George V. Reilly

Adapting Books for Film and TV

Turning a Book into a Movie

I came across this cartoon today; it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about the hit-or-miss nature of adapting books for the screen.

Books and video/film are different media, with different con­ven­tions and needs. Often the most-loved elements of a book are lost when it’s adapted for television or film, upsetting fans.

As J.K. Rowling wrote about one of the Harry Potter movies:

"It is simply impossible to in­cor­po­rate every one of my storylines into a film that has to be kept under four hours long. Obviously films have re­stric­tions – novels do not have con­straints of time and budget; I can create dazzling effects relying on nothing but the in­ter­ac­tion of my own and my readers’ imag­i­na­tion­s".

I loved Lev Grossman’s Magicians novels—The Magicians, The Magician King, and The Magician’s Land—but The Magicians TV series has been a major dis­ap­point­ment to me. They’ve butchered the flow of the first book, turning it into an American college movie with magic elements, removing most of the Fillory connection and adding a gratuitous subplot about hedge witches. I’ve watched the first four episodes and I don’t think I’ll watch any more. If it hadn’t been an adaptation of a book that I loved, I would not have watched more than the first episode.

I also saw The Watchmen film recently, which suffers from being an obsessive, panel-for-panel recreation of The Watchmen graphic novel. Aside from one sig­nif­i­cant change at the end, the director apparently had no in­de­pen­dent vision of his movie.

I’ve read several of the Dortmunder books by Donald E. Westlake or listened to their audiobooks, and I love the deadpan humor of all of them. I’ve seen three movie adap­ta­tions. The Hot Rock with Robert Redford is bearable, if uninspired, and fairly faithful to the source. What’s the Worst that Could Happen? with Martin Lawrence and Danny De Vito is loosely based on the book of the same name; it’s not par­tic­u­lar­ly funny. But Bank Shot with George C. Scott is truly horrible; they attempted to turn it into some kind of zany madcap Seventies romp and failed badly.

Game of Thrones has it about right. The early seasons hewed closely to George R.R. Martin’s books, but felt free to drop subplots and thin out characters without losing the essence of the source material. As the seasons went on, the divergence widened. We have now reached the point where the show has caught up with the books and they’re starting to strike out in new directions. Each is its own thing; both are done well.

The Harry Potter movies are also fairly well received by the rabid fan base, and are generally considered successful works in their own right.

I find True Blood to be better than Charlaine Harris’s books. A fair amount of plot was taken from the books, but it quickly grew into its own over-the-top thing, moving in different directions. The books suffer from the lim­i­ta­tions of being told from the first-person per­spec­tive of Sookie Stackhouse, the telepathic waitress who falls in love with several vampires. True Blood can tell multiple storylines and moves around more freely.

I feel that The Com­mit­ments film is superior to its source, Roddy Doyle’s first novel, a slender little book. The film develops the characters more fully. The book’s two sequels were also adapted into films, The Snapper and The Van, which I think are about equal to their source novels.

Adap­ta­tions are hard.

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