Why Book-to-Movie Adaptations Usually Suck
Updated: Nov 21, 2022
Book readers are brutal. I would be terrified if I were a scriptwriter in charge of adapting a well-loved saga since any small change is often enough to trigger rage-fueled rants in the form of Youtube video essays and ALL CAPS TWEETS by fans who feel personally attacked by such a fictional slight. Of course, there are times when such reactions hide other less laughable beliefs.
One example of this unfortunate reality is the blatant racism directed towards the actors Steve Toussaint and Leah Jeffries, who were cast respectively as Corlys Velaryon in the new GOT spin-off House of the Dragon and Annabeth Chase in the upcoming Percy Jackson show on Disney Plus. Both were chosen to play characters who were not described as black in the source material, and complaints about their appearance “not being true to the books” were shared all over the internet. In this situation, the change that was made was, in fact, a good one, because it brings more diversity to the cast and the story. However, that does not matter to those diehard fans of both series.
Despite the concerning nature of some of the arguments against this particular change, other small modifications in movie adaptations, like character age and names, settings, and scenes being cut, are often bashed by book readers even before they had the chance to watch the final product. Sometimes, they are proven right, and the adaptation turns out to be a disaster;other times, it captures the story's essence and wins over new fans.
After all, what is it that makes a book-to-screen adaptation good? Is it supposed to follow the source material word for word to the last comma?
I can point you to many books I would watch a 10-hour fully faithful retelling of. However, I also love many movies that have changed their source material, making an original piece of art that still rings as deep as the novel that inspired it, such as the movie The Boy in Striped Pajamas, which was adapted from the novel of the same name. In this special case, both works are outstanding. However, I believe that the movie hits the audience much harder because it visually shows a horrific truth that the words in the book can only describe. While I shed a few tears by the end of the book, I almost couldn’t finish the movie because of how true and raw the images on the screen were.
It seems to me that what makes a good book adaptation is what makes any good story. Even to people who have never read the source material, watching the worst book films will be painful. For example, the old Percy Jackson movies (49% and 42% on the Tomatometer) are a hot mess, with underdeveloped, stereotypical characters and cringe-worthy dialogue. Similarly, the last two Divergent movies (28% and 11%) make absolutely no sense. They, like other examples, are bad movies by themselves, with no effort put into telling compelling stories that bring up the same themes as the books.
If a saga is chosen to be adapted to the screen, it’s because the talented author likely tells a story worth reading. Not every detail is easily transferred to another media vehicle; some can be changed to tell a better, more original narrative. The Bridgerton TV show has its second season standing as the most popular English television show on Netflix, with more than 656.26M hours viewed in the first 28 days, created a unique, and colorful world, which is not the same as the Regency setting of the book, but it’s hard to imagine the show without it. Hogwarts was certainly tweaked many times by the moviemakers, but it’s just as magical as in the original Harry Potter novel.
Perhaps if every producer understood the full implications of the changes they make to the plot and characters of a story and thought it out in terms of the themes and the logic of the world, fewer book adaptations would suck. In the meantime, I continue being glad I’m not in their shoes. I’m also slowly distancing myself from this incessant raging about fictional people and places that can’t possibly be healthy. Let’s just enjoy good movies and laugh about the bad ones. If a book adaptation goes wrong, we can get a new one in ten years.