How faithful do book-to-movie adaptations have to be?
Last week at Comic-Con, we saw the first 30 minutes of burn tests, and there were some notable differences from the book. During the Q&A, director Wes Ball made some interesting comments about why the changes were necessary, and it got us thinking, just how much screen adaptations of the books really need to be. to be faithful?
Related: James Dashner and Wes Ball chat burn tests
Of course, it’s exciting when our favorite books are made into movies or television. Visuals are no longer just in our imaginations, we can actually see what was envisioned in our heads. But when these on-screen adaptations stray from what was on the page, we get angry, upset, and disappointed. Suddenly this magical experience is tarnished because it does not correspond to what we expected. But is it fair that book readers blame the filmmakers? Or is it our fault for not being open-minded?
Arguably the biggest cause of disappointment stems from book readers’ misconception about which “pages” are suitable. It’s true that the screen version is inspired by a book, but between a novel and what is seen on screen, there is another set of pages: a screenplay. A movie can’t be made by just taking the book and creating something out of it. “And that’s the thing, they’re two very separate things,” Wes Ball said during a Q&A last week. A book and a film are not the same medium, “they kind of require different things, fundamentally, cinematographically”. It is essential. Book readers, however much they like the book, should remember that just because it works in a novel doesn’t mean it works in the movies.
Take The maze Runner. The Grievers were completely different from what was depicted in the book. In the book, spikes protrude from a body that “looked like a gigantic slug, sparsely covered with hair and glistening with drool, pulsating grotesquely as it breathed. It had no distinct head or tail…” description isn’t entirely accurate, allowing readers to imagine all sorts of terrifying variations, but what most people are probably imagining is a big, slimy blob with pointy things sticking out.
The film version takes a different route, with the Grievers resembling semi-mechanical giant spiders. Different from the source material, but still effective. Terror and menace wouldn’t have been so threatening if you looked at a giant blob, instead of reading about it.
“As a movie, we need that kind of intensity and that kind of excitement. You need that for a cinematic experience,” Ball says. These “exciting” changes are probably the most common in movie adaptations. book to screen Season 4 of game of thrones had an entire Craster’s Keep subplot that was original for the show, and it left viewers polarized over its necessity and entertainment value.
But just because it wasn’t in the books doesn’t automatically mean it wasn’t necessary. There were a lot of complaints that Bran’s story was boring, so it was an attempt to liven it up. No one acted out of character, and the main points of Bran’s story still transpired. A deviation in the middle did not change anything. It just added tension and excitement.
So if we agree that making changes to fit a cinematic experience is okay, then that begs the question, how far can those changes go before they ruin the source material? As Ball said, “We work with the same ingredients, but we have a slightly different recipe.” Presumably, those “same ingredients” include things like main plot points and character authenticity.
If those two things are reflected in the on-screen portrayal, book fans should have no problem. No, there were no scenes between President Snow and Seneca Crane in The hunger Games book, but there’s no reason to think that what was shown in the movie couldn’t have happened. Snow was very much in character, and those scenes didn’t change the outcome of either story.
When those out-of-character moments happen, of course, book fans are justified in being angry about it, especially when it serves up an unnecessary plot point (a certain Jaime/Cersei moment comes to mind of game of thrones season 4), or no plot at all (“DID YOU PUT YOUR NAME IN THE GOBBLE OF FIRE!”). But what happens when the general public likes what they see, despite incredible differences from the book? Does mass appreciation excuse mass deviation?
Let’s start with the Lord of the Rings. Although frequently considered three of the best films ever made, many changes have been made to the books. The omissions are understandable, a book has too much content to fit into a single movie (example: Tom Bombadil and the whole Council of Elrond scene would have disrupted the pacing), but it goes even further. The characters are significantly changed (Faramir), and there are even some thematic differences (the Ents’ motivation to join the war).
Presumably most of the changes are accepted without (much) complaint because the movies themselves were phenomenal. As a standalone medium, the way they were made worked. As a book adaptation, there were certainly big differences, but the main plot and the essence of the story were true.
Then, we have World War Z. Both the movie and the book are viewed positively, but that’s really where the comparisons end. The general idea of a zombie war was the same, but the structure, story, and cleverness were dropped for a typical action movie. Except the movie was well received, so does it matter if it’s nothing like the book? If the general public enjoyed what they saw, does it matter what the minority (ie book readers) think?
Some would say no. If the end result works, who cares what was different? Others will say that’s the case, that a faithful adaptation with the same “ingredients” had the makings of a great movie, and we’re now deprived of it because an entirely different story claimed the rights, to use only the name.
The extent to which edits are acceptable is, of course, subjective, but that doesn’t mean you should find fault with every edit. The next time you watch a screen adaptation of a book you enjoyed, take a note from Wes Ball. Think of the two as different mediums. Enjoy them as separate experiences. When you notice a change, don’t be so quick to criticize. It’s okay to be disappointed when a character or scene you loved is cut for the film adaptation, but don’t use that as an excuse to hate it.
Most of the time there’s a valid reason for the change, and it’s always for the purpose of making the movie better. Remember that movies and TV shows are for general audiences, not just book lovers. Look objectively. You’ll enjoy the book-to-movie adaptations much more if you watch with your eyes and ears open, instead of figuring out how they’re different.
In your opinion, how precise should the adaptations of the book to the film be?
Related: The best and worst book to film adaptations of 2014