I grew up hearing that The Lord of the Rings films were actually pretty close to the books. When I finally watched them, however, I found out that the films were actually quite a bit different. True, there were some things I liked better, and some of the changes were understandable or more interesting, but on the whole, I liked the books better.
That’s actually all I’m going to say about LOTR for this post, but it serves as an introduction to an important discussion. I am a book geek. I have been since the first grade. I will be until I go blind in old age. But that doesn’t mean I a hundred percent hate movies that are based on books. I don’t always read the book first, but I am the kind of person who prefers to. This is the case especially when I’ve heard good things about the book as well, for instance, Life of Pi. On the other hand, sometimes I refuse to read the book because the film/television version I grew up watching is completely different and I don’t want to tarnish my feelings for the film (a lot of Disney movies I like are this way). But if the movie is based on a book that I have read and liked, then I am going to hold it to a certain standard.
Please note that what I’m saying is not fact or based on research but opinion and perspective. I’m not here to say that books are better than their film counterparts but to offer a few guidelines about how to look at a movie based on a book, or a book based on a movie, or a story that originated in one medium that gets told in another. We live in a time when stories can be told in any manner possible, and then they can be retold in an infinite number of ways–comic books, tv shows, graphic novels, YouTube Channels, video blogs, tweets. All forms have advantages and disadvantages, and while some retellings in different media can be better than others, that does not mean that one medium is superior. It’s all about the story. But for the sake of argument let’s focus on books as source material.
For the record, there is a healthy way to view movies that are adapted from other sources, particularly books. A book and a movie are two different forms of media that use different means to convey ideas. The writer of a book can use words to create just about anything. There are usually a few editors and beta readers involved in the writing process but a book is usually a solo project. A movie, however, uses whatever can be captured on a camera to tell a story, and that usually involves costumes, makeup, sets, lighting, props, directors, producers, screenwriters and so forth. While an author’s imagination is unlimited, film studios are limited by money, time, and other resources to creating what is going to appear on the screen. Furthermore, the people creating a film may tailor the material they’re working with to fit a specific audience or to illustrate their personal interpretations. So to expect a movie based on a book to be exactly the same as the book is unfair.
We watch movies differently from the way we read books. When we read, we process words to gather information. When we watch movies or other visual media the movement, scenery, and sound create the story instead of words. When reading fiction, you can get directly into the protagonist’s head to tell what they’re thinking. In a movie, you can’t have a voice-over narrating what the protagonist is thinking every single moment. You can use lighting and props and costumes and sound effects and a music score and dialogue to achieve a certain atmosphere, but everything else is left to the interpretation.
The Martian as originally written by Andy Weir was a written log kept by Mark Watney during his sojourn on Mars, detailing his thoughts on his chances of survival and his plans to improve them. However, people watching a movie aren’t here to read an astronaut’s space journal. So in the film, in addition to the main camera recording his ordeal, in the film Watney records a video log on the Hab computer of his day-to-day activities and includes a witty commentary (so it’s monologue rather than dialogue). Film is about showing rather than telling.
Logically, it follows that a good movie adaptation of a book has to lend itself to the original interpretation of the book. The disconnect happens for purists, I think, when the story pacing, exposition, and other things are changed to accommodate the film.
I am not saying that movie adaptations of books are 100% a bad idea. Film versions can give us visuals of what the book is talking about. And sometimes the changes are more interesting and fun than the exact details from the book. In the boggart scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Ron Weasley in the book uses the Ridikulus charm to remove the legs from the spider-boggart. But in the film, the spider gets roller skates, rendering the spider-boggart unable to stand up straight. My mom thought that was much funnier, and, frankly, I agree with her.
Fans on the internet say that a 5-hour movie retelling every detail from the book would be a dream come true. Well, for them it is, but for a lot of film studios, the idea is not feasible. In the meantime, should book adaptations stay as faithful as possible to the original source material? Yes. Film studios market movies based on books because they want the readers to come and watch. Therefore, the reader has the right to expect the movie version to be enjoyable for the same reasons the book was. The movie adaptation shouldn’t have to ruin the book completely. For me, a good movie adaptation means I want to go read the book again but in the meantime, the movie is a different way of getting the same experience. The movie adaptation means something because it’s based on a book I liked.
Remember Ella Enchanted? The book won a Newberry and was one of the most popular books in my generation. But then they made a movie that was not only completely different but extremely tacky. It’s when the film studios change the parts of the book that I care about that I can get disappointed. For instance, Ella’s finishing school was rewritten as a community college, and her curse was used as an excuse for rude humor and bad puns. Filmmakers have their reasons, for instance trying to please other people in the audience or to make the story more concise, but fans of the books come to the movie for the same reason: to be entertained by something they love.
A piece of advice I’ve heard recently is to watch the movie first. That makes sense because one, you don’t have to read the book if you don’t like the movie, or if you do read the book then it won’t have already set your expectations too high for the film. However, if you like the movie it could set your expectations way too high for the book. The Princess Diaries is based on a book series, for instance. The premise of the plot and some of the characters are the same, but otherwise, the books are completely different and not as family-friendly. But should I hate the movie because it is completely different from the book? Should I despise the filmmakers for desecrating the source material? No. Not at all.
Here’s why: because the story is what matters. Not the source, but the material. The book is not the be-all and end-all of how the story actually happened. It’s okay if there’s different versions. I know some people don’t have a tolerance for that but that’s the nature of the world we live in, where different stories now have different timelines and multiple versions. Heck, the version in my head is probably true. It’s just a story, but my way of experiencing it is different from others’. If I find the story uplifting and entertaining regardless of how I come across it, then I don’t need to act uptight about which version tells it better, or feel bad because I haven’t read the original. Not everyone is going to read the book, so we shouldn’t judge people who only watch the movie. It’s human nature that if we expect something and things turn out different from how we hoped, then we will be dissatisfied. But how we deal with our disappointment is our choice. Some stories divide us, but in the first place they are what really unite us.