May 5, 2014

Books Adapted Into Film

A note to start, this post will be about books that I've read that were turned into a TV show or movie that I've also seen. I won't include those where I've only read the book or only seen the show/movie, so this list will be incomplete compared to that many of you might have.

So what do I think makes a movie or show adapted from a book good? 

Onwards to revelations!

Faithfulness to the source material

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Because I'm a nerd, I might as well get this out of the way first though I don't necessarily consider this to be the most important element. Unlike the stereotypical nitpicky nerds that will consider an adaptation to be a mortal sin if it omits or alters even the slightest detail from the book, I'm willing to give more leeway to the movie makers. The two are fundamentally different, and this often necessitates that some parts be changed. 

For starters, we read books but we watch movies. Where books leave a lot to the imagination, movies have to show us everything. Second, fantasy books tend to be very long. Books that are hundreds of pages long that are also part of a trilogy or series clash with the budgets that restrain the ambitions of most shows and movies. Third, one of the reasons why fantasy books are so long is the world building that usually goes into them, which involves information/explanations in the form of an 'info dump'. These are usually completely aside from the scene taking place, and movies/shows just can't do that. At best they can use a narrator, but having a voice say anything longer than a couple of sentences long would suck... quite a lot. 

Those are just some differences that will require the adaptation to do things differently. What I hope for, then, is that certain key parts of the book(s) are maintained at least in spirit: the characters seem the same, even if they don't do the same things; the world has the same tone to it, even if parts of its history is altered; the story has all the biggest moments, even if they get there from a different angle. 

It's all about the Benjamins...

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Fantasy has magic, and mythical creatures, and entirely different landscapes and cities to show. To show them well costs money and time, and time costs even more in money. Not every book can get the budget of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings to sustain the project for so long. Most shows or movies will have to make do with budgets far lower than that. Some fantasy/sci-fi shows can do so rather well (Doctor Who, Firefly), but a lot just can't... and trying to do so while adapting a script from a book is even harder. 

This is why trying to adapt a book with a much smaller scope is far easier. Books that take place, more or less, in the same place where that place is a simple village or city is a lot easier to replicate with a lower budget than having a book take place all over an epic world with massive castles made of diamonds that's also carved out of an entire mountain, or something. Similarly, a book that doesn't have a lot in the way of magic or magic creatures, or epic battles, also makes the job easier.

This is one of the reasons why I think Game of Thrones has been adapted so well. It has some epic settings and a large world, but not much in the way of fireballs and conjured lightning or massive Balrogs. There are some dragons, but they're pretty low key so far through the series. The books are also more about intrigue than they are about epic battles, and even in the book some battles are mentioned only in passing and not told over the span of multiple chapters. 

Epic Is Bad, Small Is Good

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The same holds true for the nature of the story. Epic fantasy needs epic investments in time and money from studios, and trying to make an adaptation without those investments will doom the project to mediocrity at best and more likely something far worse. So to increase the chances at success for most attempts at adaptation, having a smaller scoped, more low-key novel is best. See: Gaiman, Neil. 
The problem is that without the scale and budget to go with it, a lot of adaptations will inevitably get a "campy" feel to it that will ruin the way the book feels to read. However, the good news is that in recent years there's been far more fantasy books written that have a scope more suited to adaptation. It helps that most of them have a darker, grittier tone that people love in TV and movies now (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones). 

Most of the books I'll list in a future post will be those kinds of books. But next up, I'll list some examples of good and bad adaptations using the above criteria as reasons for their success or failure.


  1. Hi Brain, sorry sir I am going to totally and completely disagree with you about the first part of this post. I agree with your thoughts and ideas but NOT how it connects to the movie Eragon. That movie was so bad and disjointed that I didn't even find the spirit of the book within it . Maybe you were trying to tell Hollywood what not to do. Another example is The Seeker. It did a little better because it was a series, could be flushed out more but in the end fell flat. All in all just my opinion. Take care my friend have a good night.

  2. I didn't actually make a point about Eragon, I only included the image in the section (which I realized now probably made an implication I didn't mean to make). I've only seen the movie and haven't read the books, so I don't feel like I can make any definitive statement about how well it was adapted from a book into a movie.

    1. How very funny...You never intended to make a point about Eragon. By the way the first two books are wonderful. I kept reading through every point in the post and thinking Eragon the movie is such a bad example of the point you were trying to make. take care.

    2. I just wanted to include images of high-profile book-film adaptations, and I know Eragon is a very high profile case even though I haven't read the books.

      But actually, it's probably a good example of why I consider faithfulness to core principles of the book to be an important element to an adaptation. I've heard numerous people, now including yourself, say that the movie didn't "find the spirit" of the book as you put it. That's the kind of thing I mean, if you change a few smaller things around because you kind of have to, that's one thing. But if you start changing important parts of the book that wind up fundamentally changing the feel and soul of the book, you've lost.

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  4. I wound up changing the image to avoid making that implication.

    Legend of the Seeker is a show I will talk about in my post that lists successes and failures, in my mind. Spoilers: I thought it was pretty bad for just about every reason I mentioned in this post.