When the Book Goes to the Screen

By Tuesday, August 25, 2015 , ,

As an avid reader, I can be pretty picky about film adaptations of books. I notice even small discrepancies, so I can be that annoying person in a group who points out the changes. But in recent years, my interest in movies has grown, so I’ve started appreciating them in different ways, even if they differ in some ways from the book. The reality is that books and films are vastly different storytelling mediums, and they’re both worthy of admiration in their own ways. I’ll still usually say the book is better, but my thought process as I watch the movie is now more open-minded. Here are a few things that I think are essential to keep in mind when watching a movie adaptation of a book.

Photo Credit: FreeImages.com
1. Are they really trying to adapt/remake the book?
This may seem like a rhetorical question, but an identical title does not mean it’s based off the book. Take the 1999 version of Mansfield Park, for example. Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park is the film’s primary source material, but in the opening credits, a notation appears that reads “Based on the novel by Jane Austen and Jane Austen’s diaries.” So, from the start, you know that they’re drawing from the book and from other records, which gives them license to make more changes than would have been acceptable if the book was the only source. And because of this, I was able to separate it in my head from the book a bit more easily. It was a varied interpretation of the book because it also drew from Austen’s personal writings.

On the other hand, if a movie claims to be based on a book, but deviates and spins off so much that it’s basically a different story, this is a problem. By all means, director, make up your own story, but don’t claim the book as your source! This is my problem with the second Anne of Green Gables film/miniseries from the 1980s starring Megan Follows. It claims in the opening credits to be based on Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, and Anne of Windy Poplars. But it would have been more accurate to say it was based loosely on Anne of Windy Poplars and the director’s imagination. Fellow Anne aficionados, I’m sure you feel me. Aside from a few small facts, Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island are virtually nonexistent in this film while storylines from Anne of Windy Poplars are expanded on and added to. The third installment in these Anne films is obviously the director’s creation entirely, but at least it doesn’t claim to be adapting the books. Both of these movies are decent enough in themselves, but I always push the books and the first movie for anyone considering joining the Anne fandom.

2. If there are changes made or creative license taken, do they enhance the story as it is or change the plot and/or message?
I’ve realized over the last few years that a filmmaker must be allowed to interpret a story in his or her own way, just like every other reader. And when making a film, there has to be room for creative license because that’s the nature of the trade. Even if it means altering peripheral details or the order of events, creativity is a moviemaker’s forte and prerogative. And following a book scene-for-scene simply isn’t possible on a screen; it would be disjointed, tedious, and even confusing in some instances. What’s important when considering the variations in a movie is whether they actually change the story. Is that an entirely different storyline that was added in, or is it just expanding on or enhancing an existing one? Was there a good reason to leave out this or that particular plot point? For example, the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre starring Mia Wasikowska is overall a very good film, but perhaps the most chilling scene in the story was omitted – when Bertha sneaks into Jane’s room at night and rips her veil. And it’s an important turning point too! There didn’t seem to be a good reason for cutting this out either except for maybe time constraints. That was my main complaint about this adaptation, which is overall excellent.

In contrast to this unnecessary deletion of an event, the final Lord of the Rings film, The Return of the King, most notably cuts out the final dramatic sequence of the book, known as "the scouring of the Shire," and it was probably for the best. In this section, the hobbits return to the Shire after their journey to Mordor to find it overrun with cruel industrialization, and they quickly set about driving away the enemies that have brought it. While it works in the book, I can see how it would have been too much for the movie. The highly dramatic and intense scene at Mordor provided an adequate climax, and the following scenes in Rivendell begin the descent into the peaceful ending. Another big event could have seemed out of place in the movie. And let's be honest: it was running long anyway.

3. Is the heart and message of the book honored?
I think this might be the most important aspect to consider when watching a movie that’s based on a book (and is really based on the book it claims as its source). Even if there are changes, is the message the same? Is the heart of the story honored in the film?

This is what it came down to for me when I saw the 2005 movie of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It is a fantastic film. Are there changes? Yes. Are some aspects tweaked and expanded upon? Yes. But, all the major plot points are still present, and it embodies everything that C.S. Lewis intended in his classic work – a magical children’s fairytale with deeply spiritual underpinnings. I had similar feelings about the last installment in the Narnia movies, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This one fared less favorably with the critics, and for many justifiable reasons. This is one of my favorite books in the series, so it is frustrating that major new storylines were added in unnecessarily. But even so, I’ve decided that I can appreciate it in a separate sort of way because there are a few key scenes that still adhere strongly to the book’s themes of seafaring adventure, self-examination, and allegorical references to the guidance of a divine Savior. The children’s dramatic entrance into Narnia through the painting, Eustace’s explanation of how Aslan “undragoned” him, and the final scene in which the children bid a touching and emotional goodbye to Caspian and Aslan are all poignant and clearly refer back to their source.

This is also why I stick up for the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley. Though the story is compressed significantly, it still captures the emotion and heart of Austen’s novel. The conflict is still obvious: that these Bennet sisters are trapped in a system that insists they marry for money and safety, but Elizabeth wants more. And the journey that brings her and Darcy together is still clearly complicated by her quick judgment, his focus on societal expectations, and their stubbornness. And many of the variances from the novel serve to expand on their emotions and thoughts throughout the process. So even though there are some deviations, it tells the same story with the same sparkling romance and humor (read more on the Pride and Prejudice screen adaptations here).

So, all that to say, even though I will probably still tell you the book is better, movies are good too. I will be critical, but it's important to remember that they are simply different. Obviously, personal preference will come in, and people are going to be pickier about movies that are based on their favorite books, but hopefully these tips are helpful for you too! For no extra charge, here are a few book-to-film adaptations that I think really get it right: 2005 version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe starring Georgie Henley, 2009 version of Emma starring Romola Garai, and The Help from 2011 starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone. Happy reading and watching!
Photo Credit: FreeImages.com

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