What makes a good book-to-film adaptation? 

What makes a good book-to-film adaptation? 

Tasha: I’ll straight-up admit it, Scott: I went to a critics’ screening of The Hunger Games seeking ammunition I could use in the argument I knew was brewing between us from the moment I started editing your review of the film. And here’s why: One of your main points in that review was that the film hewed too closely to the book. You called it “stenography in light,” and said when a book-to-film adaptation sets out to be faithful to the source material, “the best result is a skillful abridgment.” Most painfully to me, you said this: “A book is a book and a movie is a movie, and whenever the latter merely sets about illustrating the former, it’s a failure of adaptation, to say nothing of imagination.”

To someone who loves books as much as I do, and is as obsessed with the film adaptations that result, them’s fighting words. Few things get me as tetchy as a film adaptation of an excellent book that doesn’t trust the material, and alters it to be more conventional and banal (like the ending of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, for instance), or alternately, more lurid and prurient (like the violence in Watchmen). All too often, it seems like even the biggest bestsellers are deemed not commercial enough in content, and the process of bringing them to the screen is a process of forcing them into familiar pigeonholes in hopes of reaching a broader and less discerning audience.

That said, I wound up mildly disappointed with the film version of The Hunger Games too. NPR’s Linda Holmes made a point similar to yours in her NPR blog review, about the adaptation being so close to the source material that fans “might, for all their constant desire to see a faithful adaptation, leave the film feeling like they’ve seen the book almost exactly, as if they didn’t need to see it at all.” That largely describes my reaction: “Huh. Well, that was certainly familiar.”

But if book-to-film adaptations can fail by being too faithful or by being not faithful enough, what’s left? And is it fair for people who have read the book to complain about it not giving them something new, when it’s still serving a purpose by accurately bringing the story to people who haven’t read the book? Is it possible to please or even serve both audiences? What makes a good book adaptation, anyway?

Scott: Here’s the secret: The degree of faithfulness—or the impetus to be faithful—should not be part of the equation at all. With something like The Hunger Games (or Harry Potter, or Twilight, or any other franchise based on a bestselling property), I’m sure there’s an enormous amount of pressure from fans and from the studio simply to deliver on the material as straightforwardly as possible. Otherwise, devotees will revolt, perhaps the author will distance herself from it publicly, and the wave of ill feeling will crash over the casual viewers who have no stake in the fight, but are now wary about seeing the movie at all. There’s also the fact that filmmakers rarely have an antagonistic relationship to the book they’re adapting; it would be fascinating if they did—Lynne Ramsay, who was originally going to direct The Lovely Bones before it was swiped away from her, had unkind things to say about the book’s second half—but most want to do right by something they loved. 

Yet doing right by a great book and being faithful to it are, to my mind, two separate issues. Skillful as it is, The Hunger Games suffers from all the pitfalls of faithfulness that I noted in my review and Linda Holmes addressed above: It hits all the expected plot points from a novel that offers a straightforward cinematic blueprint, but it feels thinned-out as a result, because it can only deal glancingly with key relationships from the book, like Katniss’ relationship with Rue. When co-writer/director Gary Ross actually pauses long enough to set up a sequence carefully and let the drama breathe a little, you get “The Reaping,” by far the film’s most affecting and artful minutes. But once Katniss gets swept into the Games, there’s no time allotted to build complex relationships or evoke this world more vividly; in order to stay faithful, Ross just ticks off the boxes. As I said, “stenography in light.” 

What I want is not faithfulness, but an active engagement with the material, which doesn’t have to preclude faithfulness. The question filmmakers should ask is not, “How can I bring this story to the screen without losing anything?,” but “What in this book do I want to emphasize?” If you’re reading a book, I think it’s natural to home in on themes, characters, and scenes that are most meaningful to you. Granted, the big problem with something like The Hunger Games is having to make something coherent out of the narrative’s many moving parts, but a good adaptation has to make choices about what’s truly important. And it also has to exist independently from the novel: Films content with merely illustrating books are more concerned with problem-solving and translation than artistic expression. As Holmes says about The Hunger Games, “it’s faithful to the point of not adding anything you haven’t seen in your head when you read the book.” If that’s the case, what’s the point of making it? Selling Katniss Barbie dolls?

Let me give you my go-to example of an adaptation that’s both faithful and expressive: Martin Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence. If you’ve read Edith Wharton’s novel, you can practically hear the pages of that book turning in your head when you watch Scorsese’s film—in fact, Joanne Woodward reads swaths of Wharton’s text in the voiceover, so we can get a sense of the strict social mores that govern New York high society in the 19th century. And yet as distant as it might seem from the Scorsese universe, the adaptation is unmistakably his: passionate and sumptuous, but just as brutal and forbidding in its tribalism as any of his gangster movies. The only real difference is that love gets snuffed out instead of life—and that’s saying nothing of the camera movements and use of the color and all the technical brushstrokes he brings to the occasion. If you’re concerned about faithfulness, that’s how to do it right; and if you can’t do that, I say pick from the book like a buzzard and leave the entrails to rot in the sun. 

For you, I have a separate but related question that ran through my head as I watched The Hunger Games: Is it healthy to have read a book before seeing the movie? Before writing my review, I was talking to my wife about what did and didn’t work, and how the film handled various aspects of the novel. She asked, “But what would you have thought about it if you hadn’t read the book?” Of course, I can’t pretend I don’t know what I know and review the movie as someone who has no knowledge of the book. But it’s unquestionably true that a film can’t surprise you if you’ve read the book, at least on a plotting level. And while it gives you deeper insight and appreciation for how a filmmaker goes about adaptation, some experiential value might be lost. I have more specific thoughts on this, but wanted you, our Book Vs. Film maestro, to weigh in first. 

Tasha: It’s not “unquestionably true” that a film can’t surprise you if you’ve read the book—I was surprised as hell by the end of that film version of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, for instance. The books Children Of Men, There Will Be Blood, and The Prestige are based on don’t offer any help in anticipating the films’ plot points. Film adaptations significantly alter the details from the books that inspired them all the time, particularly if the books have non-commercial endings. 

And that’s why I tend to think that if possible, it’s better—healthier, in your terms—to see the movie first, and then read the book. Going from a derivative work to its source, people tend to expect fidelity less than when they start with the original, then move to the adaptation. If anything, I generally expect a book that a film was based on to be more idiosyncratic, more internal, more detailed, and generally a richer, more complicated experience than the film. Whereas I generally expect the film to move faster, to be more kinetic and more exciting. Seeing the film first, for me, is usually about picking up the plot particulars and dealing with that narrative “What’s going to happen next?” excitement that sometimes has me speeding through books too fast to properly appreciate the writing. Assuming the film adaptation is fairly faithful—and that’s a big assumption, but it works with The Hunger Games—watching the movie first gives you that breathless rush to the end to find out what happens. Then you can go back and read the book and find out why it happened: what was going through the characters’ heads. When I read the book first, I go to the movie expecting to see a strict translation of what I saw onto the screen, even if that’s not truly what I want, or what best serves the story. Whereas when I see the movie first, I go to the book looking not for the same story, but for a greater insight into the characters.

That said, seeing the movie first isn’t always an option. For one thing, it would mean holding off on any given book until a movie version is completed—which in the case of The Hunger Games, would mean missing out on the years of cultural conversation that arose from the books. Which is why the alternate answer to your question is you shouldn’t worry about it and it shouldn’t matter. Both book and film should be addressed as independent entities. No matter what order people experience them in, whichever one they try first will color their experience. Maybe this isn’t “healthy” for whichever version comes second, but the trick is in learning to not demand that one be fully accurate to the other. This means not going into an adaptation with a mental checklist of things that must be in the movie to make it good, and evaluating a film based on what’s on the screen, not what got left off. In that sense, a “good adaptation” may have to involve a good-faith effort from the viewers, who participate in the process by giving that story a chance on its own terms.

But it takes two to tango. If viewers have a responsibility not to see a book as an unalterable outline for the film, then filmmakers have a responsibility to respect the book, to acknowledge that there’s a reason they’re telling this story, rather than another story altogether. For example, The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising is a terrible adaptation, both because it’s a lousy, boring, incoherent film in its own right, and because it became lousy, boring, and incoherent by discarding virtually every aspect of Susan Cooper’s book and replacing it with a generic, familiar adventure story. Of everything you said above, here’s what I liked most: Filmmakers should ask “What in this book do I want to emphasize?” The key words are “in this book.” Meaning, part of a good adaptation is knowing what to cut or revise, even if it makes the fans cry, but part of it is maintaining a meaningful relationship to the source material.

At least, that’s my take. Is there room for respect for the original work in your “pick from the book like a buzzard” philosophy, Scott, or is the only measure of success the final result? If so, how is that an adaptation? Are there films that leave the source material by the wayside, yet still register for you as successful adaptations?

Scott: First off, touché on the “unquestionably true” statement, which I made under the assumption that an adaptation isn’t egregious in altering the basic architecture of the source material. My point is that—in most cases, anyway—people who read books before seeing their adaptations are usually robbed of the element of surprise. You could argue that “surprise” is overrated, as Noel did elegantly in a piece about Game Of Thrones and spoilers, but it’s inarguable that readers bring lots of information into an adaptation that alters—I think dramatically—their perception of the movie. It goes beyond anticipating plot developments; it’s more about the work already existing, fully formed, in your mind through the book, then being measured against whatever the film is trying to do. That’s a radically different way of looking at a movie than going in cold. 

There’s another way reading the book beforehand fucks with your mind, too: You fill in details that are either poorly sketched in the film, or not elucidated at all. To get back to The Hunger Games as an example, one of the big problems with the adaptation—and maybe the most common with any adaptation—is that we lose Katniss’ internal monologue, replaced here by Jennifer Lawrence’s fierce-but-inscrutable visage. We know from both film and book that Katniss is as brave, resourceful, and self-sacrificing as we’d hope any such hero to be, but she’s also a little uncertain, even daft, when it comes to understanding other people’s motives. Part of that is natural, of course, when you’re forced into an arena where only one person can come out alive, and all alliances are temporary—even those with seemingly earnest and equally self-sacrificing types like Peeta. Yet there’s a fundamental cluelessness to Katniss, rooted in her age and inexperience, that’s complex and almost endearing, and I’m not sure that translates onscreen. Having read the book, I might bring that information to the table, but it’s obviously wrong to fill in such resonances that aren’t actually present in the movie. Or maybe they are present, and I’m not giving the filmmakers enough credit for bringing these nuances across or the audience enough credit for picking them up. 

On the flipside, reading the book beforehand can enhance your appreciation enormously. Though I think your ideal scenario of going movie first, book second makes sense—bones first, then the flesh and blood and organs and whatnot—a strong adaptation can make you appreciate the relationship a film has with the book. You can see the points of emphasis and points of departure, and get a better sense of a film as an independent, enriching interpretation of a book. Take Moneyball from last year, which I think Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian did an exceptional job of bringing to the screen: From Michael Lewis’ book, which I reviewed back in the day, we get a solid-enough profile of Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s GM who used sabermetrics to build a winning club on a tight budget. But Lewis is mainly concerned with detailing a revolutionary way of thinking about player valuation in a game that clings heavily to tradition. Given the formidable task of converting wonky non-fiction into a Hollywood entertainment, Sorkin and Zaillian excel at getting these ideas across while creating three-dimensional characters and snappy banter mostly from scratch—against tough odds, Moneyball the movie played like Major League for sports nerds. And if you’ve read the book, you appreciate their achievements all the more. 

Now to your question about if there’s “room for respect” for the original work in an adaptation: My feeling is that nothing’s sacred. If you’re looking for an example of a film that’s successful yet showed no respect for the book, I offer Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which so disappointed Stephen King that he had it remade, badly, as a four-and-a-half-hour TV miniseries with Steven Weber in the Jack Nicholson role. Can you find anyone beyond inveterate Kubrick haters willing to argue that the TV version of The Shining is the superior of the two? As I wrote earlier, though, it’s rare that a filmmaker comes into an adaptation with zero respect for the source material, otherwise they wouldn’t be compelled to bring it to the screen. But I’m more than comfortable with filmmakers leaving the book by the wayside if it suits their purposes—and in some of the cases you cite, like There Will Be Blood and The Prestige, I’m guessing you feel pretty good about the buzzard approach as well. (Breakfast At Tiffany’s is another matter—a sellout ending is different than a radical reinterpretation.) Ultimately, what I want are adaptations that concern themselves with something more ambitious than simply making the book “work” as a film, and if that means being ruthless and disrespectful, so be it. 

I leave you with one final question: What does the perfect adaptation look like? I cited The Age Of Innocence—and could cite many more—for being both faithful and singular. What’s your ideal?

Tasha: For many years, I had two perfect adaptations in mind: The Last Unicorn and The Princess Bride. Both of those films were scripted by the original authors. Both of the films cut a great deal of material from the books, but stuck by the originals’ best dialogue and key plot points. And both gave the film versions new flavor—Last Unicorn via stylish animation and a soundtrack that stuck with me for decades, and Princess Bride with sharp comic timing and a great cast that brought the humor across. Neither of those films will replace the books for me personally, but in both cases, I felt the films could stand on their own, rather than as ancillary visualizations. They brought something new to the table, while generally only letting go of the things that wouldn’t translate well to film—Peter Beagle’s lovely, descriptive prose style in Last Unicorn, William Goldman’s lengthy comedic scene-setting and sidebars in Princess Bride.

To my mind, Hunger Games mostly nails the latter half of that equation, by dropping a great many things that wouldn’t translate easily to film. Sure, I miss Katniss’ internal complexity from the books. The reluctant way she deals with her unwanted “love triangle” is an important part of the books, something between a knowing parody of Twilight-style YA triangles, and an intelligent reconstruction. But the filmmakers were wise to not try to pack it in via voiceover, or by giving Katniss a confidant she could explain everything to, or some other awkward device. Much of my admiration for the film comes from its creators’ understanding that given a choice between endless exposition and just leaving things unsaid, the latter option is generally more dramatic. Yes, that means we have to fill in the blanks ourselves, either with our own imaginations and interpretations, or by reading the books. Neither is that unfortunate an option. (It may be a little hard on you and me as critics, trying to sort out how we feel about a film on its own while trying to pretend we don’t know things about the book that we do know, but that’s a problem of professional obligation, not of art, and it’s a problem most viewers don’t need to worry about.)

Where Hunger Games fails for me is in the “bringing something new to the table” aspect. I don’t think it’s too faithful of an adaptation. It’s just too literal. It lacks its own distinctive personality. It leaves out the internal chatter and gobs of background from the book, but doesn’t come up with anything distinctive to replace them. In that sense, my current go-to for an ideal adaptation is Atonement. The book sets a seemingly impossible standard for adaptation, with long, swoony sentences and extensive, page-spanning paragraphs going deep, deep into the characters’ heads, tracking how the flow of their thoughts change from moment to moment. The film strips all that out and focuses on events. But it addresses the story in an artistic way, bringing out the same emotions through execution rather than dialogue—through powerfully evocative music, lush cinematography, snappy editing, and terrific acting. In other words, through cinema. It finds ways to condense characters without remaking them from scratch. It’s a gorgeous film that stands on its own, but it follows the film’s broad outline thoughtfully and artistically.

But I think screenwriter Christopher Hampton and Joe Wright got there not by saying “We want to make a great film, and to hell with the book,” but by following your “What do I want to emphasize?” plan, and finding the emotional heart of the book, then looking for ways to bring that across. That process may not result in the most detail-oriented, accuracy-minded book-to-film adaptations. But it likely produces the most interesting ones. It’s certainly a better question than “How can I make this profitable?” (At least for us, the audience, as opposed to for the studio. You must have more faith in the system than I do, given your belief that a director adapting a book necessarily has a personal connection to the material, as opposed to a personal connection to other concerns, like the prestige and professional standing that might come with directing a popular film.)

A last thought: As much as your buzzard metaphor and your stenography snipe give me the jibblies, you’re damn right in thinking that I approve of that kind of thinking when it gives us There Will Be Blood or The Prestige. (Both kind of lousy adaptations, but terrific films.) Maybe this just proves that while we can lay down all the guidelines we want for successful film adaptations—respect the material, discard what has to be discarded, accept that you can’t please everyone, particularly among the most die-hard fans—there’s no firm template when it comes to art. Ultimately, what counts is having a vision, seeing it through, and producing something that connects with people. “What makes a good book-to-film adaptation?” is a good discussion topic, but for filmmakers, it should probably come second to “What makes a good film, and how do I get there from this material?”

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