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Watching Novels: Thoughts on Book Adaptations

Sometimes, when you look at Hollywood’s movie repertoire, it seems they only release remakes and book adaptations. Some people cringe, hoping for more original content and fresh stories, and as much as I’d love to see more originality as well, I do have a soft spot for book adaptations. There’s something enchanting in seeing the story I loved (or at least enjoyed) envisioned by someone else. It’s almost like sharing thoughts on a book and learning someone else’s perspective.

My approach to book adaptations

I’m one of those people who don’t expect faithful book adaptations. Movies are different mediums than books, so sometimes changes and cuts are necessary. This means that instead of waving torches and pitchforks at movies, I approach them with curiosity. What was changed? What was removed? Did it serve any purpose?

Many novels have complex plots and multiple point-of-view characters that don’t always translate onto screen. They also have much more space for worldbuilding, backstories, and juicy tidbits of information. Movies can’t devote too much time to explaining the world to the viewer, so not once or twice we’re greeted with a few minutes long intro explaining the key elements of the setting. In a book, that would be just a lengthy and annoying info-dump, but viewers accept it without a cringe. (Ok, to be honest, I always cringe at those, but I also understand their purpose.)

Favorite book adaptations

I’m always excited about the news of upcoming book adaptations, but at the same time, I don’t follow closely all of them, even in the science-fiction and fantasy genres. Yet, there are some that keep me excited.

One of such cases was, of course, Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ve read the books when I was in my teens, but it wasn’t my introduction to speculative fiction, so I never managed to fall in love with it as much as some people did. Yet, when the movies came out, they left me charmed. I could feel the epicness of the story through the breath-taking landscapes, massive armies, and quite fast-paced action.

I still remember the pre-release screening of The Two Towers I got to watch during one of the conventions back in Poland. The feeling I had when at least 300 people left the convention grounds and headed to the cinema to see the midnight screening will stay with me forever. The unique experience of watching the movie with no random people who might have stumbled to movies, but with fans like me made it even more special.

Other than that, I enjoyed The Martian, little-known The Tale of Despereaux, and Netflix’s Series of Unfortunate Events, thought the list could go on, because I tend to be much less critical of the movies than I am of books. I’ve yet to watch Arrival (based on one of the most moving short stories by Ted Chiang) and Altered Carbon, and I’m quite hopeful for both.

The Count of Monte Cristo case

The Count of Monte Cristo book is one of my all-time favorites, so I always hope there would be yet another adaptation of the book. Sadly, because the story is so complex, spanning decades and multiple characters as Edmund Dantes executes his multi-level revenge on the people who had betrayed him in the words way, most of it never makes it to the screen. In the few adaptations I’ve seen, the screenwriters seem to focus on the complicated relation between Edmund and the love of his life, Mercedes. Sadly, it twists the original story in a disappointing way, making it a mushy love story instead of the story of revenge with a serious question of whether a man should play God.

Yet, I really enjoyed the 2002 adaptation. Even though it doesn’t stay true to the book, the screenwriters managed to take the love story out of it and make it into a coherent, plausible plot.

At the same time, I’m hoping someone in Hollywood will rediscover the book and someone will make it into an epic, multi-season TV series. Hey, Netflix, maybe you could take upon that challenge?

Failed book adaptations

Sometimes the adaptation is so far off, that only “what the heck?” comes to mind. Such was the case for World War Z, a brilliant zombie book that was made like a non-fiction compilation of interviews. Something like that was impossible to pull of on screen (and in limited time), so instead the creators made it into an action flick. It has little to do with the original and fails as a book adaptation, but at the same time it’s quite an enjoyable movie. It was also what made me want to read the book: I didn’t get a chance to watch it for a while, so I purchased the book instead.

Another interesting one would be The Three Musketeers from 2011. It’s very loosely based on the book, but at the same time the steampunk setting makes it so much fun to watch!

In a way, not being a hardcore fan makes me more relaxed about the adaptations. I don’t judge them too harshly and can enjoy them regardless of their shortfalls (like The Seventh Son). But there are still some I couldn’t get through, like Shannara Chronicles. And just wait for the day Dan Simmon’s Hyperion finally makes it to the screen… I might turn a zealous fan on the spot!

Better than the book?

The common saying is that the book is always better than the movie. Yet, there are some book adaptations that I consider better than the original. If I was to pick one as an example, it’d be Hunger Games. I’ve read the book when it first came out, and they established my general dislike for YA books in general and poorly executed dystopias in particular, and I never felt compelled to read more books in the trilogy. At the same time, I enjoyed the movie in the category of “thoughtless entertainment”, and even though the sequels felt less entertaining, I still managed to watch them.

What are your thoughts on book adaptations?

Do you enjoy them? Do you love when they’re accurate or enjoy changes to the original story? What are your favorite ones? Which ones, in your opinion, should be forgotten forever? I’d love to see your perspective!

Joanna Maciejewska

Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games. Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English. Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. sjhigbee

    Yes… I think you’re right, Joanna. I, too, like a fair number of film adaptations – basically because often the plotting is sharp and the characterisation is well done. Yes, I’d add Lord of the Rings, which I loved as a young woman (I’m the right generation…) and felt very moved when I saw Bag End on the screen for the first time – it was so exactly as I’d imagined it, but better… I also would include the Harry Potter series of films which were done very well and the recent Game of Thrones series is fabulous. And while I find Philip K. Dick’s writing rather plot-driven, Minority Report and Bladerunner are a triumph. I would love to see the Miles Vorkosigan series made into a series of films!

    1. Melfka

      I haven’t watched Harry Potter. I’ve read the books, but never made it to the movies, and and ever since I left Poland, I don’t have any tv channels/cable, so I missed it airing there.
      I agree that Dick’s adaptations, even if they aren’t faithful to the original, are stunning. Though I did hear that the Man of the High Castle tv series turned out more than disappointing.
      I moderately enjoy Game of Thrones (we watched 3 seasons, but never got around to buying the 4th; maybe when the series ends) – I only read book 1 and never followed up, so I don’t really have comparison with the original.

      1. sjhigbee

        I got to Book 3 before it went flying across the room when yet again a much-loved character died… But I have thoroughly enjoyed watching The Game of Thrones – Himself wanted it for his birthday as a boxed set series 1-5, so we binge-watched it. There is one extract in one episode I skipped as he told me I’d find it very upsetting. Other than that, I’ve really enjoyed the high level of performance and production. But I have no inclination to go back to the books, although I love some of Martin’s other writing – his novella Fevre Dream is outstanding.

        1. Melfka

          You’re tougher than me. After all that happened in book 1 and a certain character being beheaded at the end (is there anyone I could spoil it to? probably not, but not taking chances), I said, “no more”. Back then, I needed positive reads.
          But I might check out some other of his works, since you’re recommending. (As soon as I get through my TBR file…)

          1. sjhigbee

            I fully understand about the teetering TBR pile…:). He is worth reading – other than THAT series.

  2. 1221bookworm

    I will second the comment above and say Harry Potter is definitely one of the best adaptations I’ve ever seen. Movie one and book one are amazingly similar (I could nitpick, but in the world of movie adaptations it’s all minor). The fifth movie is a case of changing it up a bit, but sticking to the overall impression and being fun nonetheless.

    If we’re adding in terrible movie adaptations, please add My Side of the Mountain to the list. I don’t remember the storyline of the book or movie currently, but I remember being so excited to get the movie from the library, and finding out it was almost an entirely different story. May even have enjoyed it under a different name, but yup, that is the movie adaptation that scarred my for life!

    I do have to add my two cents on the Hunger Games. I did read the entire trilogy, and found it enjoyable. I found the ending tragic though and have thought the ending didn’t fit the story. I almost didn’t watch the Mockingjay movies because the book was so sad, but my sister took me to see the final one and I have to say the movie fixed all my issues with the book ending, and gave it a hope the book just did not have. Way to go movie!

    1. Melfka

      Thank you for stopping by! 🙂
      Now I feel like I need to hunt down Harry Potter and watch it. I have never become a devoted fan (like figuring out which house I belong to or getting Potter-related gadgets), but I did enjoy the books.
      As for Hunger Games, I read it in my late 20s (or even early 30s), so I wasn’t really a target audience, and it’s been pretty much true for all YA books.

  3. saraletourneau

    As much as I love certain film adaptations (I was also thrilled with the Harry Potter films and the LOTR trilogy, though I admit I saw the LOTR films before reading the books), I’m always leery when I see one now. Probably because, like you, I’ve had my share of disappointments. I remember seeing the movie for The Golden Compass (originally a book by children’s fantasy author Phillip Pullman) and being happy with most of it… until the ending, when I realized the filmmakers cut out the last two chapters and chose an earlier scene as the climax… and I shouted out loud, “You’re ending the movie NOW?!?!” Thank goodness no one else was in the theater at the time… (*blushes*)

    I actually read Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life recently. And having seen the film Arrival twice, I won’t say much to avoid spoiling it for you… but in some ways it’s quite different from the short story, and in other ways it’s still the same. Are you still planning on watching it? Because I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts if you do.

    1. Melfka

      I’ve seen The Golden Compass, but I haven’t read the book, so I can’t compare them. I still can relate to the frustration of seeing such blatant changes.
      I haven’t seen Arrival yet. My friend, who’s also Chiang’s fan, had seen it and recommended it as a good adaptation, so I’m looking forward to seeing it. I spotted it on Amazon Prime, but lately I didn’t have much time to watch things, so I didn’t get around to it yet.

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