Movie Adaptations of Books: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (and why they’re all just playing for second).

For better or for worse, books and movies are forever intertwined. There are only so many original screenplays that can be written, and people want to see their favorite books become moves (again, for better or for worse).

To be fair though, movies based on books get a blanket bad rap from book lovers. It’s almost like a test: real book lovers hate movies, like real coffee lovers hate Starbucks, and real movie lovers only watch “films”. Scripts are written for movies, regardless of where the story has come from. As such they are specifically crafted with the time constraints and media constraints of movies (sorry- films). Books, with a few notable exceptions *cough* Nicolas Sparks *cough*, are not designed to resolve within 2 hours with a manageable cast, an inner monologue easily represented by voiceover, and only the most accessible and obvious symbolism. So, we can hardly expect that through the book-to -movie process there will be no loss of depth, tone, or favorite lines and/or characters.


There are limits.

There is nothing sadder than having ones’ favorite book, with all the best parts ripped out, devoid of all subplot, with love triangles added in all nilly- willy, with the lead character played by the latest “It girl” actress/ singer/ perfume designing socialite.

So here is my (very brief and incomplete) run down: ” Movie Adaptations of Books: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.”

The Good:

(Notable mentions include: Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter (all 7), The Hunger Games (so far..), The Wizard of Oz, Silver Linings Playbook, To Kill a Mockingbird, Matilda, and the myriad of other movies I have forgotten that you will all angrily email me about).

Best Thriller: Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Brave Clarice. You will let me know when those lambs stop screaming, won’t you?

Thomas Harris’ classic could have so easily fallen victim to the horror movie trap and turn up as a gory, sexualized, sensationalized horror flick (hello, Gone Girl). I can see it now, a hollywood starlet plays Clarice Chassidy: A young, sexy new police officer/ former exotic dancer/ single mom, looking to turn over a new leaf and prove herself. Her police uniform fits like a glove and at some point, somehow, she ends up soaking wet.

However, this movie was carefully crafted and maintained its status as a psychological thriller, with all of the subtlety and character complexity with which it was written. Not only is this an excellent movie because it is based on an excellent book, it is a very good movie by its own right. Creepy enough to keep even the most seasoned horror fanatic up at night, but subtle enough that even I, the worlds biggest horror movie chicken, enjoy it.

Most Deserved Writers’ Stamp of Approval: Fight Club

Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.

Unless the writer is directly involved with (or making money from the success of) the movie based on their book, they tend to keep pretty quiet about the movie, save for smiles and waves at the premier. Any why wouldn’t they? You sell your lifes work to be adapted, sometimes butchered, at the very least have parts added or removed and characters changed. However, upon release of the movie, Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk gave an interview, where he actually complimented the changes made in the movie. In regards to the addition of a successful romantic arc to the move, he said that the whole time he was writing Fight Club, he intended that “The story is about a man reaching the point where he can commit to a woman”. He went on to call the changes to the dialogue “beautifully composed, attractive and funny” and that the screenwriters “made connections he had never thought to make”.

High Praise, Indeed.

We know that Fight Club was a great movie, and would be fans of it regardless, but having the kudos of the one person in the world who should be pre-disposed to disliking it lends a lot of credit to the flick.

Best New Contender: The Great Gatsby (2013)

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice. “Always try to see the best in people,” he would say. As a consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgement. But even I have a limit.

Only Baz Luhrmann can express the gin-soaked, charleston-dancing long strand pearls and flapper girls Jazz age with such a seamless blend of frivolity and shadowy foreboding. You could feel the forced smiles and sense every undercurrent and behind the scenes argument. It was not just the casting, or the visuals, or the cinematography, this is one of those very rare situations where everything lined up perfectly.

The themes and general attitude of a book are the hardest parts to capture on film, but Gatsby really got it right.

And this might be a controversial statement, but in my opinion, Leo made a Great Gatsby.

The Bad: Because sometimes it just doesn’t work…

Worst “should have been a home run”: Confessions of a Shopaholic

They said I was a valued customer. Now they send me hate mail.

Confessions of a bookworm? I’m a terrible flyer. To get through a long flight without running up and down the corridor screaming “we’re all going to die!” I require the following:

  • Prescription Pharmaceuticals
  • One very large glass of wine
  • Sophie Kinsellas latest “Shopaholic” book.

So, you know it’s not book snobbery that makes me dislike this movie so much. I love beach reads! This movie was painfully un-funny, with none of the subtle silliness that the books have. Somewhere in all this, we crossed the line from simple, fun and charming to frothy, empty and devoid the substance (however little) the book had. The characters were one dimensional, the plot was flat and the dialogue was stilted and campy. *dimple grin and zoom in close-up* “That’s our Becky!”

The real irritating thing about this is that this should have been easy. Its a Rom-Com for crying out loud. How to lose a guy in 10 days-simple, fun and charming.  13 going on 30– Simple, fun and charming. Life as we know it-Simple, Fun and Charming. Raising Helen– Simple, Fun and Charming. IT IS NOT DIFFICULT TO MAKE A ROM COM WORTH WATCHING! Especially when you have a book the reads like a script.

Watch instead: Any of the above movies. Or, from the book-based: Where the Heart is.

Worst Kids’ Retelling: The Cat in the Hat (2003)

Sally: Like being in the circus! The Cat: Yeah, but without those tortured animals or drunken clowns that have hepatitis

No. Just No. Dr. Seuss’ first grade tome cannot be made into a live action suck fest. We already lost The Grinch, for crying out loud. I don’t care how many parents are out there, desperate for an escape from made-for-children media, The Cat in the Hat is no place for weird sexual innuendo and a slathered on layer of secondary plotline. As much as I appreciate that Mike Myers needs a movie he can show his kids, this surreal, obscene movie and super creepy cat costume are trying to make too much out of a simple, first grade classic. To quote a very wise fish in a pot “Do I like it one bit? No, I do not!”

Fun Fact: After this movie came out, Dr. Seuss’ widow, Audrey Geisel, forbade the movie industry from making any more live-action movies from his books. True Story.

Watch Instead: The Lorax

The Downright Ugly…

The Scarlet Letter (1999)

I have dreamed of speaking my heart, I have prayed for it even as I have dreaded it. Was I alive before I laid eyes on thee?

This “loosely based retelling” of Nathanial Hawthornes classic is basically a soft core porn with period costumes. With complete loss of all themes and social commentary, huge plot changes including an entirely different ending and the addition of a good Hollywood dose of sex and violence, this is a “Retelling” about as much as I am a “Supermodel”. This movie fails as entertaining AND fails as true to the novel. Also, is that Gary Oldman? Gross.

Watch Instead: Easy A. or literally anything else.

…and why its all a moot point

But in the end, hotly debating the merits of books-turned-movies is all for naught. First prize will always go to “Clueless” (1995), the modern day retelling (well, 1995 retelling) of “Emma”. Modern day retellings are tricky, but this one maintains the basic themes of the book without being campy and obvious. Even without the backing of the classic story of mis-read signals, Clueless is ,like, a totally phat movie. Watch it now, it will totally make your day.

One thought on “Movie Adaptations of Books: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (and why they’re all just playing for second).

  1. Since I agree with 99% of your assertions, and also like your choices, I’ll have to content myself with the tiniest of disagreements, all from the second paragraph.

    Some real book lovers hate movies, but most do not, especially those like me and you who understand that (duh) books aren’t movies. Books can be read at varying speeds, which the reader controls. You can skip around, or to the end, and re-read stuff you like, or need to better understand. Audiences in a movie theater have no control by comparison. The movie comes to you like a meal in a restaurant with the courses in a specific order, and you consume it in one sitting. This means books that contain more straightforward narratives and chronological events will always be easier to adapt.

    There are whole genres like film noir, where the book sources were pulp fiction crime stories. Nearly ALL of those are “better than the book” adaptations. Same goes for most of the great westerns, primarily adapted from magazine stories or slim paperback volumes marketed as “toilet time” reading.

    The movies/films thing is just two currently interchangeable terms. Earlier generations called them motion pictures, or just pictures, or flickers/flicks. Now that hardly anyone is using actual film, we will probably soon adopt a new word like “digies”.

    I do like the newest Gatsby better than the two previous attempts, but still think that novel hasn’t gotten the adaptation it deserves.

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