Movie Adaptations of Books: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Through Hollywood’s history there’ve been a great many movie versions of books which have seemed like perfect companions to their literary counterparts. However, for every good movie there have been at least three movies that make the fans of the novel want to hurt someone. We’ve all had that moment when we remember how good the book was and then we get all excited (and in some cases horrified) when we hear there’s going to be a movie. We buy our tickets and watch the movie hoping for something fantastic and in the end when the credits roll all we want to do is scream and throw popcorn. Well fasten your seatbelts movie fans, here’s my least favorite versions. (I know I posted this a while ago but I just re-read/re-watched a few movies and thought of some new additions to my list)

 

Romeo + JulietRomeo + Juliette (1996 adapted from the William Shakespeare play) ~ There have been thousands of adaptations of Shakespeare throughout the years so how can you really mess that up? How bout by setting it in what looks like modern Los Angeles and by having the Montague/Capulet struggle look like gang rivalry? That’s the ticket! Look, maybe it would have worked out if they had done the time shift with the gang war but had changed the language to suit the time they’d set the story in. Much of the costuming, particularly for the males, seemed to look as if it had been designed for RuPaul’s Drag Race. That plus the addition of actors like John Leguizamo makes this version seem more like a comedy then a tragedy. The writers wanted to make their version different from all the others so it would stand out but they strayed so far from the feel of the source material and to me it felt like a weird joke. Tip for writers: You have some creative and interpretive powers as the writer but when you go too far it will not feel natural.

 

Scarlett LetterThe Scarlett Letter (1995 adapted from Nathaniel Hawthorn’s novel of the same name) ~ Ok, well if you’ve never read the book I’ll just give a bit of a recap: this book is about a woman accused of adultery with the town’s reverend. That said I doubt they were quite as kinky as Demi Moore and Gary Oldman made them seem. Hollywood went a bit too far with this one. In a lot of movie versions of books the love scenes are drawn out to boost ticket sales but this movie takes a few too many liberties. Not only were numerous love scenes added, but the ending was morphed in a way that almost makes it seem as if the screenwriters said “sure it’s nothing like it was in the book, but the audience gets a happy ending and that just makes them feel so good”. Happy endings are fun, but not like this. I’m not saying that if you’re writing an adaptation of something that you can’t rework things a bit to make them work within your movie, but be smart about it. Tip for writers: If you are going to change major things from the original text make sure  you’re not destroying the whole thematic motif  of the text just doing it to make things “edgier”.

A pretty good movie, but a bad adaptation

A pretty good movie, but a bad adaptation

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) ~ This adaptation suffers from many things but for me it fails because of Keanue Reeves’ trying to do an English accent as Johnathan Harker, overdone violence, and for those of you who know the film you will recall the graveyard scene…WHY?!!! JUST WHY?!!! The writers/director of the film took particular elements of the novel and manipulated them so that they could distort as much lewdness and eroticism from them that they could. The film itself was a box-office success simply because the cinematography was very well done. For my part it is an alright movie when it is considered by itself, but it falls well short of the mark as an adaptation. Tip for writers: While I understand that certain novels have erotic elements you need to be sure that if you’re writing an adaptation you’re not focusing only on one plot point because then you end up sacrificing all of the others. In Dracula there were a lot of plot elements which concerned Victorian Religion but the film did not use them at all because they were focused on the sex. Oh and also if you’re writing a period piece DO NOT CAST KEANUE REEVES.

Alright enough of my complaining! Now not all adaptations are bad,  here are a few movie adaptations of books which I really think act as models of what writers of screen adaptations should strive for.

Sense and SensibilitySense and Sensibility (1995 adapted from Jane Austen’s novel of the same name) ~ There have been thousands of adaptations of Jane Austen’s works, but none captured the story so well as Ang Lee’s 1995 film. Emma Thompson took on the roles of both screenwriter and actress in this film and ended up winning a Golden Globe for her writing. Kate Winslet was perfectly cast to portray the young and overly romantic Marianne to Emma Thompson’s sensible and even Eleanor. The dialogue was so perfectly handled that even certain scenes which never appeared in the book seemed as if they had been there all along. Tip for writers: if you want your adaptation to be well received, then you have to make any of the changes you’ve created so natural that they feel like they could have been in the book from the beginning.

 

Fight ClubFight Club (1999 adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name) ~ This movie with its sleek dialogue takes the Postmodern words of Chuck Palahniuk and translates them in a way that is both thematic and understandable. I actually had to read Fight Club for a lit class in college. I hadn’t seen the movie, and after reading the book I was nervous. I wondered how any screenwriter and director could take that book and translate it into a movie so that it wouldn’t lose its thematic integrity. After having watched the movie I can say that there was no reason for me to have been nervous. The writers and director of this movie were like magicians!! They made something which I thought would only be good as a book into a fabulous movie. Tip for writers: Use everything at your disposal (music, cinematography, dialogue) in order to capture the feeling of the novel or whatever you are adapting. That way when your audience is watching the movie they can feel the same types of things they had when they read the book.

Understatement is the mother of creepiness!! LOL!!!

Understatement is the mother of creepiness!! LOL!!!

The Haunting (1963 adapted from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House) ~ The concept of the haunted house has existed in various forms for years. One of its best versions was in Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. Stephen King rates the novel as one of the best examples of the haunted house genre in literature and actually cited the novel as one of the greatest pieces of horror fiction of the mid to late 20th century. The 1963 film version of this novel, while only moderately successful at the box office, has become a cult classic and is considered by many to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time. The writers of this film changed a lot from the novel but everything they changed had a distinct purpose for the plot of the film. It did not feel like they had increased the shock value and add in tons of gore and gratuitous violence. One of the reasons the book was so scary was that it left a lot of things unsaid, giving the readers’ imaginations a chance to run amok wondering what or who is haunting Hill House. That same feeling was kept in Robert Wise’s film because 99% of the horror elements occur off-screen and the audience and characters both can only hear what is happening. The writers and director’s of their film also did something almost unheard of today, they kept the writer in the loop. They questioned Shirley Jackson about her intentions regarding certain scenes and also the characters and then got her views on some of their plot ideas. Tip for writers: If you’re writing an adaptation then you must  walk the line and pay respect to the original novel and its creator while at the same time exploring with your own ideas. Oh and also if your writing a horror movie/novel LESS IS MORE!!! More gore and violence might get you an R rating and perhaps some publicity, but with this genre of books and movies more opportunity you give your viewers/readers imagination’s run wild the freakier it will be!!!  

What movie adaptations of books do you love/hate? What about the movie made that impression on you? Feel free to comment!!!

Exercise of the Day

Exercise of the Day

Exercise of the Day: A Conversation with your Characters

Choose a character from a story you have written or are in the process of writing, then write a scene or multiple scenes in which that character interacts with you, the author. Write with the assumption that the character understands that you, as the author, “created” him or her and are responsible for the things that happened to them in the course of the story. Does the character agree with what you have them doing? What does the character think of the story? Write an exchange of dialogue (it doesn’t matter if it’s in play/novel format) between yourself as the author and your character.

Talk to you later folks! Please don’t be afraid to comment, I love feedback!!!

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14 Comments

Filed under Art, Books, Characters, Creative writing, Fiction, Ideas, Literature, Media, Movie, Novel Writing, Novels, Playwriting, Plot, Reading, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing, writing tips

14 responses to “Movie Adaptations of Books: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. “Howl’s Moving Castle.” I love the book and if the movie had not been linked to it I might have liked it because I love Miyazaki. But the movie has the same name and the director says he used the book for inspiration. He took a book of great depth and made it…cute. Ugg.

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    • silverpen2013, I HATE when director’s do that! Do not say I used the book for “inspiration” when you used the same title. If you use the book just for “inspiration” then take the inspiration from the book and rework it into your own story. Do NOT give the movie the exact same title as the book because then the viewers will be expecting the movie to be like the book.

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  2. I have to disagree with you on R+J! It definitely took a lot of liberties and pushed the edge, and sure, it wasn’t really realistic to have people speaking in the language of Shakespeare’s day while shooting guns, dancing in drag shows, and making out in the pool. However, I don’t think that was the point. The whole movie was sort of like a hazy dream, which I really loved. I thought the imagery was beautiful and Claire Danes and Leo really captured the whole “foolish teenagers who think they’re in love” thing that SO many productions of Romeo and Juliet seem to overlook.

    And I loved the scene on the beach when they were fighting in the broken theatre. Luhrmann was commenting on how the medium of film had left the medium of theatre a broken shell, or at least that’s what I got out of it.

    The thing that is great about Shakespeare, though, is that there are SO many ways to re-interpret the text and re-tell the story. I once saw an all-female production of Julius Ceaser where they were all dressed as corporate business women and it totally worked.

    I definitely agree with you about Sense and Sensibility, though, and I actually thought there were a few additions in the film that worked better than the novel. For example, the film developed Marianne and Col. Brandon’s relationship way better than the novel where Austen basically went “and then they got married because why not?” In the film, you got the sense that Marianne learned to love Col. Brandon.

    Writing adaptations is a skill all on it’s own, though. My favorite adaptations are the film version of Amadeus (the play by Peter Shaffer), the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (the play by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask), and the film version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (a novel by Stephen Chbosky). But one thing all of those have in common is that all of those film versions were written by the people who wrote the original text and also people who understood the medium of film.

    Great post!

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    • Well we can agree to disagree about R&J. For me I’d rather watch the version with Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard from 1936 mostly because I am an old movie freak. As a writing exercise I like to take a movie or a book and try to write a movie version. Thanks for reading!

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      • I think R+J’s issues were just a Baz Luhrmann thing. He blends time periods in all his films – Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby….people pretty much go with it, or they hate it. The visuals, costumes, and music choices are often nonsensical if you’re looking at the film on a literal level, but I personally enjoy his stuff. I heard VERY similar complaints about The Great Gatsby though. People were pretty pissed that there was Kanye music and stuff in it.

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        • I respect Luhrmann’s cinematographers for creating some amazing visuals but in the films themselves it feels like Luhrmann was trying to create a super slick and glamorous version of the past (or in some cases literature) which after a while can feel pretty cheap. Just not my cup of tea. I don’t hate Luhrmann but he’s not on my list of favs. Thanks for reading and commenting!! 🙂

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  3. Reblogged this on thewriterscafe247 and commented:

    I posted this last year but I thought of some new additions to my list!! Feel free to comment!! 🙂

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  4. If you want a bad book to movie: Memoirs of Geisha. They used Manchurian actors to portray Japanese characters, thinking “no one will notice.” They noticed in Manchuria and Japan. It was such a shame.

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    • I honestly couldn’t tell you much about that movie because I fell asleep when I tried to watch it. If just felt like the writers said “well if we put enough effort into costuming and advertising no one will notice the plot/character/pacing problems”. Thanks for reading!

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  5. Great list! I haven’t seen Romeo + Juliet, but I recently watched Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby. Very strange!

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    • I don’t like his films because he does a lot of period pieces but none of them are accurate. He’s always trying to create some glamorized fantasy version of the past, or in some cases of literature, and after a while it just feels like he’s cheapening the source material.

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    • I watched part of Gatsby on a plane but I feel asleep, so I can’t really say what I felt about that movie. What about it did you think was strange?

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      • They used a lot of hip hop music instead of jazz for the party scenes. The parties seemed totally crazy so maybe that was the idea. There was also a lot of fast superman-like zooming in on scenes. The one thing I did think was better was the big confrontation between Tom and Gatsby. It’s really tame in the original movie. Much more realistic in the new one!

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        • It didn’t really help the film’s case for me that I can’t stand The Great Gatsby. I am SICK of it!!! I had to read that book for 4 classes (2 in high school and 2 at my university) and all 4 times the teachers said the EXACT same thing!! I wanted to yell “Yes!! Yes!! We all know the significance of the green light at Daisy’s dock!!! MOVE ON!!!!!!!” So any version of that book from Robert Redford to DeCaprio is just not going to be my cup of tea.

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