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Film Adaptations: Good When They’re in the Right Hands

Film Adaptations: Good When They're in the Right Hands

It takes time and effort to write a screenplay. It takes even more time and effort, I imagine, to write an original screenplay based on one’s own ideas. This challenge is perhaps why Hollywood likes to churn out movies based on stories in other media, particularly books. Yes, there is still work involved when writing a script based on a non-movie work. But if the ideas to put down already exist because someone else conceived them, it saves the writer a lot of work.

One might think that, when adapting a screenplay, one should be faithful to the original source material. Not only would it seem easy, but also the author of the source material would appreciate it. Yet, that’s not always the case. Film adaptations are always risky because you don’t know if they will be very faithful to the source, somewhat faithful to the source, or barely resemble the source at all. This is why I tend to be on the fence when it comes to film adaptations.

Let’s start by describing a good film adaptation. Naturally, if a source (whether it is a book, television show, or even a video game) is developed well and is enjoyable to its fans, a cinematic adaptation should capture what makes the source material great. After all, fans will expect to see the core elements in the film version, and they would like to introduce new people to the original work by having the film be like that original. Sounds simple, right? Not quite, because the artistic, financial, and technical constraints of filmmaking might make it difficult to adapt something 100%.

Consider, for example, the 1962 James Bond film Dr. No. This is based on the 1958 novel of the same name by Ian Fleming, but there are some differences between the film and the book. In the film, Bond is threatened by a tarantula, not a centipede like in the book. Also in the film, Honey Rider wears a white bikini, whereas the literary version has the same character fully nude. At Dr. No’s hideout, Bond comes face-to-face with a giant squid, which is not in the movie at all. As you can see, changes were made because of things like cultural sensitivity and technical limitations. But is it a bad film adaptation? Hardly, because the film does capture the essential elements, like the characters and suspense.

That’s not to say that any change from book to film is OK. Sometimes, a change could turn an entire story around. For example, the 2002 crime thriller film Blood Work, based on the novel by Michael Connelly, makes one change that many fans of the book disapproved. The script swapped the last names of two characters, so that the identity of the murderer goes from brilliant in the book to lame in the movie. Also, Clint Eastwood is too old to play the main character of retired FBI profiler Terry McCaleb, who is described as younger in the book. Contrast Blood Work with the 2011 movie The Lincoln Lawyer, also adapted from a Connelly novel but more faithfully so. The result was that I enjoyed the performance of the star, Matthew McConaughey, and liked this movie much more than the movie Blood work. Basically, when possible, adapt a book to film faithfully.

Once in a while, a film based on a book or other kind of work is so godawful that you just want to deny the film adaptation’s existence. The most offense example I can think of is the 2003 live-action version of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. If you read the book and watch the movie, or even just look at the book’s cover and the movie’s poster, you can see that the book is wonderful for children but the film is horrible for everyone. In fact, one of the screenwriters was (surprisingly) Alec Berg, whose credits include the TV shows Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. This movie that is supposedly for the family has adult jokes, like a reference to prostitutes when encountering a certain garden tool, a machine whose abbreviation is a profane four-letter word, racial stereotyping with an Asian babysitter, and an erection joke with the Cat’s hat. Overall, the movie is a huge insult to the late Theodore Geisel (the real name of Dr. Seuss), not to mention his surviving widow Audrey and beloved Dr. Seuss fans.

So far, I’ve talked about adapting fiction books to film. But what about movies based on nonfiction books or actual events? Even they can be modified for the sake of entertainment value. For instance, the 2012 thriller Argo, about a CIA agent rescuing American embassy workers from Iran by having the whole group pretend to be a Canadian film crew doing location scouting work in the country. While this did happen, the suspenseful final escape out of Tehran was, as good as it was, made up. That’s OK, because everything else was more fact-based to a certain degree. But other movies might misrepresent the true story, like the movie 21, about a blackjack cheating method pulled off at casinos by college students. It was based on the book Bringing Down the House, about some students, mostly Asian-American, who pulled it off. But the film “whitewashed” the story by having Caucasian actors playing the characters. It’s easy to forget about the book the movie is based on. (Of note, the book has received criticisms for including fictional elements, even if it’s classified as nonfiction.)

That’s another thing about film adaptations: the source might be forgotten if the film has a life of its own. For example, did you know that the 1988 movie Die Hard was based on the thriller novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp? I didn’t. What about the novel Death Wish by Brian Garfield, which spawned the 1974 movie with Charles Bronson? Then there are these examples: Jaws (the 1975 movie and the novel by Peter Benchley), 2001: A Space Odyssey (the Stanley Kubrick movie and the Arthur C. Clarke novel), Dr. Strangelove (a dark comedy ultimately inspired by the serious novel Red Alert by Peter George), and various Disney animated films like Cinderella and The Little Mermaid based on the creations of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen.

But enough of the complaints about film adaptations. Let’s talk about well-done film adaptations. The first example that comes to mind is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which producer and director Peter Jackson brought to life in very stunning fashion. Speaking of fantasy books to film, the seven Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling have been turned into eight entertaining films, with strong actors who are just right playing the characters in the books. Then there are two outstanding films based on graphic novels that are done well because the illustrated panels in those books were used as storyboards: Sin City and Watchmen.

Based on all of this, I came up with a checklist of items that I believe constitute a good film adaptation. If you want to make a movie based on a book, television show, video game, or other source, be sure it meets the following criteria that I am suggesting:

  • The core elements of the plot must be preserved.
  • The characters must be the same as, or at least very similar to, the characters in the original source.
  • Changes in the overall tone and style of the film such that they differ from those in the source should only serve to improve on the original source, not replace it.
  • Modifications of the original source (even minor ones, like a character’s name) should be reasonable and backed by clear explanations based on feasibility and limitations related to filmmaking.
  • The film should convey appreciation and respect for the author of the original source, not use it as a platform for the filmmaker’s vision while merely mentioning the author’s name.
  • The reasons why people love the original source should be the same reasons people will love the movie version.
  • Therefore, the film adaptation should equally please fans of the original source and those who are unfamiliar with the source material.

In conclusion, I enjoy film adaptations when they’re done right and dislike them when they’re done all wrong. It’s certainly important that the film adaptation be put into the right hands. Only then can the film version of something be successful. And when that happens, everyone can be pleased, whether or not they are hardcore fans of the original work.

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I am simply a regular person who enjoys cinema, and I like to tell friends about each movie I've seen. In doing so, I became inspired in 2005 to write quick film reviews.