Some book-to-movie adaptations, like Jaws or all Harry Potter candor, stand the test of time. Others, not so much. It’s hard to distill exactly what makes a compelling big-screen literary adaptation. It can be a combination of winning performances of beloved actors. Deeper still, any good adaptation must tell the best story from the source material.
There are literary classics that did not have to be adapted for the cinema. Some, like The Hobbit, would have been better suited as a movie or series aimed at children. Others, like The Handmaid’s Tale, proved that some literary classics are meant to be adapted into a serialized format. Still other books should have been pretty much left alone.
“The Hobbit” (2012)
JRR Tolkien’s classic fantasy series enjoyed great success with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It seemed natural that the earlier novel would eventually get an adaptation. However, the trilogy based on this children’s book received mixed reviews, at best.
The flaw from the start was that this children’s book was adapted into three films that were about three hours long. There just wasn’t a whole lot of content. It’s also basically a simple story with a simple moral. There were unnecessary parts to this epic quest that were added. In the end, the source material might have been better suited to another format.
“The Book Thief” (2013)
By himself, The book thief was not a bad movie. Some might even say it was pretty good. The performances in particular were incredibly endearing. Unfortunately, the film never quite captured what made the book a modern classic.
The book this film is based on is told from the perspective of death. That alone makes it a near impossibility to fit faithfully. There is a richness to this story that never quite translates, despite Geoffrey Rushbest efforts.
“The Kite Runner” (2007)
Khaled Hosseini’s first novel, The kite runner, captured a cultural moment in the most spectacular way. The story of a family across generations and continents has resonated with readers around the world. Each new revelation was a heartbreaking twist. The story was a commentary on human nature that was readily available to so many.
Unfortunately, even an outstanding performance by Shaun Toub do not save this movie. Perhaps there was too much pressure to bring such a culturally significant work of art to the big screen. The twists don’t feel deserved. Everything about the movie feels rushed, perhaps indicating that a movie wasn’t the right place to adapt this story.
“A Shortcut in Time” (2018)
An adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s seminal work had to be nothing short of magical. The source material combines faith and science, and a classic hero’s journey. The themes of good and evil are presented at a child’s level, but are important lessons for readers of all ages.
Unfortunately, 2013 A shortcut in time did not take up the challenge. All the elements of a great adaptation were there. With the combination of stellar performances from iconic acting legends, and The direction of Ava Duvraney, it could have been a winning adaptation. Instead, everything looks very lost, and the core of the source material cannot be found.
“The Giver” (2014)
For anyone who must have read Lois Lowry’s novel in elementary school, it hasn’t been forgotten anytime soon. This dystopian hellscape got worse and worse as each new horror was revealed. There was a very specific tone that, to be fair, was always going to be difficult to adapt to the big screen.
This is another example of a book being told from a first-person perspective, which automatically makes it a challenge to adapt. It probably should never have been adapted, at least not the way it was, because there’s too much that doesn’t translate well visually. Even the one aspect of the story that translates well to screen, the color palette (or lack thereof), falls flat.
“The Scarlet Letter” (1927)
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel about a Puritan colony in Massachusetts remains an American classic to this day. The source material is also a lot of his time, so it’s a challenge to capture Hawthorne’s original intent. Many have been inspired by this story, with varying degrees of success.
Any adaptation always had to walk a fine line between staying true to the source material and providing a place for commentary on the modern world. This fact alone probably prevents a satisfactory adaptation. Arguably, Easy succeeded in bringing the story into a modern era, but had to sacrifice the novel’s historical commentary.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” (1990)
The Handmaid’s Tale inspired fear in all of its adaptations. It’s a dystopian tale of violent misogyny that frankly seems too plausible. Unfortunately, the characters and stories aren’t always fully fleshed out, and the world-building is exceptionally chaotic.
This is another example of them being too content in the source material to be a satisfying film adaptation. The recent HBO series is proof that this novel needs a TV series to be adapted faithfully. It gives the world in which this story is told a chance to develop more fully. A film does not allow this.
‘Blade Runner’ (1982)
Phillip K. Dick’s science fiction novel, Do androids dream of electric sheep? honestly reads like a fever dream. So much is happening in such a short time. It’s a dystopian, futuristic nightmare that blends into the messiness of a story. Fortunately, the visionaries behind Blade Runner saw the potential and never looked back.
Science fiction is a particularly difficult genre to master, in film, television and literature. The disorganization of the original novel was always going to be an obstacle in the way of any adaptation. Perhaps the performance of Harrison Ford and Sean Young could have put it all together.
‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1961)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is still presented as a classic of American cinema, as it should be. Audrey Hepburn is nothing short of a legend, and it is a privilege to witness his art. Unfortunately, even Hepburn’s star power isn’t enough to distract from the fact that this is an adaptation of a novel that probably should never have been made.
There’s a lot to be said for how difficult the end result of this adaptation was. Foundry mickey rooney as a Japanese man is a huge red flag. Author Truman Capote apparently felt his short story was too bitter and the end result of the adaptation was too light. This cautionary tale was perhaps too dark to come to life as a film.
“The Shining” (1980)
The novel by horror legend Stephen King the brilliant is famously despised by the author. While the film is considered a classic of cinema, as well as a classic in the horror genre, King has often spoken about how the stories and characters deviate from what he originally intended.
Perhaps the lesson of the brilliant is that an adaptation should not be made, or should be made with caution, if the original author is not involved. Especially when it comes to characterization and storytelling, an author could provide valuable insight into their vision. Conflicts like this can possibly be avoided.