The good, the bad, and the ugly book to movie adaptations

By: Jill Odom

Let’s face it, whenever you hear that your favorite book is going to be made into a movie several emotions and tons of questions go through your head. You’re excited because you have always wanted to see it brought to life the way only Hollywood knows how, but, on the other hand, there is pure terror at the idea of just how badly they could botch your beloved book.

As soon as you hear the news you start to wonder what scenes will be cut, how they will pull off a tricky portion of the book that isn’t usually seen in film, who’s directing it and, most importantly, who are they casting. Casting is one of the most crucial parts of an adaptation and generally the ones chosen get a love ‘em or hate ‘em vibe.

Book to movie adaptations generally fall in one of three categories: the good, the bad and the ugly. The good and the bad are self-explanatory but the ugly is that special place for pieces of literature that screenwriters should have never even touched. Some works just shouldn’t be made into movies, but producers have yet to learn this lesson. Instead they’d rather torture that fan base by eviscerating everything they hold near and dear to them in that particular story.

Starting off with the good to show you those who got it right some of the top examples are the “Harry Potter” films, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “Jurassic Park.” Probably the number one factor is the cast, now this may sound like a no brainer but plenty of films crash and burn due to a director’s preference towards a certain actor or actress even though they are not suited for a part.

The sign that a casting director has hit their mark is when the characters in the film are just like you always imagined them and you picture the cast members whenever you read the story again. “Harry Potter” in particular does a fantastic job with this. From Harry himself to Professor McGonagall, almost every single one of J.K. Rowling’s characters are matched to a tee.

However looks alone do not make them, it is their acting that solidifies their identity. The split personality Gollum/Smeagol is portrayed excellently by a mixture of CGI and motion capture performed by Andy Serkis. He is able to create the illusion of the poor creature actually housing two identities in him but Serkis was simply changing his body language and altering his voice slightly.

In “Jurassic Park” another factor of what makes it a great adaptation is the visuals. A movie is able to do what a book never can; it lets you actually see the places, people and things a certain work has described. Starting with the verdant Isla Nublar to the various complexes around the island, Jurassic Park became something real. And, of course, we can’t forget the dinosaurs; even with today’s graphics, these are still pretty impressive. You can read about how enormous T. Rex was but it’s very different when you actually see one of them standing next to a vehicle or a man.

Next up is the bad. These are the movies where directors and screenwriters completely missed the memo that the film was supposed to actually follow the book. The key example of this crime is “The Scarlet Letter” which came out 1995 and starred Gary Oldman and Demi Moore. To say they took liberties with the story is probability the biggest understatement of the year. This film took Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic book which explores themes of sin, guilt and legalism, and turned it into a forbidden love story between Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne. They also throw in a battle with some Native Americans for kicks.

“The Count of Monte Cristo” also suffers this fate of having main story changed, simplified or removed. Starring Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce, directors seem to be under the illusion that if you pick good actors then it doesn’t matter what you do after that. Many of the relationships between characters are missing or different. Action scenes were added and the ending is completely different from the book.

While personally being fond of “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” the simple fact that this movie didn’t get a franchise is proof that they didn’t do something right. Even as much as they wanted to try, it’s not possible to cram three whole books into one movie. Heck, some books get split into two movies just to preserve the story better instead of skimping to fill a time slot.

Now finally the only the ugly remain. The live action version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is probably one of the worst botched book-to-movie adaption, and what’s more is that it wasn’t needed. There was already the heartwarming and simple cartoon version that people loved.  They give the Grinch a backstory for hating Christmas and it’s simply because his classmates laughed at him for trying to shave his chin. That makes sense right?

“Gulliver’s Travels” with Jack Black throws all of Jonathan Swift’s social commentary out the window. He is merely a giant among tiny people for half the movie, lying about his status back home to make himself feel better and only goes to one other place, Brobdingnag , where he is the tiny one among giants. Swift’s satire was stripped down to the bare bones and stuffed with garbage instead.

Lastly is “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” As part of Douglas Adams’ five part series, this book is complex in itself and filmmakers didn’t have chance of this movie making a bit of sense. There are funny portions but you will not understand why you are laughing or even the point of the whole thing. This is one of those adaptations that should have never been attempted.

Not every work should be made into a film, contrary to popular belief, some should simply remain a vision in your mind’s eye.

Related posts