Monday, June 17, 2013

Movie-tizing Books

Adapting books to movies or television is tricksy business. Some turn out better than others...

...and some, not so much...

We all have our opinions; I've found that devoted readers tend to like books better. On the other hand, I have actually known people who had no idea Gone With The Wind was ever a book to begin with. It is nearly impossible to get the whole scope of a novel into a two hour movie, or even a ten week series on cable. But sometimes, despite stuff getting left out, glossed over, or changed, it just works...

Why? What did the producers and directors and actors do to get it right? What makes The ones that work, work?

My opinion? The ones that work do so because the heart of the story is kept intact. The Lord of the Rings movies worked because the powers that be kept the essence of the books intact without falling too hard on the marketing plan. The Hobbit didn't because--again, IMO--it was done to market--a market that already knew the franchise and was anticipating the video game, and the Legos it would produce. There is also the viewing audience that went to see it and will go see the next one simply because Peter Jackson, JRRT and the franchise (and this includes me, I will admit!) are involved.

And Martin Freeman--nothing can be a total loss if he's in it.

Some argue that the Harry Potter movies succeeded in capturing the heart of the books and transferring it to the screen. Some vehemently disagree. I am of mixed feelings on that. I purposely did not read the books because I knew I would not like the movies any more. With four young children, I knew I'd be seeing the movies. So, I didn't want to hate them. Silly logic, perhaps, but I finally did read them all (up to book six; seven would release the following summer,) back to back, the summer The Order of the Phoenix released. Need I tell you how I hated the movie? I loved the movies up through The Goblet of Fire; yet after reading the books and learning all that was missing, I was heartbroken! How are they going to fix this mess!? The Order of the Phoenix didn't have much of the Order in it. The Half-Blood Prince, my second favorite of the books, was a disappointment. Then came the first part of Deathly Hallows. By then, I'd been about three years away from having read the books...and magically, the movies got better again. I was far enough removed to be spared looking for all the missing pieces.

And this is what I came to understand--There is no way the movies were ever going to be as good as the books. There's just too much! And, to be fair, it's like comparing those mealy-old apples to those dried-out oranges we learned about in elementary school. The movies are the movies. The books are the books. They need to be judged in their own forms, not against one another.

Since coming to this understanding, I've been able to enjoy more movie adaptations than I used to. I've chosen to showcase four of the most popular, and easily identifiable adaptations. There are so many! And not only scifi/fantasy. So what about you?

Do you always hate the movie?
Are there movies or TV shows you think worked it out?
What made it work?
What's your opinion?
This curious oyster, back to Heroines of Fantasy after three months on hiatus, wants to know!

~Terri-Lynne DeFino


Heroines of Fantasy said...

I agree completely about judging the medium within the proper context. GoT, from what I can gather, is as close to a faithful adaptation that we have seen with works in the SF/Fantasy genre. The Hobbit is clearly not, but it works on other levels and in different contexts for its audience. Sadly, or thankfully, depending on your stance, the best bits of An Unexpected Journey are those that stay closest to the written text!

Other works come to mind: The Sci Fi channels attempts at Dune, despite the dated cgi, were still pretty successful. Myazaki's son's attempt at Tales from Earthsea, animated, was visually fun but stolid. The Sci Fi channel's attempt at LeGuin's work was a complete fail.

Anonymous said...

I watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone before reading the book. After realizing the book and the movie were pretty close, I never read another one of the books. I think the Game of Thrones series will be like that for potential GRRM readers, because they are pretty close. It's like a "highlights of" series that hits all the WTF moments of the books, without slogging through nuncles, heraldry, and banquets. But the books have infinitely more depth, and you cannot limit the story with production cost when it comes to books.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

Most films fail to live up to the book either because personalities are butchered or storylines are altered for no discernable reason (the rant-inducing Lord of the Rings debacle being a prime example. Obviously films must and should cut things out to keep them manageable (though the mind-numbing horror that is The Hobbit trilogy shows that doesn't happen.

Before I continue, I must now rant about the Jackson abominations.

Why reduce LotR to three films when you could have done a film for each of the six (there are six, not three) books therein? Then you could have had a seventh film for the prequel. Simple.

Why build up the part of Arwen simply to have more female presence when it's blindingly obvious that a much simpler fix that wouldn't have involved worthless and in fact counter-productive additions would have been to make Aragorn female. Simple. You could easily have Legolas as female too and any of the Hobbits.

Why diminish Theoden and Faramir, making them far more vacillating and weak characters? Especially in the latter case the whole flipping point is that he's a better man than his brother, not some kind of limp shadow who's suddenly redeemed through fear.

Why make the orcs green? I mean where on earth is the basis for that beyond a cartoonish idea presumably got from cartoons (or graphic novels as we must now apparently call them).

The casting was at least decent although Bean and Mortensen should have been in each others' parts and the same man that played Boromir should have played Faramir so the whole point of their physical similarity but differing characters was reinforced.

Right. Rant over and medication taken . . .

Back to films.

Another that failed miserably is the much lauded (for reasons that passeth my understanding) film version of The Princess Bride. Dreadful casting and generally lacklustre acting is at the root of this but not helped by a script that removes almost every subtlety from the book (where for instance Buttercup is lovely but rather dim and more than a little conceited).

However a shining example of a film that surpassed the book is Stardust. Gaiman's book is rather laboured and rambling. The film casts the parts beautifully and distills the story to its key elements, improving it at almost ever juncture. It remains almost entirely true to the spirit of the book, and the standard of acting is generally high -- and most importantly the actors take the roles seriously, which is important in a fantasy and doubly important in a fantasy that's also meant to be funny. If this team had made The Princess Bride it really would have been a screen classic.

The Harry Potter films also to my mind improved tremendously on the books (which I disliked). Again, what seemed to me decent casting and actors taking it seriously combined with a script that I presume didn't deviate much from the text.

And here's another thing. Why on earth does some hack script writer thing he can improve on a bestselling author's words when it comes to dialogue (okay maybe in the case of a hack bestselling author they might, but not when we're talking about Tolkien, etc). Presumably in many cases the style is adapted to 'talk down' to the audience who it is supposed won't like anything too old-fashioned. This is a big mstake (and one that, for instance, the Western genre seldom makes nowadays).

But I am in danger of ranting more about the Jackson abominations and so will stop.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

I love films for being films and books for being books. I like to see a good adaptation, but there is so much that comes into play when turning a book into a film -- so many constraints to be dealt with -- that someone somewhere is bound to be disappointed.

One of my favorite events of ConQuesT was when we watched episode 9 of season 2 of Game of Thrones with George RR Martin. Having his running commentary on why they did things the way they did helped me appreciate that episode so much more. And while I still much prefer the battle at King's Landing as told in the book, at least I know the logic behind the changes that were made.

Season 2 of GoT was frickin' painful all around, but they really pulled it back together for Season 3. (Except for those stupide torture-and-sex scenes, but oh well. It's HBO.) I also must say that many of the characters (especially the women) are more interesting in the TV series than they were in the book. Daenerys, for example, is thoroughly awesome in the series, but was always mildly disappointing in the book.

One of my favorite movie adaptations was The Name of the Rose. I saw that movie before reading the book, and I was always glad I did. The book was so incredibly rich & multi-layered that having the murder mystery part taken care of (that is, knowing whodunit) allowed me to enjoy all the other aspects of the story (which were not incorporated in the movie) that much more.

I didn't read the Harry Potter books, but I saw all the movies, and enjoyed them, except for the first part of Deathly Hallows.

I loved the LotR movies, and it had been long enough since I'd read the series that I really didn't care how faithful the adaptation was, as long as the movie was entertaining.

The Hobbit fell flat because it was a bad movie, irrespective of whether it was a bad adaptation.

And I loved The Princess Bride, movie and book, each for different reasons.

Terri-Lynne said...

(Who is this first one? Mark or Kim?)

SciFi (or syfy, as it is now called) totally killed LeGuin's Earthsea. I was so excited, because I loved the books so much. But--yikes. It was just awful.

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint--you didn't read after Sorcerer's Stone?? Heavens to mergatroid, dude--you read the worst of the bunch! Not that any of them are bad, but...anyway.

The book/movie for the first two Potter books did stick pretty close, but the books were MUCH shorter and less involved. Once they got to Azkaban, the deviation was HUGE. You're missing something grand if you don't read the books.

As far as the Game of Thrones TV series goes, they're doing a good job, imo. GRRM's books are weighty. They CAN lose some of the stuff that makes them tomes and not lose the heart of the story. I think Benioff and the other writers GET that.

Terri-Lynne said...

Dave--I wrote that post with your voice in my head. REALLY!!! I was hoping for your rant, and you did not disappoint.

I actually liked the LOTR franchise for what they were--faithful to the whole of the books? No. But I did feel they were good movies, especially the extended versions. The lovely eye-candy didn't hurt matters either. That being said, I did despise how Arwen's role was made to be something it wasn't. They did NOT represent women by doing so. Her part was still largely in the margins. I'd have rather seen the movie-makers beef up Eowyn's part (and, in the process, Faramir's, for that matter) than what they did with Arwen. I'd never thought about assigning a woman to Legolas' role, or anyone else. Very interesting. I like it! didn't like the Princess Bride?? Noooooooooooo! I loved the movie. I loved the book (though I do agree with your assessment of Buttercup's character being a bit less dim in the movie. I rather liked that BETTER, actually.) Goldstein wrote both the book and the screenplay, as well as was intimately involved with the filming of the movie. I thought it was perfectly cast, and all around well done BECAUSE it didn't take itself too seriously--as I feel the book didn't either.

We are in COMPLETE agreement about Gaiman's Stardust, however. Perfectly cast (Deniro in drag--CLASSIC!) I loved the book, but I must say I think this is one of the few cases in which I liked the film better. The cast made it. I don't know if another sampling of actors could have done so.

I'm not even going into the HP books! My heart can't stand it!

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--watching Battle of the Blackwater with GRRM will forever be one of the highlights of my writerly life.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

Yeah I've always found it hard to swallow that Goldman actually liked the casting (especially of Andre the Giant when they had clearly wanted Schwarzenegger -- who to be fair at that stage of his career would probably have been nearly as dire) or the finished film. I hope he was just being polite.

Speaking of the former governor of California, I never liked the Conan films much either. Granted they did try to take elements from the various boos and throw them together to make a film, which Master and Commander shows can work superbly (but that had a great cast and almost impeccable production qualities from costumes to sets to music). The various Conan films fell far short of that standard. Red Nails would have made a fine film, with a strong and fighty female co-star too (though I'm not sure you'd get away with her rather undignified kidnapping towards the end these days .

Thinking about it, presuming you have cast well, have sufficient money to get the production values right and a script that has dialogue which remains as true as possible to that of the original work, the only way you can go wrong is directorial or studio egos taking over and stamping their own identity or presumptions forcibly over the spirit of the work. I think Stardust worked so well as a film because it got most of that right.

Anonymous said...


LOL, nope, I stopped. Truth be told, I was underwhelmed by Rowling's writing anyway. Would have loved the books as a kid, but a post Joel Rosenberg/GRRM/Jordan/Robert E. Howard/Miyazaki fantasy reader, I was just "meh" about them.

Besides, even when I played DnD campaigns the wizards bored the hell out of me. Add that with school and a decidedly Mary Sue protag, and I couldn't go on.

Anonymous said...

Ready for my rant?

Here goes. All the authors I listed above as being superior to Rowling (in my opinion) are males.

However, Jane Yolen can write circles around Rowling, but where are her movie deals? Also, Susan Cooper gets short-sheeted when it comes to the Dark is Rising sequence. I LOVED those books. And why the hell not with possibly the most beloved of genre books of at least my generation, Hickman and Weiss's Dragonlance books.

No movie love for them? What?

Heroines of Fantasy said...

(Terri, here, posting on the domain-name because my gremlinated laptop strangely sends my real user-name directly to the spam folder.)

Clint--whooooa, Nellie! Don't get me started. The complete LACK of books written by women to movies in the scifi/fan world is not only insulting, ridiculous, and dumb, it's absolutely short-sighted.

As you've mentioned--Jane Yolen, one of my all-time favorite writers--has a lifetime of work, AMAZING work, ripe for the picking. Works from Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley would keep the fairytale/fantasy devoted viewing public in movies for DECADES!!! I can't name all the worthy women writers without movie deals--the list is too long.

Anonymous said...

Dragons of Autumn Twilight did get a direct-to-DVD animated feature in 2008. Absolutely horrible. Probably the worst fantasy movie I've ever seen. Even Hickman said it was a mistake.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Dave--D'OH! Goldman. Sorry Mr. Goldman!

I have to admit--I have a soft spot for Andre the Giant. He WAS terrible as an actor, but...he's ANDRE THE GIANT!!!

And, come on--Mandy Patinkin more than made up for Andre's lack of talent. PLEASE don't tell me you didn't like his Inigo!

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Nyk--really?? Oh, my...I think I must look up some youtube clips to see this!

I loved, loved, loved the original Dragonlance books. They are some old and beloved favorites I fear re-reading. Can they possibly live up to my memory? And--worse--will they KILL the memory??

Not sure I want to go there.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I suspect the Dragonlance series might not have been made into films because of the technological limitations of the era when they shot to fame (it took a long old time for them to butcher Tolkien for that reason). Similarly though there's no Leiber, Moorcock, Vance, Anderson (The Broken Sword could make a super film).

So while I agree that female authors seem to have been passed by, it might well not be entirely to do with chauvinism because until fairly recently I don't think many fantasy novels have been put on the screen.

Anonymous said...

One thing that baffles me is how they keep saying "Hollywood has run out of ideas" and so a remake of a 20 year old movie gets done, when there are really TONS of excellent books out there to movie-fy if they wanted. I mean hell, why not the Mists of Avalon as an HBO series even? Not enough sex or what?

And I dunno, I have to cast my lot in with the LotR movies being better than the books. At least in the movies, you don't have Aragorn jumping into every battle yelling "Elendil! Ellisar!" about his goddamned sword every time an orc shows up. I didn't hate the Hobbit, but why bring in a bunch of apocryphal stuff to add to the run time, when they cut out Tom Bombadil from the LotR movies to save time? That movie was totally padded.

I would love to see a live action Pit Fighters movie based on Yolen's works.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Clint--did you miss the TV movie/miniseries for Mists Of Avalon?

Might be that you've blocked it out of your mind, because despite the pretty awesome cast, it largely sucked.

I do agree with you--there are TONS of books that would make great movies. Tons. Hell, MY books would make pretty awesome movies, if I do say so myself. ;) Now if only I could get Hollywood to notice...

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I thought the movie version of HOLES (Sachar's book) was very good.


Usually, if I really love a book, I won't even see a movie based on it. I prefer the version in my head.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Jenn--I loved that movie! You're right, they did do a great job with it. Shia LeBeouf was perfectly cast.

You know what was another good one?? Tuck Everlasting. It was beautifully cast, and took a teensy little story and made it bigger without killing the magic.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark here:

Busy busy! I tend to agree with Pongo about the chauvenism in H-wood. Of course there are tons of great books that could and should be given loving attention in film, but H-wood thinks differently than real artists, imho. For some reason the H-woodies don't respect the ideas we incorporate into our works. All they can see are the broad brush strokes and how that might translate into ticket sales and franchise opportunities. I think that is why we saw so many slocky sword and sorcery tales in the 80's and 90's.

Lots of cool commentary folks! Woohoo!


Eric T Reynolds said...

I agree with Three With Eyes That See about the SciFi adaptation of Dune. It was far better than the horrible movie version from over a decade before. The SciFi version followed the book better, which I always prefer. Hard to adapt a novel to a two or three-hour movie, but moving scenes around and changing other things isn't the answer, and that's one reason why people often don't like movie or TV adaptations. (As for The Hobbit, I lost interest in seeing the movie when I heard about the horses and other animals that died.)

Heroines of Fantasy said...

(Terri, here--I wasn't the original 3 with eyes up there.)

Eric...really??? I didn't hear that about the animals.

Pongo Pygmaues said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pongo Pygmaues said...

The Mists of Avalon would make a good TV series, and in fact one was made in 2001 with Angelica Huston.

In fact I think for a lot of fantasy the Game of Thrones style TV series would be a better option than a film or three (although I didn't like much of what I saw from the first series of AGoT, a series was always going to do a better job than a 3 hour film. But AGoT required to my mind a much bigger production budget than HBO gave it. It also needed some better casting in some roles).

Another reason why some films haven't been made is that they've been lingering 'under option' for ages, with the rights holders unable to begin filming due to lack of finance but unwilling to sell them on. I don't know if that's true for Dragonlance but I suspect it might be.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

Oh, another reason why some books don't get picked up is because their theme is regarded as 'dangerous'.

The Mists of Avalon TV series apparently glosses over the whole Christians as baddies message entirely and of course Hollywood dropped Pullman faster than you can say 'fear the church' as soon as they realised what his books were really about.

That said, The Golden Compass I thought was another example of a film that was about as faithful to the book as could be hoped for. Again, great casting, great acting, faithful to the spirit.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Dave--re Hollywooders holding on to rights without the finances? Yup! My brother and his husband wrote a book many years ago, "An American Family," about adopting children and changing the laws that enabled them to jointly adopt in NJ. The book was optioned almost immediately--and CAST!! But so far, nothing has come of it.