Screenwriting 101: adaptations

samedietc asks:

"Do you have a theory/working principle about adaptations?"free stats

Funny you should ask; I’ve recently reversed myself somewhat on the subject of adaptations. I used to feel that producers were willfully obtuse, that they labor diligently to purchase the rights to popular works and then, for no good reason, fundamentally change the nature of the piece out of sheer ego or sheer perversity. I felt that, if you’re going to go to the trouble of purchasing the rights to a book or play or comic or video game or bumper sticker or whatever you’ve spent your hard-earned money on, you might as well stay as true as possible to the source material — I felt that there had to be a reason why the original is popular, and the movie had to address that or else it would fail.

(True story: I’m in a story meeting for the ill-starred Wonder Woman project and I’m laying out Wonder Woman’s fundamental backstory — formed out of mud by her mother Hippolyta, meant to be the only female created without the help of Man, wears silver bracelets to remind her of her sisters’ enslavement, etc — and the producer cuts me off and says "Okay, first thing, there ain’t gonna be any Greek mythology in this movie." Making a Wonder Woman movie without any references to Greek mythology is like making a Superman movie where Superman is not the Last Son of Krypton or a Batman movie where Bruce Wayne’s parents are alive and well and residing in stately Wayne Manor.)

Since then, I’ve been steeping myself in adaptations of all stripes and have come to find that, whether one is adapting the King Jame Bible or Frogger, there are certain demands of the cinematic form that must be met and if the work you’re adapting does not meet them, they must be changed or thrown out entirely or else your movie is doomed to failure. In short, "that’s the way it is in the book" is the worst cause a writer can use to excuse a weak piece of plotting, second only to "that’s the way it happened in real life." The tools of narrative for a screenplay are completely different from those of a novel or a video game (although they are much closer with a comic book), and your first duty is to the movie you’re making, not to the integrity of the work you’re adapting. If you make a movie that’s a word-perfect adaptation of a classic novel, there’s an excellent chance your movie will stink and fail and no one will see it. If, on the other hand, you can drill down to the core of the thing you’re adapting, understand its fundamental nature and then take that, throw out everything that doesn’t work and form the rest into a brilliant cinematic narrative, it will be a big fat hit that draws a lot of attention to the original, sells a lot of books/comics/games and makes everybody happy.

Tom Wolfe has it right: he says that a novelist should never complain about the movie adaptation of his book — if it’s good, it means a lot more people will read the original, if it’s bad no one will ever blame the novelist.

Now then: the Harry Potter movies have all been gigantic hits and have stayed remarkably true to their source material — in spite of some occasional poor storytelling. They do so at JK Rowling’s insistence, not, I assure you, due to the consciences of the development executives at Warner Bros. Rowling is able to use her books’ enormous popularity as a lever to get certain assurances regarding adaptation into her studio contract, and as a result there is a sense that the Harry Potter movies, with their sprawling spectacle and generosity of spirit, form a kind of pact with the viewer — they assure the audience that they’re in good hands and the audience gladly hands over their money to be taken to the world the movie promises.

The Harry Potter movies’ fealty to their source material was echoed in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, another hugely successful, handsomely mounted, spectacular, generous, line-perfect adaptation of a well-loved classic. Lion‘s sequel, Prince Caspian, is a vastly inferior novel with severe structural flaws, and would have made a terrible, terrible movie. The movie people did a bang-up job of avoiding the novel’s flaws and producing an exciting, propulsive narrative from the wreckage of the novel, quite a bit better than the movie of Lion I thought, yet Caspian was a huge bomb. Why? Who knows.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Jason Bourne movies bear almost no relationship to their source material. They keep the titles, some of the characters’ names and the general mileu, but change practically everything else. In the books, Jason Bourne isn’t even an assassin f’r chrissake. The Bourne novels were, and still are, huge bestsellers and models of their genre, but no one would look at the movies and criticize them for being poor adaptations — they are exemplary adaptations, tremendously exciting cinematic narratives that illuminate their source material in ways the novelist could not have imagined.

Then there’s a project like Naked Lunch. Naked Lunch is an "important," ground-breaking, breathlessly experimental, utterly unfilmable novel that was, nevertheless, turned into an engrossing — if very strange — cinematic narrative. David Cronenberg knew that Naked Lunch would not make a movie and was very intelligent about his adaptation, picking a few key images and touchstones from the novel, bringing in long swaths of biographical material regarding author William S. Burroughs, and giving the thing a plot, something the novel conspicuously lacks. The resulting movie is true to the vision of the novel while resembling it not at all.

A general rule of thumb: "great novels" make poor movies, but "bad novels" often make wonderful movies. The Godfather is the gold standard of this principle: the novel is a trashy, pulpy pot-boiler of an airport bestseller, and, under the influence of Francis Coppola, becomes compulsively watchable cinematic narrative, two actually, rich in texture and character, thematically deep and resonant, achieving Shakespearean levels of plotting and intrigue. The Godfather elevates its source to divine levels, illuminating the core of American life itself, creating a deeply felt world and philosophy of corruption and sadness that encompasses American history, political life, marriage, family, fatherhood and even, yes, God, and does so with grace, solemnity and great narrative force. How Coppola managed it is beyond me — Citizen Kane is shallow and anecdotal in comparison and you can quote me on that.

No Country for Old Men is also remarkably true to its source material, and it’s worth noting that the novel is very plot-heavy for Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy spends very little time on his characters’ thoughts, he is content to describe their actions. Movies thrive on plot and action and lose momentum quickly when it comes to inner life. In a novel, characters think about stuff all the time and that’s perfectly acceptable, but try to put that on a movie screen and viewers will know its a crappy movie even from the poster — they have a sixth sense about these things. Similarly, a play is an excellent forum for an exchange of ideas, but a movie must overflow with incident, and having your characters discuss ideas while engaged in a car chase or gunfight will not suffice. I’ve said this elsewhere but I’ll repeat it here: novels are good for investigating psychology, plays are good for examining ideas and movies are good for showing large metal objects hurtling through the air. That is, movies are about action, observable physical behavior — the building explodes, the cars zoom down the street, the boy kisses the girl, the attractive couple dance. You wouldn’t put a dance sequence in a novel and you shouldn’t put a character thinking on screen.

Many troublesome novels come across my desk for consideration to adapt, and I’ve changed in the past ten years from the dutiful writer taking care to preserve a fellow writer’s work to the Hollywood butcher who looks at the original as, literally, a piece of material. Think of the screenwriter as a dress designer. He is given a piece of material and is asked to form it into a specific kind of dress. The dress has to fit a specific woman, the woman being the movie screen. (The "kind of dress" is the genre: one does not design an evening gown for a day at the beach.) The screenwriter can’t worry about being "true to the material," he has to be true to the woman for whom the dress is intended, nothing else matters, if the dress looks bad on the woman it doesn’t matter how nice the material is. If he leaves in a few extra yards of material, the dress will bunch unattractively, if there is not quite enough material there to cover the woman, he must create more material himself or the woman will look ridiculous, if he covers the dress with clumsy patches and sloppy stitching, the dress will fail and no one will care about the integrity of the material.

The key is to get to the root of the source, the source of the source as it were.  Stories take on all kinds of different forms but they all spring from the same source and follow elemental principles of character and plot and theme and so on.  When the screenwriter understands the underlying structure of the source material, the cinematic aspects of the story shine out amid the novelistic prose like Hansel’s white pebbles in the forest moonlight and he can begin to re-invent the story as a cinematic narrative.  We can easily see what a novel "says," what the screenwriter needs to figure out is what it would say if it were a movie.


81 Responses to “Screenwriting 101: adaptations”
  1. mcbrennan says:

    …second only to “that’s the way it happened in real life.”

    hey! my weak plotting depends on that! aw, man.

    *opens final draft, cuts 35 more pages*

    • swan_tower says:

      “that’s the way it happened in real life.”

      My answer to this is generally not to change what happened, but to find some way to make the real-life event make sense, however irrational it was in reality.

      Which does occasionally produce monster headaches.

  2. perich says:

    a Superman movie where Superman is not the Last Son of Krypton or a Batman movie where Bruce Wayne’s parents are alive and well and residing in stately Wayne Manor

    Not the same kettle of fish at all, but there were two remarkably successful TV series where neither of those issues ever came up.

    • Anonymous says:

      Fair enough re:WW. My point was more that there are ways around any “essential” part of backstory.

    • Todd says:

      But Superman, on that TV show, was always described as a “strange being from another planet,” they didn’t call him “a strong guy in a blue suit,” which was essentially what the WW movie people wanted to do — at least during my time on the project.

  3. Todd says:

    The demands of television are also different from the demands of cinema. Television demands stasis, a kind of narrative standstill where there is always plot but little drama. Cinema demands that characters come from one place and go to another, that they change in the course of the narrative.

  4. robjmiller says:

    Harry waah?

    I think you are being far too generous with the Harry Potter films. They don’t really stay true to the books, they simply flitter around and lightly touch a few major plot points so they can get to a big climactic end scene, and throw in a couple big action scenes in the middle (basically their version of a pod race). The films end up feeling empty, like you watched a bunch of cool effects with good actors (I’d watch a lawn bowling tournament if it had Gary Oldman, David Thewlis and Alan Rickman) while nothing really develops. Originally, Rowling wanted Terry Gilliam to direct the films, but due to his reputation he was rejected. I can’t imagine what that would have been like, but I sure wish it had happened.

    However, I absolutely agree with you on Naked Lunch. Some of Cronenberg’s best work.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Harry waah?

      I’ve never read the Harry Potter books so I can’t speak to that. I do know that if the studio had had its way, the movies would be very, very different.

      • robjmiller says:

        Re: Harry waah?

        What did the studio want to do? At least for the first film, I can’t see how a studio could want anything more than a John Hughes film written and directed directly for a young audience (with a ton of repetition of anything important so they didn’t lose the 5 year olds). It followed the same plot of every classic fantasy where a normal person is suddenly dropped into crazy magic land, and followed that up with a lot of kid friendly “oooh look at the sparkly magic.”

        The sequels don’t really fit with that though, with more of a focus on Harry’s teen emo-drama (this, at least, was heavily a part of the books) interspersed with action and danger. I could understand if the studios wanted to keep the same light tone of the first film.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Harry waah?

          To start with, the studio wanted to make Harry an active protagonist instead of a cipher who gets led around by his nose and shown everything.

          • rennameeks says:

            Re: Harry waah?

            Yes, yes, and more yes. Harry is a VERY passive protagonist in the first three books and doesn’t start coming out of it until the fourth. Of course, if this were changed in any of the films, then Harry would not go through the changes that he went through from the first story to the seventh. But what studio is going to care about the overall product?

            Depending on which film/book you’re looking at, the quality of the adaptation varies wildly (which is amusing, since it IS the same writer adapting them all). This goes back to the point that you made about source material quality. Chamber of Secrets (book 2) is overall the weakest storyline of all seven books, but translates into a movie okay because it’s a more visual story. Order of the Phoenix (book 5) is heavily overbloated in book form, with all sorts of side stories that don’t forward the plot, but show a lot about the characters. The film chops it down to basics and actually gets to the core messages of that particular book. Whether or not that’s an improvement is subjective, I guess, but I think it is, at least for a movie. There’s also a nice cut in Goblet of Fire (book 4) where the movie explores a shortcut in the plot that was brought up as a possibility in the book (Harry actually goes to a character for help instead of getting saved at the last minute by a different character).

            The interesting thing about the fourth and fifth films is that there are a LOT of visuals from the books that are solid, but which got cut due to time constraints. Much more interesting to study those adaptations than the earlier ones, IMO.

            • Todd says:

              Re: Harry waah?

              In general, I think the Harry Potter movies are getting better as they go along — I thought Phoenix was just great and I’ve never read any of the books.

              • rennameeks says:

                Re: Harry waah?

                The books get better as they go along too. Maybe not structurally (like Phoenix), but the characters get richer, so the storylines do as well. They’re worth a read, if you get the time.

          • greyaenigma says:

            Re: Harry waah?

            In that case, it could indeed have been the studio responsible for the cuts that annoyed me most — how both Ron and Hermione helped solved the solution in the end of the first movie. I couldn’t help feeling Hermione’s help was cut out of a sense of anti-intellectualism and possibly a certain amount of chauvanism. All in the name of making Harry a more central hero, I’m sure.

        • Re: Harry waah?

          One big thing I’ve read about was the desire to Amercanize it by setting it in the USA and/or having Harry be a Yank.

  5. laminator_x says:

    My favorite example of an inexplicably good adaptation is The Natural. The book was mediocre at best, but the movie somehow crossed the murky and trecherous border from kitch to mythology. It succeeded to the such a degree that I’m actually getting a little misty just typing this.

  6. planettom says:

    Bourne novels: Eric Van Lustbader has been writing continuations of the Bourne series, THE BOURNE LEGACY (2005),

    I listened to LEGACY and BETRAYAL as book-on-CDs from the library.

    It’s funny; in the first one (LEGACY) he tries to keep to the book continuity, at least somewhat, Bourne/Webb is a pretty old college professor, has a past in Vietnam, etc.

    In the second one he wrote, BOURNE BETRAYAL, Bourne seems like a much younger guy, there’s no mention of events from Vietnam and the 1970s… seems to be an attempt to make a book that, if Matt Damon so chose, he could start with it as a basis for a 4th Bourne movie.

    • curt_holman says:


      “No one would look at the [Bourne] movies and criticize them for being poor adaptations — they are exemplary adaptations, tremendously exciting cinematic narratives that illuminate their source material in ways the novelist could not have imagined.”

      I’m not sure I agree with this, although I might be having trouble with the way we’re using “adaptation” on a semantic level.

      At the first of over-simplification, it’s like your reasoning is going:
      1. ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ directed by Paul Greengrass is adapted from a book by Robert Ludlum.
      2. ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ is a tremendously exciting cinematic narrative.
      3. Ergo, ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ is an exemplary adaptation.

      I haven’t read ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ so I can’t judge it, but I have read ‘Identity’ & ‘Supremacy.’ I remember the books as being too long and convoluted to lend themselves to a ‘beat-by-beat’ screen adaptation along the lines of ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.’ On the other hand, 20 years after reading them, I remember their essential plot twists very well, and how they hinge on the identity of “Jason Bourne” — and they seem like they’d be intriguing and perfectly cinematic. (‘Identity’ is like a spin on the mistaken identity question in ‘North by Northwest.’)

      I’m not nearly as much of a fan of Liman’s ‘Identity’ as I am of Greengrass’s ‘Legacy’ and ‘Ultimatum,’ and while they’re great action/chase/espionage movies, I don’t feel like they accomplish as much that’s interesting or original on the character level, compared to the books. Not to give too much credit to the director, but I think Greengrass raises the level of the film more than, say, a Tony Scott would with the same script. They’re almost like really good episodes of The Fugitive.

      So, if it’s a good movie based on an original work, does that automatically make it a good adaptation? ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ comes to mind, which is a terrific James Bond movie but has nothing to do with the source material except for the title. (The Daniel Craig ‘Casino Royale,’ on the other hand, illuminates the source material in really interesting ways.)

      Can a bad adaptation be a good movie?

  7. stormwyvern says:

    As with most things, I think adaptation is a balancing act. Yes, your ultimate task is to make a good movie or a good dress, but if you don’t have a basic understanding of what the material you are working with is in either case, you are going to end up with a wreck of a final product. You can try all you want to make a nice dress for a casual day at the beach, but if your material is better suited to a heavy winter coat, you’re just not going to get very far.

    In addition to finding the essential core of the work you’re adapting and remaining true to that, I think it’s important to pick your battles. There are very good and legitimate reasons to alter or outright cut a particular part of a work. I may have mentioned before that I didn’t really have too much of a problem with the scene where Hermione figures out the potion puzzle in the first Harry Potter book being cut from the movie, as I realize that logic problems do not usually make for enthralling cinema. The first Spider-Man film made some changes, with the organic webshooters probably being the most debated. I can even see why some people were upset that they weren’t mechanical, as it does represent an aspect of who Peter is. But the vast majority of people got over it, due largely to the fact that the movie stayed fiercely true to the character in so many other ways. The problem comes when filmmakers alter the source material unnecessarily, either “just because” or to fit some idea of what will make the film an easier or more effective sell to audiences. I think this is the problem that fans of the original book had with “Eragon.” When I was attending a panel at ComicCon on “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (which I would argue was at least expanded upon from the original book), the filmmakers told us about an earlier planned film version which would have made the Pevensie kids Americans fleeing the San Francisco earthquakes of 1989 and replaced Yurkish delight with pizza and hot dogs. This was met with the intended reaction of horro on the part of the audience. I don’t think such an adaptation would have been a certain deal killer as long as the filmmakers remained true to the essentials of the story. But it’s an unnecessary change. You’re pissing off the built-in fanbase for no reason other than a bunch of execs likely deciding that no one wants to watch a movie about a bunch of British kids. (I suspect that the bullet that “Narnia” dodged ended up hitting “The Dark Is Rising,” though I have not seen the film to confirm my hypothesis.)

    A related question: how do you think the responsibilities change – if at all – when you’re adapting actual events? Right now I can only think of films that are adapted from books based on true events (“Schindler’s List” and “A Beautiful Mind,” to name two) but does it make any difference? Certainly the filmmakers are still ultimately charged with turning out a good movie, but is there also a limit to the amount of artistic license you can take?

    • Todd says:

      “You can try all you want to make a nice dress for a casual day at the beach, but if your material is better suited to a heavy winter coat, you’re just not going to get very far.”

      Depends I guess on the talent of your tailor.

      Photobucket Image Hosting

    • Todd says:

      As to your related question, in my view the writer’s responsibility does not change when adapting actual events. It’s nice when a story comes along that “tells itself” and needs little embellishment, compression or streamlining to make it more compelling, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head — All the President’s Men, perhaps. Spartacus tells a “true story” in a compelling fashion, but is laughably stupid from a historical viewpoint, compressing 200 years or so of Roman history into a time period of a few months. If we took Spartacus as a model of historical fiction and applied it to our own times, we would have a movie about Martin Luther King fighting the injustice of slavery against King George III and teaming up with Barack Obama to throw tea into Boston Harbor and getting away in their space cruiser.

      This rule applies doubly so when dealing with autobiography.

  8. johnnycrulez says:

    I think comic book movies often fail because people fail to look past the similarities between comics and cinema. At first glace a comic book looks like a storyboard, but really comics have their own set of strengths and weaknesses that are not present in film, so if you use a comic book as a storyboard the movie will suffer.

    • Todd says:

      And yet, Sin City is one of my favorite movies of the decade, and it couldn’t possibly be more faithful.

      • Is it one of your favourite screenplays of the decade too? Does it work?

        I really disliked it, but only saw it the once in the theatre and maybe was a little too invested in it as a comics adaptation.

        • johnnycrulez says:

          With Sin City in mind:

          As an addendum, there are plenty of comic book writers out there with the same problems and, while they have good books sometimes, they fail to utilize the real strengths of the medium by treating a comic book like a movie storyboard. When you make these comics into movies it will feel very natural. Sin City is a good movie because the comic book feels like it is designed to be a good movie, rather than taking advantage of what it could be doing as a comic. I like Frank Miller, but this is exactly why I don’t hold his books in the same light as, say, Moore or Ellis or Gaiman’s books.

          The strength of comics is that they are able to take some of the best qualities of a variety of other mediums, including painting and literature and film, and combine them into one.

          • I think I just found it weird – he creates this really stylized interpretation of the language of noir, and then they make a film that’s another generation removed, even more stylized and overblown, although it’s back in the original medium. It’s based on something that was based on something that was based on something, without necessarily looking back at the earlier somethings for reference. I guess that’s the culture we live in, though.

            • Todd says:

              I suppose for a noir purist Sin City must seem a little weird, but I found it to be a bracing, intoxicating, thrilling, visionary piece of American culture.

              • ajr says:

                I’m a noir purist and I loved Sin City. I describe it as being a ‘hypernoir’, as it takes all the typical noir tropes and slams them to their extremes. Shades of grey? Oh no. There is only BLACK and WHITE! And it is glorious.

                Those I know who disliked it (in many cases, strongly) cite what they perceive as Frank Miller’s misogyny as their main objection to it.

                • Oh, I loathed every little bit of it – the stupid storylines, the ridiculous characters, the lack of excitement and emotional involvement with these cyphers… But then Rodriguez is really bad at storytelling, and Frank Miller turns out to be no better where film is concerned.

                  And 300 didn’t work at all for me (apart from the appalingly fascist message) because of the way it stayed so faithful to the original work. So they manage to get exactly the same image on the screen as Miller drew in the comic – so what?

          • Anonymous says:

            Odd… I definitely think most Sin City stuff is inherently comic-bookier than a lot of comics by Ellis and Gaiman. It seems that much of Miller’s thinking begins with his drawing approach, which is probably why an absolutely faithful movie adaptation of his work is impossible, despite how hard everyone has been trying recently.

        • Todd says:

          Well, Sin City is, of course, an anthology movie, with three different stories being told, but yeah, I liked the screenplay, I thought it worked beautifully. Certainly the strongest screenplay Robert Rodriguez ever worked from.

          • The screenplay’s exacting faithfulness to the book does point up some things that work better when you are turning a page than on film – particularly the use of repeated key words (a trick Miller lifted from Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing” run).
            Seriously, C. Owen, stop saying “valkyrie”.

  9. buzzmo says:

    First: The Wonder Woman anecdote makes me sad.

    Second: You *liked* Disney’s adaptation of TLTWATW?

    • Todd says:

      I wouldn’t go that far — I will say it’s successful, and faithful, but I found it rather a trudge. But I would say the same thing about Fellowship of the Ring.

  10. cassiacat says:

    Ok, I know nothing about filmmaking, but I can at least guess that the reason Prince Caspian didn’t do so well is because people didn’t like the book and therefore weren’t interested in seeing the movie. At least, that’s why I skipped out on it.

    • I didn’t go see Caspian because I was tired of being force-fed ham-handed Christian messages by Walden Media.

      sad face

      • Todd says:

        If you’ve got a beef with Walden in general about their content, Caspian isn’t going to change your mind, but it contains shockingly little Christian content.

      • swan_tower says:

        Ditto what Todd said; the film actually passes up opportunities to beat you with the Christianity stick. (Even in some places where the book itself does so.)

    • mimitabu says:

      i’m fairly sure a large number of people saw the first one because they remembered the book from their youth, and then didn’t care about the second one because it had nothing to do with their youth. i’ve never read caspian, and have only met one person who has.

      i only saw half of tltwatw (before falling asleep), but i’m actually more interested in caspian. i always liked the first book and wanted to move on into the series, but caspian the book was such a piece of shit i never finished it. just as i rarely hear of people who actually have read that book, i’ve not heard of anyone disappointed with the movie caspian.

      • curt_holman says:


        I saw Prince Caspian the week it opened, and later in the summer read the book (along with Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair) to my 5 year-old daughter. Somehow, despite being a sci-fi/fantasy nut, I never read the Narnia books when I was young.

        I thought the first Adamson Narnia film was okay (but I had trouble processing a fantasy setting that combines both sprawling Tolkein-style battle scenes and presents from Santa Claus), and felt that it had better acting, better villains and more of a “sense of wonder” than Prince Caspian. Caspian definitely overcomes the book’s narrative problems, but felt to me more like a joyless slog, although I liked Peter Dinklage.

        The first Narnia movie opened in December and made $291 million (U.S.), the second opened in May and made about $141 million — less than half of the other.

        For what it’s worth, I think The Silver Chair could make an interesting film, but I don’t think the franchise will get that far.

        • dougo says:

          Re: Caspian

          I guess that means The Magician’s Nephew has no hope of being made. It was my favorite, probably because I was told to read it first because of the stupid “chronological order” thing.

  11. misterseth says:

    Another food example of a novel being modified and adapted for the screen while retaining the core story would be the Wizard of Oz. For instance, in the original book, Dorothy’s trip to Oz was an actual journey, rather than a dream. Most parts were omitted from the script, including the main characters fighting various creatures, (the Cowardly lion in particular had a chapter where he lopped the head off a giant spider), and most of the journey itself. It clearly doesn’t change the context of the story (although if one reads the Oz series, there are references to some of these details that are not included in the film)

    • Todd says:

      Oz is one of the great adaptations of all time and one that most people tend to take utterly for granted. I will get to that little gem soon.

  12. Wonderful post. I’ve had the same thoughts on just about every adaptation you bring up. Funny thing about Harry Potter: I went to see the last movie (Order of the Phoenix) in theaters with my girlfriend and another couple, all three of them being hugely obsessed with the book series. (I’m a fan, just not avid.) Afterward, in that always-revealing post-coital group appraisal session, that couple would not stop griping about “all” the changes the movie made to the source material. Which astounded me, as the movie I just saw was an incredibly faithful adaptation that delivered on the core themes of book, the core of the characters, and was in my opinion far and away the best outing the series had seen in theaters.

    But no. The movie they’d just seen was an insulting piece of garbage guilty of raping the source material, because the wizard duels were different than they imagined. No pleasing some fans.

    Are the Bourne novels really considered that highly? I picked one up, being a fan of the movies, and couldn’t take it seriously. After looking through a few others in the series, I came away thinking they were themselves prime examples of that pulpy trashy airport bestseller type of novel.

    What are your thoughts on Fight Club? To me it still stands as maybe the all-time greatest one-two punch of a great novel to read and a great movie to watch. And the fact the ending in the movie has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the ending in the novel, and the implications of that ending, demonstrate that exact kind of deft handling and brave risk-taking that’s too often sorely missed in other adaptations.

    • johnnycrulez says:

      Clockwork Orange, too. By basing the ending on the American version of the book rather than the original the theme is completely different, but I’d put it even higher than Fight Club on my “one-two punch of a great novel to read and a great movie to watch” list.

      • Good point, forgot about that one. I still rank Fight Club higher, but probably only because it’s been longer since I’ve read or seen Clockwork. And have mancrushes on Brad Pitt, Ed Norton and Chuck Palahniuk.

      • Todd says:

        Fight Club is a movie that didn’t work in theaters but which is immensely rewarding on DVD, partly because it is supremely faithful to its source material. The shocking thing about the ending is that it actually has more balls than the original, something would not think possible with a Chuck Palahniuk adaptation.

        • yetra says:

          Hey, speak for yourself! Fight Club worked fantastically for me in the theater. Saw it at the Coronet in SF, which used to have the biggest screen and best sound system in the bay area. I loved every moment, and after that mind-blowing ending (which just pales in comparison in any other setting I’ve ever seen it in), I floated out of the theater on an intense explosion and pixies flavored adrenaline rush, and had to prevent myself from driving like a madwoman. Started me on a lifelong love of Palahniuk’s books.

          Oh wait, you were probably talking about it not working for the masses in the theaters. Dunno what everyone else’s problem was.

          On a related note, just moment before reading your post, I was listening to an itunes: Meet the Author podcast, with Chuck Palahniuk, and Clark Gregg, the director of Choke. They actually spent a fair amount of time talking about the adaptation process. I think you’d enjoy the discussion, if you are into the whole podcast thing.

          The gist of it is, Chuck really wanted Clark to take the essence of his book and make it his own, rather than try to be faithful, which he feels would be a damn waste of making a movie.

          They spent some time talking about the Fight Club adaptation as well.

          And on an unrelated note, I await your reaction to Burn After Reading with baited breath.

          • Todd says:

            Well, un-bait your breath and, while you’re at it, abate your abatedness — it’s going to be a little while before I get to Burn After Reading.

            • yetra says:

              Breathing normally has recommenced. I’ll just be sitting over here patiently. Take your time. 🙂

              If you happened to want to drop me a bone, I’d love a hint of your reaction, when you get a chance to see it. As I left the theater last night, after having had a very different reaction than a few film commentator/reviewer people I enjoy had experienced, I couldn’t help but anticipate your write-up.

    • mimitabu says:

      harry has GREEN eyes and MESSY hair, not BLUE eyes and STRAIGHT hair!!!

  13. gdh says:

    Have you ever seen Showtime’s tv adaptation of “Dexter”? Jeff Lindsay’s novels are trashy, very poorly plotted, fail entirely as “mysteries” or “thrillers” and generally have nothing going for them apart from an intriguing main character with an excellent gimmick. The makers of the tv series ransacked the books for characters and plot threads, around which they managed to craft an immensely superior show.

  14. emeraldsedai says:

    Great post! I’m making sure my niece, who hated the Order of the Phoenix adaptation because it wasn’t true to the novel–and who, incidentally just started in the screenwriting program at Chapman–sees what you’ve written here.

    Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility strikes me as a great example of the cinematic dressmaking you’re discussing. I believe there are only two or three lines of dialog in the whole thing that come directly from the book, and yet it is a near-perfect movie version of a long, classic, thinky, talky, essentially feminine novel.

  15. swan_tower says:

    You wouldn’t put a dance sequence in a novel

    Wanna bet? I have one in my first novel, and while I’m not sure it succeeded the way I wanted it to, that won’t stop me from trying it again. You just have to put a lot of effort into figuring out how to describe movement in an evocative and non-technical fashion. It won’t work the same way it would in a movie, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work.

    I’m not bothered by changes to the source material; I’m bothered by betrayal of it. Which is, of course, a subjective matter: what I see as an excessively radical change to the foundational ideas of a story, somebody else might not think is a big deal. I like your fabric-and-dress metaphor, but it bugs me when a piece of white silk gets dyed orange because somebody decided white doesn’t “pop” enough, or pieces of wacky hawaiian-print cotton are stitched in where extra material is needed.

    How willing am I to see change? I wholeheartedly agree with you on Prince Caspian, and will furthermore say that I, Robot did a very interesting job of approaching the original ideas from a completely different angle. A faithful adaptation of the surface of those stories would have been a thunderously boring movie, and while the film we got isn’t the most stellar thing out there, it managed to bring itself back around to Asimov’s ideas just when I was least expecting it. By contrast, I couldn’t even bring myself to watch The Seeker (the movie formerly known as The Dark Is Rising), because the trailer promised such an atrocity.

    • johnnycrulez says:

      I, Robot wasn’t really an adaptation of anything, though. The book was a collection of short stories and the screenplay was fully written before they decided to name it after the book, which is when they made some changes to make it seem like an Asimov thing.

      • swan_tower says:

        Huh. That makes the points of connection I saw even more interesting, frankly. Now I’m curious to know which (if any) of them existed at the point that they decided to stitch Asimov on, and which were added in later. What you say explains why the movie comes at those ideas from a totally different dimensional plane, though.

        The fact that the book is a collection of short stories is only one of the many reasons it would adapt terribly into film. Wooden characters, talking heads, and more “As you know, Bob” than you can shake a stick at are some of the others.

        • Todd says:

          “I’m not bothered by changes to the source material; I’m bothered by betrayal of it.”

          After I wrote this entry this morning, I suddenly flashed on Tommy, the Musical, where Pete Townshend not only changed the ending of the piece but created an ending that completely contradicts the message of the original opera (such as it is). I thought Tommy, the Musical was pretty freakin’ lame so it didn’t bother me much, but sometimes the form demands what it does, for better or worse.

          • swan_tower says:

            Strangely, I can even accept a change on that level — provided I expect it. That is, if you’re creating a whole new canon (to borrow a term from comics), and you warn me up-front that’s what you’re doing, then I can take it on its own terms and decide whether I like it or not. This, for example, is how I enjoyed Troy; I knew it would be a non-mythological and stand-alone narrative, with all the changes that implies. The problem is when they pull a bait-and-switch.

            The interference of expectations is why, despite all my efforts, I could not enjoy Hauru no ungoku shiro/Howl’s Moving Castle. I adore the book, and knew it was going to be changed, so I very determinedly thought of the film by its Japanese title, hoping to program my brain into expecting a new story. But the first half of the movie was faithful enough that when it took a screeching ninety-degree turn at Wizard Suliman (who’s supposed to be a man, and also dead), it threw me off the ride. Whereas I went into I, Robot expecting — even hoping for — something very different from the book, and enjoyed myself just fine.

            But I imagine it’s hard to lure audiences into the theatre by promising “we’ve radically changed the book!”

            • Todd says:

              A good friend of mine is a director who loves The Iliad so much that he learned Greek in order to read it in its original language. When Troy came out I braced myself for his opinion and was shocked to find that he loved it, thought Brad Pitt was excellent as Achilles and thought that the movie brought the original to life in ways he could not have imagined.

              • swan_tower says:

                Achilles is much of what made the movie work for me, too. The Trojan War story poses an interesting narrative problem in picking your protagonist: Hector? He dies before the end. Agamemnon? Too much of an asshole. Priam? Doesn’t do enough. Paris? Lovestruck young idiot. (Which the movie also handled well.) You could try Odysseus, but he works better as the guy on the side watching it all go to hell. Achilles is about your only option, but then you have to navigate the problems with Achilles as a character. The thing they got right, in my opinion, was encapsulated in the exchange with the kid at the beginning. “I wouldn’t want to fight him.” “That’s why no one will remember your name.” If you can empathize with that point of view, you can use Achilles as your protagonist.

                • Agamemnon usually gets a raw deal in adaptations. It’s been awhile since I’ve read my classics, but Agamemnon wasn’t an imperialistic asshole in the original sources, he was just dragged along into the mess because his brother happened to marry Helen.

                  But I guess that just illustrates the point of making the source serve the screenplay rather than having the screenplay serve the source.

                  • swan_tower says:

                    It isn’t so much that I think he’s an imperialist as the incident with Briseis, etc. And while I know I have to read that through the lens of the period culture, it still doesn’t help Agamemnon look like a protagonist.

  16. Have you ever read Elliot & Rossio’s columns on screenwriting? Their take on adaptations is akin to yours. One thing they note is that plot is the least important thing to keep in an adaptation. It seems counterintuitive, but one of my favorite film adaptations, THE CROW, has a plot that barely resembles the original source, yet absolutely feels right. Rossio suggests that “a perfect adaptation re-creates the emotions of the reading experience in the form of a film experience” and I think he’s onto something there.

    • swan_tower says:

      “a perfect adaptation re-creates the emotions of the reading experience in the form of a film experience”

      That sums up my own attitude pretty well, though I would expand it to include a little bit more than just the emotions. (Philosophical ideas, for example.)

    • Todd says:

      Thank you for the link to Ted and Terry’s column. Listen to them people, they know what they’re talking about.

      • My pleasure. The rest of the site and their other columns are equally worthwhile. (If you can, read their scripts. Their original GODZILLA screenplay is both an exercise in good storytelling and a cautionary tale about how good screenplays go bad.)

        • Todd says:

          I haven’t read their Godzilla, but I did have the good fortune to have them tell me about it face to face. The Mask of Zorro is one of the most perfectly realized scripts I’ve ever seen produced.

          • That’s awesome.

            Zorro is also one of the apparently few films that benefited from executive input. (IIRC, Spielberg realized that the revelation of Elena as Diego’s daughter was too “Rube Goldberg” as it was originally written and helped tighten it up.)

            One bit of revealed screencraft that stuck with me is they made sure that, in the beginning scene, Diego/Zorro was always smiling. The idea is that then the audience would exult along with the character.

  17. samedietc says:

    I feel absurdly honored to have gotten this post. But then again, I’ve been pointing out people’s lack of evidence on Newsbusters all day, so I’m honored that nobody is trying to refute my arguments by calling me a Marxist.

    It is curious, as you point out, that some adaptations create with the viewer a sense of contract before seeing the films. Harry Potter would be an excellent case: nobody going in to see the movie, I’d warrant, thought they were going to see an interesting take on HP–they were going to see the real thing, just filmed. (Even the fonts used for the titles are the same as the covers of the book, iirc.)

    (I want to say something here about how it was aimed towards kids, and how kids of a certain age like repetition, but in this case it might have just been as a phenomenon it created a certain inertial pull–that is, older kids, who aren’t so into exact repetition, had already had three or four books-worth of these characters, and had their minds set on the books. Also, of course, the recency of these books probably make fidelity more important than with older books, like Narnia or Oz.)

    [This might be an empty comment, but for some reason it would feel churlish not to acknowledge that you took the time to craft an excellent answer to my question.]

  18. greyaenigma says:


    Again, too many comments to read fully.

    I re-read Prince Caspian shortly before I was the movie (meant to write my own post about it, failed). At first I was annoyed by the changes, but I realized even while watching that, in general, they made it a better movie. (Omitting the Greek mythology I think mostly made it more palatable to a modern Christian audience.)

    I suspect the reason why it flopped is that there were far fewer fans of the series than there were of The Lion The Witch, and the Wardrobe, since that itself has been adapted so many times. I’ve been hoping to see some of the other adaptations, especially Dawn Treader, but I fear the series will collapse before fully getting off the ground, much like His Dark Materials.

  19. de_course says:

    On my list…

    Also on my list of inexplicably good adaptations is “The Devil Wears Prada”. The book was charming in a chick-lit kind of way, but apart from the protagonist, the characterisations were cardboard. Oh, and the structure was crap, too. Good movie, though.

    I’m surprised nobody mentioned “Adaptation”. Or is that too obvious?

    One other genre which is becoming increasingly important these days is Broadway/West End musicals. Adapting these for the screen is much harder than many studios might think. Good adaptations: “My Fair Lady”, “Chicago”. Bad adaptations: “Paint Your Wagon” (arguably the worst adaptation of a Broadway musical ever), “Evita”.

  20. cheshyre says:

    In college, a language professor once quoted the (acknowledgedly sexist) adage that “translations are like women: beautiful ones are rarely faithful, and faithful ones rarely beautiful.”

    For a long time, I’ve also thought that was a useful description of movie adaptations of books.

    Sure, there are exceptions — Princess Bride, GWTW, and Holes come to mind — but most movie adaptations are either faithful but ugly (Postman) or beautiful movies but faithless to the source (Wizard of Oz).

    What do you think?

  21. dougo says:

    I really want there to be a Frogger movie now!

    I’m with you in theory: a film only needs to capture the “fundamental nature” of its source material. But so very few films really do this. I hate how the Lord of the Rings movies butchered the books, for instance (though I’m still holding out hope that the Extended Editions will somehow be better—will sit down for a marathon viewing one of these days). On the other hand, some source material deserves to have its fundamental nature ignored, which I learned after seeing the awful TV miniseries version of The Shining. Or maybe Kubrick’s version simply doesn’t count as an adaptation, more of a “remix” to suit his own aims, which is fine by me. But Peter Jackson’s LOTR was overhyped as being incredibly faithful, and it was not, to an insulting degree. (Dwarf tossing? Seriously?) I would rather see a “retelling” of the story in a totally different setting, like is done with Shakespeare.