I just saw the trailer for Ender’s Game, and I am really excited! The Wheel of Time is probably the only other adaptation that might excite me more (and Universal has the rights to it…) Even better, Harrison Ford plays a lead role in this upcoming movie based off of Orson Scott Card’s epic science fiction/fantasy/ethical drama.
After seeing the trailer, I started thinking about other book-to-film adaptations. What makes a good adaptation? Is it just a good story, or is more required? Here are a few examples.
1. Lord of the Rings/Hobbit – All four of these collectively are my favorite film. I know, I know… that is a bit of a cliche, right? How could someone who claims to be a fan of film choose a cultural favorite and not a true cinematic gem? In my opinion, these films bridge the gap that all too often separates a masterpiece from a blockbuster. Like other film greats, the story itself is epic on a grand scale, and the cinematography matches the plot in its grandeur.
How did the movies change from the book? For the most part, the film stayed true to the book. A few changes, like the removal of Tom Bombadil, streamlined the film’s plot so that it fit better in its cinematic form. (Fellowship was already long–while many lament Bombadil’s absence, it also kept the movie from reaching 3.5 hours!) So while the film stayed true, it also made several significant changes that impacted the flow of the film.
2. The Chronicles of Narnia – Thankfully, the more recent rendition of the Narnia series redeems the atrocious BBC version, although the BBC version’s faults admittedly are enhanced by its era of yet-undeveloped CGI technology. The newer version follows the books very well, and in my opinion, do a great job at capturing the mood portrayed in the Lewis’s prose. The bad guys are all gruesome (either in looks or in personality), Aslan is regal and majestic, and each of the four siblings are really portrayed well. Unfortunately, the first film’s success was followed by some liberties taken to too high of a degree. In Caspian, one of the best scenes in the series is completely written out (when they discover Cair Paravel. This is awesome on the same level as the intrigue in any episode of Lost that reveals more of the Dharma Initiative.) While changing the plot for the flow of a movie is not inherently bad, there is no excuse when said plot changing is an obvious ploy for an attempt for an more-impressive battle scene, especially when the CGI is slightly underfunded. (The centaurs look as glitchy as the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns.) Overall, the films did well to stick to the book plots, and when they strayed in favor of CGI, disaster struck.
3. Harry Potter – Harry Potter is perhaps the best case example of both failure and success in adapting a book into a movie. The first movie was almost identical to the book. The book is great, but surprisingly, the movie really leaves a lot to be desired. It does not flow well, and while it really does have some awesome elements to it, it is fairly obvious that it is an adaptation, not an idea original to film. The pace moves too slowly, but to the credit of the series, film executives rectified the problem with each new film. By the final chapter of the saga, significant liberties modified the earlier template. (The most obvious being that besides a darker tone than the book, the final movie was even broken into two pieces, for twice the profit.)
I think the universal lesson learned is that books and movies have different formulas for success, and in such adaptations, no fans of a book will ever be completely and totally satisfied with a film adaptation, because either the film will be paced too slowly (other other similar problem), or changes will upset fans (like no Tom Bombadil). Given that such a fan base cannot be 100% satisfied, it is better to err on the side of cinematic success (Lord of the Rings, latter Harry Potter), rather than on the side of remaining true to the books (the first Harry Potter. But, as seen when applying this lesson to Narnia, there is no formula that truly is universal.