Prompted by: Annihilation
Book-to-film adaptions are difficult. Some are certainly more fraught with challenges than others, but it is a huge hurdle to do a good book justice. I think that people largely underestimate the sheer volume of adaptions that are out. Most people know that movies like The Notebook, The DaVinci Code, and The Shining are based on popular books. Fewer people (but still a lot) are aware that movies such as The Godfather and Jurassic Park are also adaptions of books. But when it comes to movies like Forrest Gump and even Mean Girls, most people have no idea that they were based on books at all. High Fidelity, Requiem for a Dream, The Dressmaker, Breakfast at Tiffany’s… all books. The number of times I’ve been watching credits and seen the phrase “based on the book by _______” continues to blow me away.
These days, it seems like any book that makes it big gets turned into a movie. From Gone Girl to The Girl on the Train, popular books are being snatched up for movie deals left and right– not to mention books that came out half a century ago (I’m looking at you, A Wrinkle in Time). Half of me is proud of these authors, proud that they crafted a story so deeply enjoyable that they have been able to make a small fortune off of them and transition them to a new medium. But the other half of me squirms with discomfort over the fact that Hollywood execs are going for so few original scripts. Studios like A24 have been doing an increasingly impeccable job of giving inventive and creative scripts a chance, which makes it exciting instead of uncertain when they do spring for adaptions such as Neil Gaiman’s How to Talk at Girls at Parties. Overall though, I tend to avoid adaptions in theaters, especially when they’re on stylistic novels like Room or The Song of Achilles (more on that below). But without further ado, here’s some of my favorite examples of successful adaptions.
This is, hands down, the best book-to-film transition I have ever seen. The casting was sublime, the pacing was perfection– especially given that I felt it wasn’t ideal in the novel, and the subliminal messages throughout the movie help to recreate and heighten the same sense of disease that the book draws upon. There are some aspects of the book, such as the “I am Jack’s ________” lines and the anti-consumerism themes, that manage to have more impact in the movie, possibly due to having such a visual connection with the narrator. I also feel that the storyline as a whole benefited from the visceral images in the film. My only qualm with Fight Club— both the book and the movie– is that is has the same effect on certain male groups that Rick and Morty does. Rather than realizing that the stories are a commentary on what is wrong with society, some people place characters like Rick Sanchez and Tyler Durden on a pedestal.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, the film adaption was released in 2015 and was my favorite film of the year. The strength of the adaption is that it absolutely nails the calmness of the book. Both mediums have a soothing cadence to them, a quiet sort of chemistry that nestles inside your chest. The subtlety of the romance itself is exquisite in the film and pays so much respect to the era that the book was written in. In 1952, coming out as a gay woman would have been nigh on catastrophic. This lends an aura of secrecy and subtlety to every single interaction between the two women, something that the movie displays flawlessly. Lingering glances and fleeting eye contact, swollen silences and unassuming lunches, casual comments and small talk– these are things that the vast majority of heterosexual viewers didn’t pick up on as romantic, whereas queer viewers are entirely too familiar with the language. In fact, some critics complained that the film was “cold” and detached. In an age inundated with overt innuendos and transparency, it can be difficult to pick up on the undercurrent of energy and longing that runs through Carol. This is certainly one of the best adaptions I’ve ever seen, and one that breaks my heart every time I watch it.
Lord of the Rings
The primary issue that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series faced when it came time for adaption was time constraints. The book trilogy was incredibly complex and features so much material that plot points like Tom Bombadil and The Sacking of The Shire would have only felt shoehorned if they had been included in the movie adaptions, so it is understandable why they were left out. Speaking of time, however, I do feel that the passage of time was not properly conveyed in the movies. Seventeen years pass between Bilbo’s birthday party and Frodo’s departure from The Shire and the quest itself takes over a year to complete. Aside from that, there are really only two things I take issue with: Frodo telling Sam to go home on the stairs to Cirith Ungol, and Aragorn’s near death when he falls over the cliff. While Legolas and Gimli’s on-screen friendship is lacking in comparison to the books, I think the majority of the characterization was spot-on, especially that of Merry and Pippin and Gandalf. Don’t even get me started on Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, but I felt that he succeeded in many ways to bring the scope and scale of such a beloved world to the big screen.
Again, the main issue with adapting an entire book series is the time constraints. I am rather of the belief that JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series would have vastly benefited from being made into a TV series rather than a movies series, but of course that would have come with it’s own full set of challenges. Things like Peeves the Poltergeist, Neville’s full background, S.P.E.W., and Dudley’s “I don’t think you’re a waste of space” line are all things would have enriched the movies… but also would have added noticeable run time to the films. The movies are not without their flaws. From the casting choices for Albus Dumbledore to destroying the Elder Wand, I think the movies left much to be desired. However, what made the series such a huge success (and why I’m including it on this list) was the fact that it was accessible for both readers of the books and new fans. The movies feature a slew of small hat tips to the books, which enriched the viewing for everyone who had been following along for years, while still making it entirely accessible for those who had never opened one of the books. The undertaking of bringing such a layered and detailed story to life was monumental, and I think that the four directors did a surprisingly good job of illustrating the aspects of the wizarding world that many readers held near and dear to their hearts.
Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire
I’ve talked about my issues with this show in a previous post, but I didn’t discuss how much I feel that the books and the show should be required companions for each other. I watched the first four seasons of the show a couple of years back, but only picked up the books this past fall. To say that Martin’s undertaking is ambitious is the understatement of the decade. His endless litany of characters, names, historical events, and houses often feels more like a religious tome than a fantasy novel. I’m not ashamed to say that I likely would not have even made it through the first book if I hadn’t already watched some of the show. Having a familiarity with the main characters (and a lot of the secondary ones) made the story far more enjoyable and immersive. With that being said, the show is severely lacking in many aspects. There are a number of plot points and character subtleties that didn’t make it on screen but do so much to flesh out the world and the people. After finishing the books, I re-watched the first three seasons and had very mixed feelings. There are a lot of things about the show that I simply can’t justify. Merely on a lit nerd level, it’s really difficult to watch all the unnecessary ways in which the show deviates from the books. But on a deeper level, the amount of violence and sexism that repeatedly takes place on screen is something I struggle to watch, for various reasons. I don’t have any intentions of continuing the show, but I can’t recommend the books enough to anyone who is a regular watcher.
Room & Virgin Suicides
I almost didn’t include this section, as I haven’t seen either of these movies. However, both films were nominated for various awards and were clearly well-executed. So why won’t I watch them? As I’ve mentioned before, I’m absolutely over the moon for prose that reads like poetry. The Song of Achilles always leaves me breathless and/or in tears for that very reason, as does Valente’s Fairyland series. While poetic prose is my favorite stylistic trait when it comes to novels, I’m also a huge fan of inventive narrators in general, such as Jack in Room. The Virgin Suicides has been one of my favorite books for close to five years, largely because of it’s blend of unique narrative and beautiful prose. I find myself deeply attached and endlessly in awe of these novels almost entirely due to their writing style. Of course the characters and the settings are wonderful as well, but I only connect to them in the first place because of how they were written. It seems to me that regardless of how well filmed or perfectly cast these movies may be, they will still be unable to properly capture the writing style that made me fall in love with them in the first place. I hate to think that I will watch these movies and forever associate the film choices with the novels. I would rather have the books remain flawless for me than try and mix the two mediums.
So what do you think? Did you enjoy these adaptions? Leave a comment below with your favorite page-to-screen adaption!