Film Adaptations: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly


If you’ve read a dystopian or fantasy young adult (YA) novel in the past ten years or so, you’ve probably also gone to the movies to see that novel adapted for the big screen. There are countless examples: “The Maze Runner”, “The Hunger Games”, “Divergent”, “Harry Potter” (and that’s just YA’s thing). While the trend has apparently grown more popular in recent years, the novel’s adaptation to a feature film is far from new. In fact, the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay has been around since the Oscars premiered in 1929.

Despite the frequency, however, of films born out of novels (or any other source material, for that matter), the craft is still far from being mastered. Adaptations are some of the riskiest waters a film director can find themselves in, mostly due to said source’s pre-existing fan base. We all have this friend who won’t let us forget that they read Marvel comics, and that, “In the comics [insert character name here] Actually acts [insert characteristic different from the movie portrayal here], “Or the friend who will always insist on saying,” The book was better, “as if there had never been a film objectively better than his book. I hope that Denis Villeneuve’s next “Dune” will deviate from this trend, but I digress.

The point is, movies from other sources face the unique risk / reward analysis associated with an existing fan base. If fans like the project, it’s fantastic – you’ll bring it back to the box office and have an instant classic on your reel – but that’s rarely the result. Just look at the fan base response to any “Star Wars” movie at the time of its release, excluding the original trilogy (why “Star Wars” fans hate “Star Wars” anymore that any other group of people is a complicated story for another day no matter how badly I want to get into it). I want to explore what makes a movie adaptation “good”, whatever that means when we talk about film.


The gold standard for book-to-movie adaptations, I would say, is Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”. I had managed to never see the movies until early 2020, when the coronavirus shutdown began. I had just finished reading the books for the first time, and thought it would be good for me to watch the movies because everyone says they are so great, what they are. Peter Jackson’s portrayal of Middle-earth and the events of JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, while not fully fitting the novels, respects the author’s vision and even enhances areas where the age of the books may be somewhat inaccessible to modern readers. The proof is in the pudding; “The Return of the King” is one of the most Oscar-winning films of all time (tied for 11 Oscars with “Titanic” and “Ben Hur”).

The lesson we can learn from “The Lord of the Rings” is that an adaptation is not, should not be, a one-to-one replica of the source material. Jackson took liberties with Tolkien’s work; it added things in some places and left things out of the original, but the end product is something that looks and, more importantly, feels in keeping with the vision of Middle-earth and Tolkien’s work. Intent and tone are more important than the minute, and generally unimportant detail that studios fear will upend an existing fan base. Fans are more than likely to forgive the plot changes when the movie given to them honors its source material and presents it in a refreshing, yet honest way.

The bad

Peter Jackson, however, doesn’t always win 11 Oscars for his work on Middle-earth. The “The Hobbit” movie trilogy, which should already be a red flag, is a great case study on how not make an adaptation.

For starters, making “The Hobbit” was an administrative nightmare. If you want all the details, I highly encourage you to check out Lindsay Ellis’ video essay series on YouTube, but I’ll give you the basic version. The New Zealand government had to negotiate with Warner Bros. legislation affecting the power of actors and performers unions after the production company planned to abandon the country as the location for the filming of the “The Hobbit” trilogy. In the end, New Zealand gave more power to production companies, allowing them to exploit actors and performers in New Zealand, so Warner Bros. would continue to allow New Zealand to be their Middle-earth.

It has nothing to do with the quality of the movies (or does it? Again, I would highly recommend Lindsay Ellis’ essay), but that was only part of the equation. Before Peter Jackson took the director’s chair, Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Shape of Water”) had to make two “Hobbit” films until he left the project in May 2010. After that, Jackson was commissioned by Warner Bros. with the filming of a trilogy, not just two films, which makes no sense. “The Hobbit” is a book, and relatively short. The paperback is only 305 pages long, making it the rough equivalent of a “Lord of the Rings” book, which I would say is not enough to warrant three films that are eight hours in total. and 53 minutes.

“The Hobbit” showed us what can easily go wrong with adaptations: studio involvement, staff turnover and, most importantly, not honoring the source material. Not only Warner Bros. stretched a book into three films, but Peter Jackson, who is credited as a screenwriter as well as a director, made some significant changes to the original “Hobbit” story that ended up being of little use. . I won’t go into details here to avoid spoilers (although I wouldn’t recommend you watch these movies anyway), but I again invite you to dive into Ellis’ in-depth analysis if you’ve already. saw the movies.

To be fair, the “The Hobbit” movie franchise was at a disadvantage from the start. Tonally speaking, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” are vastly different. While “The Lord of the Rings” is an epic adventure with big goals and lofty visions, “The Hobbit” is much more relaxed. Each chapter is very episodic, and the end product is something that would be more appropriate for a younger audience, not an older audience that gravitates to “The Lord of the Rings”. In this way, “The Hobbit” does not serve as a consistent prequel to “Lord of the Rings” in the film. The filmmakers had to find a way to adapt this admittedly children’s book into something that adult fans of The Lord of the Rings film series will spend money on. Plus, “The Hobbit” was never a prequel to begin with. It was released by Tolkien long before “The Lord of the Rings,” which adds another complication to the way the filmmakers adapt the source material into something fundamentally different from its original concept.

The ugly one

This is where I want to talk about the absolute monstrosities of film adaptations. I’ll start with the “Percy Jackson” movie franchise… need I say more? The “Percy Jackson” films were based on Rick Riordan’s five-book series. The books are highly regarded by many, myself included, so when the first film, “The Lightning Thief” was due out in February 2010, the world rejoiced. That is, until they see the movie.

Instead of being greeted by the magic and self-awareness of Riordan’s world, fans were instead confronted with the creative vision of director Chris Columbus (“Home Alone”, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) : Awkward writing, awkward world-building, and intrigue this makes it clear that none of the writers have read the source material, let alone the entire series. “The Lightning Thief” was a real disappointment, and its sequel, “The Sea of ​​Monsters”, only made matters worse.

“Sea of ​​Monsters” has taken such liberties with the plot of the novel and the series “Percy Jackson”, I don’t even know where to start. Guess the most heinous crime is the finale, where the movie decides to skip two books and have the final battle of the book series right there. Not only did this not honor the source material, it completely ignored it, which ultimately was the downfall of the “Percy Jackson” movie saga. Instead of following the vision and intention of the book series, the filmmakers decided to go their own way, which, while admirable, did not pay off. Instead of giving the series a good rhythm, or even being exposed to the source material, the filmmakers took a general concept and used it, making two sloppy and borderline-impossible-to-watch films.

Another contender, if not the winner, of the Ugliest film adaptation is M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender” (“The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable”). A different kind of adaptation, but still quite awful. I can’t even talk about it without my blood pressure skyrocketing. Based on the Nickelodeon animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Shyamalan’s film takes everything great about the source material and eliminates it altogether. Endearing characters? Their names are not even pronounced correctly. Building a fluid and well-paced world? Try random storytelling episodes (which often contradict each other). Fast-paced action scenes that demonstrate the complexity of the world’s magical system? It’s more like watching kindergarten kids throw dirt at each other during recess.

“The Last Airbender” commits all the sins a film adaptation can commit: bad acting, bad writing, poorly selected changes to the source material, cringe-worthy special effects. I really recommend that no one watch this movie. It’s not one of those ‘bad-it’s-good’ kinds of movies; it’s just bad. I would have recommends the Nickelodeon animated series, though, which you can stream on Netflix right now. It’s a fantastic show that has aged gracefully. The series has the opposite effect on me as a movie, in that I can’t talk about it without rambling on over and over again about what makes it so perfect, so do yourself a favor and check it out.

The tricky part of adapting is figuring out what to keep and what to get rid of, especially when you’re working with something as deep and expansive as a novel. The writing lends itself to being more holistic, as writers have time to explore all avenues – a luxury filmmaker can’t afford (unless you’re as forgiving as Zack Snyder). An audience cannot be expected to be seated in a theater, or on its sofas, for that matter, for the time it takes to visually represent every facet of a novel and, therefore, to large sections should be cut; It’s inevitable.

Adaptation is not about reproducing a classic novel, series or movie, it’s exactly what is called: adaptation. Adapt what was in something that is, and the best, arguably the most logical, way to go about it is to honor the intention and vision of the original creator. If their art is loved, chances are they knew what they were doing in the first place.

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