What Makes a Good Film Adaptation?

I mentioned in my last post that the book The Girl with Ghost Eyes would make an interesting and even good film adaptation. This is an unusual position for me to take, considering how cynical I’ve become since seeing a number of beloved books turned into less-than-stellar movies. Doubly so, even, considering that a lot of the movies we see now are adaptations, remakes/reboots, and/or franchises.

Between last week and now, I started to wonder what exactly would go into making a good film adaptation of a book, what “good” would even mean, and who gets to be the judge. I can’t tell you much about that last one, but I do have some opinions on the first two. For the sake of argument, I’m going to be talking about novels that are adapted into movies rather than TV shows or other mediums simply because that’s what I’m most familiar with. In no particular order, these were the sticking points that I thought were important to consider in an adaptation:


Faithfulness to the source material, be it in terms of plot, theme, tone, etc.

This almost goes without saying, because the major reason to do a film of a book is so that your built-in audience of readers can see everything they love come to life. Audiences that go into a movie adaptation of a book expect to see their book on-screen, albeit with some changes, rather than a totally different story that happens to share the title.

Unfortunately, this “in name only” kind of adaptation is exactly what happened with the 1995 film of The Scarlet Letter starring Gary Oldman and Demi Moore, a movie that I watched a couple of years ago and am still personally offended by. The visuals were lovely, sure, and if it had any other title I would have thought of it as a mediocre love story with some symbols from the novel thrown in for good faith from those people in the audience that read it. However, it’s pretty apparent that someone wrote and/or edited the script without ever having actually read the book in question: the movie begins with roughly twenty minutes of our two leads falling in love and literally rolling in the hay; the titular brand of Hester Prynne doesn’t actually show up until the literal halfway point and becomes more a reason to keep the attention on Moore’s chest than to contribute anything meaningful to the plot (I’m not that much of a prude, but it’s pretty obvious that it serve no other function); at one point Pearl is examined for signs of being a witch that had me half-convinced that the scene was lifted from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; Indians attack the settlement close to the climax; and there’s a “they lived happily ever after” ending for Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl wrapped up neatly with a bow.

Even as someone who hasn’t picked up Hawthorne since high school, there are some things wrong here. I’m going to ignore the more obvious ones because we’ll be here until next week if I try to list them, so we’ll just focus on the one major thing that got completely thrown out the window: Hester’s character. In the book, she’s astoundingly brave, especially when you consider the time period and society that she lived in (a Puritan colony): she turns the other cheek when she’s punished and shamed for her sin, she refuses to turn Dimmesdale in, and through hard work and kindness she reclaims the A on her chest as a sign that she’s an angel rather than an adulterer. On top of all that, she raises her daughter as best as she can. She’s a great heroine, whether in spite of or because of her circumstances who, for the purposes of the movie, was turned into an anachronistically liberated, conventionally attractive love interest devoid of much else character-wise. What should have been a movie about hypocrisy, courage, and double standards was rendered as a softcore erotica with a plot that barely made sense even standing on its own. I would have been ok with an adaptation of the novel that made a few changes, and I would have been disappointed in but ultimately ok with this movie’s existence had it not tried to claim that it had any relation to the novel. However, literally none of my expectations were met, which resulted in what I consider to be one of the worst adaptations of a novel to screen that I’ve seen to date.


Independence from the source material.

This looks like it contradicts my above point, so let me clarify. There are a few things that go into this: if necessary for the sake of the movie’s runtime, the story needs to be either expanded or compressed; if there’s a deviation from the source material for any reason, it should at least make sense; and I should be able to watch the movie without reading the book first and still have a clue what’s going on.

My friends know that I’m not a big fan of the “split the last book into two movies” phenomenon that started with the Harry Potter series and seems to be continuing into every franchise based on young adult novels. I’m not into cinematic universes for a similar reason, but I digress. This isn’t to say that I’m not ok with series in general, and I’m not asking to be able to walk into the fifth movie in a franchise and be able to understand everything that’s going on: all I ask is that, if you only plan on making one movie out of the book, to make it one movie and make it fit without relying on the audience to fill in the gaps.

This is something that I thought the original Lord of the Rings films did pretty well, and the fans of the series that I know agree with me on this one. I do plan on picking up the books now, but at the time I hadn’t read anything from the series except a portion of The Hobbit that I had attempted to read when I was a bit too young for it. Aside from the fact that the trilogy was an epic fantasy story and therefore huge in terms of cast and plot, I could process just about everything that was going on without needing to use the books, the internet, or other people for references. I’m sure that having the information that was in the books would have helped me understand more, or would have made me feel smarter for catching tiny references that went over my head, but they weren’t required for me to enjoy what I watched because the films were self-contained. Yes, you need to throw in things that the readers will love, but if your marketing department is worth its salt you’re going to be attracting movie fans as well as book fans, and you don’t want to confuse and disappoint someone who’s there for, say, an action movie by constructing it exclusively from in-jokes and nods to a canon that they might not be as familiar with. A movie (or series) needs to be a self-contained, good story that stands on its own, even if it’s based on something else.


Respecting and embracing that film is a different medium from books.

Movie and book audiences are different. Reading a book is almost always a longer commitment than watching a movie, and within certain expectations there aren’t strict length limits on novels for adults; conversely, movies are two and a half hours long at the most and don’t require as much patience. Stories in books are limited to what the author can describe and the reader can imagine, where in movies you’re limited by the writers as well as practical and special effects and an entire teams’ worth of visions for the end product. Movies are definitely a visual medium and need to be approached accordingly: I’m sure that you can write any story and film any story, but there are going to be differences in the way that they’re told.

This is why I think that Christopher Moore, one of my favorite authors, could never get a good movie adaptation of his novels. Sure, his everyman characters are thrown into surreal situations, and the end result is more often than not extremely funny. It’s not that the situations are funny on their own, though: a number of them would be horrifying or depressing when looked at through a slightly different lens. What makes him funny is his prose and his way of describing the situations or implications. Unless you had a voiceover running over the entire movie, there wouldn’t be a good way for the humor to come across onscreen, and the end product wouldn’t capture what made the novel great. The stories could certainly look great and the lines delivered right if you had the ideal team, but they would likely err more toward horror or slapstick rather than the absurdist sarcasm and wit that Moore brings to his pages.

I’m of the opinion that Jurassic Park was an effective translation of a premise from novel to film. Both the novel and the movie are about the implications of bringing dinosaurs back to life and trying to slam an unsafe idea through an approval process long before risk management measures can be fully implemented, and both take the idea to its logical conclusion. Where they differ is in their focus: the novel has the time to think about theoretical math and philosophy along the way and figures that its readers will do the same, and the movie chooses to focus more on the spectacle and action because it knows that’s what its audience wants. Neither approach is wrong, and in fact I thought that the changes were understandable and made both products great. It’s the exact same story told by different people, which I think is the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re shifting a narrative between mediums.


What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) book adaptations? What would be non-negotiable in a film adaptation of your favorite book?