Adapt, Improvise, Overcome (or Not): On Turning Books into Movies

“Adapt, Improvise, Overcome.” This phrase is very familiar to members of the United States Marine Corp, and the people who love them. It’s not just a rallying cry for the Marines, but it is also  a sotto voce mating call in the symbiotic relationship between the literary world and cinema.

For years, the movie theaters have been inundated with book-to-screen adaptations. This usually is big screen (movies shown in theaters), but also applies to TV and even YouTube. Hollywood has profited mightily from adaptations of books and stories such as The Exorcist by William P. Blatty; The Godfather by Mario Puzo;  Kiss The Girls and Along Came A Spider by James Patterson; How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Waiting to Exhale, Disappearing Acts, and A Day Late and a Dollar Short by Terry McMillan; and Danger Word (based on the novel Devil’s Wake by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due). In more recent years, audiences have been exposed to the movie versions of the Young Adult novel sensations The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashears; The Twilight series (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn ) by Stephenie Meyer;  The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins;  Divergent by  Veronica Roth; and The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. And, lest we forget, the blockbuster Harry Potter series by JK Rowling: The Sorcerer’s Stone; The Chamber of Secrets;  The Prisoner of Azkaban; The Goblet of Fire; The Order of the Phoenix; The Half-Blood Prince; and The Deathly Hallows. Even classics have enjoyed a renaissance, from East of Eden by John Steinbeck, to The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and of course, various versions of  Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare.

For book purists, the rub lies in the creative licenses taken when books are adapted for viewing pleasure. As readers, we are used to taking a writer’s words and visualizing what someone or something looks like in our heads. We especially are enamored of the book plot; that’s why we finished the book in the first place, and keep coming back for more–or not. The author’s words are, in that case, gospel. Movies, as we all know, are very different in that they show you how to visualize something. When these two visualizations collide, it can get ugly. Case in point: fans were up in arms about the girl cast as Rue in the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games. Though the book clearly implied that the girl was of African descent, the visual reality in a movie was too much for some fans to bear. Likewise for movie adaptations of The Green Lantern (he was, at one point, a black man in the DC Comics universe), Malcolm X (he had a much lighter skin tone than Denzel Washington in real life), the X-Men franchise (I can’t be the only one who was pissed that Halle Berry got the part of Storm; not just because of looks, but because of acting ability as well), and Their Eyes Were Watching God (Michael Ealy’s casting as Tea Cake was wrong because Tea Cake’s dark skin tone in the book was an integral part of the plot).

Most times, book adaptations work.  Blockbusters such as the Harry Potter series and Game of Thrones (based on the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin) have remained fairly close to the books that spawned them, to the delight of most of the viewing audience (there will always be uber-purists who will not be satisfied, bless their hearts).  Even How Stella Got Her Groove Back  took some plot deviations that ended up making the movie better (Whoopi Goldberg’s character was originally already dead in the book), as did the Harry Potter movies (but seriously, what could you expect when the last four books in the series each topped out at over 400 pages long?).  But sometimes, book adaptations make you look at the screen like, “WTF just happened?” This is especially true of the movies The Firm and The Pelican Brief, based on the novels of the same name by John Grisham; (at least A Time To Kill, The Rainmaker, and The Client remained truer to the books). The deviations from the book plot were so egregious as to be offensive to book loyalists.

As our society ever morphs into a visually stimulated one, we can expect movie adaptations to sometimes move further away from book plots in an effort to hold viewers’ attention. Still, there is a burden on movie makers to appease those who actually read the books upon which adaptations are based; word of mouth is very powerful and while many Hollywood studios are catering to the 18-24 year-old demographic, it’s wise to remember that the people who actually read books are usually the ones with the most spending power.

What are your favorite book adaptations? Which ones do you think were a mistake? Sound off in the comments.


Thanks for stopping by.