knox. There is an elegantly worded scene in the movie where Bond explains why that is physically impossible—and the twist to make the villain’s plan workable was a genuine inspiration on Richard Maibaum’s part.

  • I know some may disagree with me, but I liked the sort-of recent (okay, 2005) Hollywood adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with Kiera Knightley. It stayed true to the novel while keeping it short and sweet. I liked how it condensed parts with scenes like Elizabeth twirling on the swing, and when she’s riding north with her aunt and uncle. (I could have done without the “Mrs. Darcy, Mrs. Darcy, Mrs. Darcy” at the end, though.)

    The Hunger Games was a good adaptation, too, with lots of telling shots to replace pages and pages of description, but I really really hate shaky-cam.

    Another excellent adaptation was Holes. Every bit of the movie was done well, even if it wasn’t exactly the same as the book. But I also know that Louis Sachar wrote the script for the movie himself, so he had the good fortune to be able to stay true to his own story, knowing what parts he could condense or change.

  • I love the cartoon adaptation of the Hobbit from the 1970s. It’s got all the right stuff in it: 70s music, that particular style of animation, and the fact that I was a kid at the right moment. The follow up, the Return of the King, is also one of my favorite. The scene with Eowyn just blew me away. I’m not sure they’re “great” in terms of following the stories supremely well, but I did love them. That Gollum is still what I think of when I reread the books.

  • Pea: I loved those too. Just fun shows, distilling the story down into something kids would get, but adults would enjoy as well.

  • I saw ‘Les Miserables’ when it was in theaters, recently. I’ve been avoiding the musical because it’s my favorite book and I was worried I wouldn’t like the adaptation – and I was right. It is filled with “pretty” things, but it fails to tell the story. The book will change the way you see the world for the rest of your life; the musical will make you say, “that was pretty.”

    Concerning Herbert’s work: In the old version of Dune, David Lynch made a four-hour flim that had to be hacked down to two hours. He tried a lot of neat, ambitious things that simply got destroyed in the editing. I like what he was aiming for, but the result is messy. Still, I watch it from time to time and enjoy it.

  • I’ve started enjoying adaptations a lot more now that I’ve accepted that an adaptation is not simply a visual form of the book. By that standard, no movie will ever live up to the movie in my head. I think really good adaptations have to be allowed to interpret. That’s why I liked Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit installation. I could nit pick details and plot structure that didn’t make it from book to movie all day long. As a simple copy of the book it’s a failure. Jackson significantly re-structured the plot, changed certain crucial details etc. If I treat those as violations of the book, it’s awful. But if I take Jackson’s Hobbit and judge it as a movie, it was quite enjoyable. Taken as a re-imagining, a true adaptation of story from one narrative to a different narrative, the movie is really good. Jackson didn’t get it wrong, he just got it different.

  • ajp88

    As shocking as this may sound, Game of Thrones is a troubling adaptation for me. It’s a pretty great show but it’s one that I think could contend for the title of one of the greatest ever if they hadn’t cheapened much of the books and added unnecessary changes. Decidedly grey characters are lightened (the Tyrion of the books versus the show: it’s hard to imagine the show’s Tyrion doing some of what Tyrion does in later moments of the series). They have cut out characters of color from the adaptation and then given totally invented plots for totally invented characters while reducing screen time for critical PoVs from the books and even glossing right over important scenes.

    I’m probably too much of a fan to have a level headed opinion of the show (which I love and also love to hate certain aspects) but oh well.

  • The book will always be better than the Hollywood movie. Ahem, that’s why I prefer really good directors take the source material and do what they will with it. No Country for Old Men is said to be a great film. I’d say that it definitely captured the atmosphere, but the book was a much more profound experience. They tried to follow the book to a T, so I really didn’t even need to watch the movie. Give me The Shining by Stephen King, and The Shining (film) directed by Stanley Kubrick. They’re completely different. Both are worth experiencing. That’s what I want. Comic book adaptations to movies are, more-often-than-not, abysmal. Christopher Nolan didn’t have the creative authority or skill to make a mind blowing Dark Knight film. He had three opportunities. Could Alejandro Jordorowsky please direct the next Batman movie? Say what you will, but that would be something to see.

  • Sarah is right – once you approach books and cinema as the two very different mediums – … well, it’s not you are more forgiving … just you realize why the director (or writer when creating the book of the movie) made the choices s/he did because of the medium.

    I personally have found short stories, novelettes and young adult stories make the transition from prose to movie better than novels. Movies are to short to capture the longer stories effectively. Total Recall (old version, not new) rocked because it started from a short base. Comics also translate well for similar reasons of brevity, plus the movie storyboard is made up.

    An excellent translation from book to image, if only because it electrified and changed the world (yes, I will actually go with “changed the world” – which happens much more rarely than the hyperbole use indicates), was Roots.

  • See? I’ll just quit writing now. Not. 😉

    Far as series’ go, every one is going to fall short, but still at least hang true to the basic premise. I liked Legend of the Seeker from Sam Raimi (YAY, say BOO HISS, I can hear you!). It made me want to read the books. Though the audio version sucked. Sorry.

  • And so did the audio for Game of Thrones.

  • In my opinion, the best adaptation of all time is The Godfather, which took a fairly mediocre book and turned it into one of the ten best movies ever made. Other good ones: A River Runs Through It and Stand By Me (from Stephen King’s “The Body.”) Those last two are both adapted from short stories, which I think is significant. Short fiction translates better to the screen (generally speaking) because one can be truer to the original source, for the simple reason that there is more room and thus more time. Fun post.

  • Megan B.

    I totally agree with ajp88 about Game of Thrones. I really enjoy the show, but many of the changes seem pointless. I am okay with movies/shows differing from their source material, but there needs to be a good reason.

    An adaptation I like that hasn’t been mentioned yet is the Harry Potter movies. I think they did a great job of visually capturing the world, and bringing the stories to the film medium in a way that is true to the books. The music was great, the sets were great, the casting was great.