If you’ve read a young adult (YA) dystopian or fantasy novel in the last ten or so years, you have more than likely also gone to a movie theater to see that novel adapted to the silver screen. There are countless examples: “The Maze Runner,” “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” “Harry Potter” (and that’s just the YA stuff). While the trend has seemingly become more popular in recent years, the adaptation from novel to feature film is nowhere near new. In fact, the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay has been around since the Oscars’ inception in 1929.
Despite the frequency, however, of movies born from novels (or any other source material, for that matter), the craft is still far from being mastered. Adaptations are some of the riskiest waters a movie director can find themselves in, mainly due to the pre-existing fanbase of said source material. We all have that one friend who will not let us forget that they read Marvel comics, and that, “In the comics [insert character name here] actually acts [insert characteristic different from the movie portrayal here],” or the friend who will always insist on saying, “The book was better,” as if there has ever been a movie that is objectively better than its book. I’m hopeful Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming “Dune” will diverge from that trend, but I digress.
The point is that movies stemming from other source material face the unique risk/reward analysis associated with an existing fanbase. If fans love the project, that’s fantastic — you’ll rake it in at the box office and have an instant classic in your reel — but this is rarely the outcome. Just look at the fanbase response to any “Star Wars” movie at the time of its release, excluding the original trilogy (why “Star Wars” fans hate “Star Wars” more than any other group of people is a complicated story for another day, no matter how much I want to get into that). I want to explore what makes a movie adaptation “Good,” whatever that means when we talk about film.
The Gold Standard for book-to-movie adaptations, I would argue, is Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings.” I had somehow managed to never see the films until the beginning of 2020, early in the days of coronavirus lockdowns. I had just finished reading the books for the first time, and I thought it would be good for me to watch the movies, since everyone says they’re so great, which they are. Peter Jackson’s depiction of Middle Earth and the events in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” while not lining up completely with the novels, respects the vision of the author and even improves upon areas where the age of the books can be somewhat inaccessible to modern readers. The proof is in the pudding; “Return of the King” is one of the most Oscar-winning movies of all time (tied at 11 Academy Awards with “Titanic” and “Ben Hur”).
The lesson we can learn from “The Lord of the Rings” is that an adaptation is not, should not be, a one-to-one replica of the source material. Jackson took liberties with Tolkien’s work; he added things in some places and omitted things from the original, but the end product is something that looks and, more importantly, feels in line with the vision of Middle Earth and of Tolkien’s work. Intent and tone are more important than the minute and typically inconsequential details that studios are afraid will upset an existing fanbase. It’s more than likely that fans will forgive plot changes when the film they’re given honors its source material and presents it in a refreshing, but honest, way.
Peter Jackson, however, does not always bring home 11 Oscars for his work in Middle Earth. “The Hobbit” film trilogy, which should already be a red flag, is a great case study for how not to do an adaptation.
For starters, the making of “The Hobbit” was an administrative nightmare. If you want all the details, I would highly encourage you to check out Lindsay Ellis’ series of video essays on YouTube, but I’ll give you the basic version. The New Zealand government had to negotiate with Warner Bros. on legislation that affected the power of actors and performers unions after the production company planned to abandon the country as the filming location for “The Hobbit” trilogy. In the end, New Zealand gave more power to production companies, enabling them to exploit actors and performers in New Zealand, so that Warner Bros. would continue to allow New Zealand to be their Middle Earth.
This has nothing to do with the quality of the films (or does it? Again, I’d highly recommend Lindsay Ellis’ essay), but it was only part of the equation. Before Peter Jackson was in the directors chair, Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Shape of Water”) was set to direct two “Hobbit” films until he left the project in May of 2010. After that, Jackson was tasked by Warner Bros. with filming a trilogy, not just two movies, which makes no sense. “The Hobbit” is one book, and a relatively short one at that. The paperback comes in at only 305 pages, making it the rough equivalent of one “Lord of the Rings” book, which, I would argue, is not sufficient to justify three movies that clock in at a combined eight hours and 53 minutes.
“The Hobbit” showed us what can easily go wrong with adaptations: studio involvement, staff turnover and most importantly, not honoring source material. Not only did Warner Bros. stretch one book into three movies, but Peter Jackson, who is credited as a screenwriter as well as the director, made significant changes to the original “Hobbit” story that ended up not serving much of a purpose at all. I won’t get into specifics here for the sake of avoiding spoilers (although I wouldn’t recommend you watch these movies anyway), but I will again urge you to dive into Ellis’ in-depth analysis if you have already seen the films.
To be fair, “The Hobbit” film franchise was at a disadvantage from the very start. Tonally speaking, “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” are extremely different. While “Lord of the Rings” is an epic adventure with grand goals and ambitious visions, “The Hobbit” is much more relaxed. Each chapter is very episodic, and the end product is something that would be more appropriate for a younger audience, not the older audience that gravitates towards “Lord of the Rings.” In this way, “The Hobbit” does not serve as a cohesive prequel to the “Lord of the Rings” in film. Filmmakers had to find a way to adapt this book that is admittedly for children into something that adult fans of the “Lord of the Rings” film series will spend money on. Additionally, “The Hobbit” was never a prequel to begin with. It was published by Tolkien long before “Lord of the Rings,” which adds another complication to how the filmmakers go about adapting the source material into something inherently different from its original concept.
This is where I want to talk about the absolute monstrosities of movie adaptations. I’ll start with the “Percy Jackson” film franchise… need I say more? The “Percy Jackson” movies were based on the five book series by Rick Riordan. The books are well loved by many, myself included, so when the first movie, “The Lightning Thief,” was set to release in February 2010, the world rejoiced. That is, until they saw the movie.
Instead of being greeted by magic and the self-awareness of Riordan’s world, fans were instead faced with director Chris Columbus’ (“Home Alone,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) creative vision: clumsy writing, clumsy worldbuilding and a plot that makes it evident that none of the writers read the source material, much less the entire series. “The Lightning Thief” was a true disappointment, and its sequel, “The Sea of Monsters,” only made it worse.
“The Sea of Monsters” took such liberties with the plot of the novel and the “Percy Jackson” series, I don’t even know where to begin. I suppose the most heinous crime is the finale, where the film decides to skip two books and have the final battle of the book series right then and there. Not only did this not honor the source material, it completely disregarded it, which ultimately was the downfall of the “Percy Jackson” film saga. Instead of following along with the vision and intent of the book series, filmmakers decided to go their own way, which, while admirable, did not pay off. Instead of pacing the series out well, or even being exposed to the source material, filmmakers took a general concept and ran with it, making two sloppy and borderline-unwatchable films.
Another contender, if not winner, of Ugliest Movie Adaptation is M. Night Shyamalan’s (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable”) “The Last Airbender.” A different type of adaptation, but still a quite awful one. I can’t even talk about it without my blood pressure spiking. Based on the Nickelodeon animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Shyamalan’s film takes everything great about the source material and completely eradicates it. Compelling characters? Their names aren’t even pronounced correctly. Smooth and well-paced worldbuilding? Try random bouts of narration (that oftentimes contradict each other). Fast-paced action scenes that demonstrate the complexities of the world’s magic system? It’s more like watching kindergarteners throw dirt at each other during recess.
“The Last Airbender” commits every sin a movie adaptation can commit: bad acting, bad writing, poorly selected changes from the source material, cringe-worthy special effects. I really recommend no one watches this movie. It’s not one of those “so-bad-it’s-good” kind of movies; it’s just plain bad. I would recommend, however, the Nickelodeon animated series, which you can stream right now on Netflix. It’s a fantastic show that has gracefully aged. The series has the opposite effect on me as the film, in that I can’t talk about it without rambling on and on about what makes it so perfect, so do yourself a favor and check it out.
The tricky part of adaptation is figuring out what to keep and what to get rid of, especially when you’re working with something so inherently in-depth and expansive as a novel. Writing lends itself to be more encompassing, since authors have time to explore every avenue — a luxury filmmakers can’t afford (unless you’re as self-indulgent as Zack Snyder). An audience can’t be expected to sit in a theater, or their couches, for that matter, for the amount of time it takes to visually represent every facet of a novel and, thus, great sections have to be cut; it’s inevitable.
Adaptation is not about replicating a novel, or a series, or a classic movie, it’s about exactly what it’s called: adaptation. Adapting what was into something that is, and the best, arguably the most logical, way to go about that is to honor the intent and vision of the original creator. If their art is beloved, chances are they knew what they were doing in the first place.