Book to Film Adaptation Travesties

The transfer of book to film is a tricky business. The written word while so easy to turn into images within the mind’s eye is more often than not lacking when reproduced upon the filmic medium. This is especially disheartening for fans. When one has read the books and has become attached to the exacting portrayal of characters and events only to see the films and quickly notice that the film maker has skimmed over, omitted or completely changed the beloved book it is easy to see why the fan becomes outraged. Even worse is when the Derps and Derpina’s go out and see the film and can’t resist arguing how “awesome” the film travesty was.

This list is for every time I have completed a book, looked forward to the film in earnest only to be dismayed at over-Americanising, event softening or complete character alteration. In the future I may make a list celebrating the film makers who actually get it right but for now, after completing The Power of One and then watching the movie in indignation I will write in the negative. In no particular order:

The Power of One (Writer: Bryce Courtney)

The Power of One (Director: John G Avildsen, Screenplay: Robert Mark Kamen)

The Power of One was written with great poeticism but lacked this quality in its shift to screen

Bryce Courtney’s The Power of One, is as its’ title suggests the story of the struggle of one man, one race and one country to balance the power and find a sense of justice. This is told through the character of Peekay, an child of English blood born and raised during Africa’s Apartheid. He fights for justice and power, struggles through racism, poverty and becomes an unlikely world champion welterweight champion and idealistic Barrister, fighting for the rights of all the people of Africa. The book is a touching tale that paints the apartheid atrocities clearly yet poetically, balances coming of age and the responsibility of power discourses and explains some of the nuances of tribal custom and language as well as that of boxing. From the outside it would seem that a story like this is a nearly impossible fit but Bryce Courtney’s story telling is such that it makes total sense and stays with the reader for weeks after the book’s completion.

The film on the other hand is very confused. There is little or no real explanation for Peekay’s exaltation by the Afrikaner tribes, why he wanted to be a boxer and why the film was changed to be a love story between Maria (who the hell is this ginger?) and Peekay when really it should have been concerned with the power of one to make a difference in the world. The viewer was left with no emotional connection to Peekay or any of those who touched his life. One example of this is the death of Geel Piet. In the book, this man was supposed to have been one of the largest bricks in the building of Peekay’s resolve and his brutal and visceral murder. Instead while watching the film I was wondering why I should care that Geel Piet was dead, what he had to do with boxing and why he would be so keen to wait upon Peekay and Doc. At about 1:35:00 the film started making a little bit of sense, it seems that Kamen and Avildsen intended to focus upon how knowledge is the larger part of power, placing Peekay as the forward thinker in educating Black Africans (banned from any real education during the apartheid). Read the book, avoid the film.
Film Rating: 6.9/10 IMDb
3/10 My rating

Stephen King’s IT (Writer: Stephen King)

Stephen King’s IT (Director: Tommy Lee Wallace, Screenplay: Lawrence D. Cohen)

The adult cast in the second part of the film from IT
The adult cast in the second part of the film from IT

Each time I read IT I jump at shadows, avoid showers and drain pipes and will cross the street to avoid clowns. The book and film narratives are very close, so there are no complaints here. Aired as a two part tele-movie, IT is about the inter-dimensional predatory lifeform that lives and has lived since almost the beginning of time beneath Derry, Maine. It goes by the name Pennywise, a wise cracking clown that feeds upon fear, and who is full of more fear than small children? The first part of the story is concerned with a group of outcast children who band together throughout the school holidays firstly through their “loser” status and secondly by a combined need to survive Pennywise. Tim Curry is a standout performer in both the first and second sections and overall the first part of this film is a success.

Which brings me to part two of the narrative: thirty years after the children have defeated Pennywise it seems that he is back to finish what he started but with the now grown ups who put him back underground. The book describes how the simpler fears of childhood are complicated by adulthood but how even as adults we fear what goes bump in the night. The group must band back together and link back to the past as a matter of significance: Although they are successful adults, as children they were losers, and losers they must become again (Bill begins stuttering again, Beverly has to confront how extensively she was abused as a child etc.). *SPOILER ALERT* it turns out that Pennywise only takes upon the form of a clown as a projection above ground. In fact, it is a gigantic alien spider with a gaze (deadlights) that can knock the sanity out of a person. In printed word, this is all very scary. In film, not so much. The first issue here is with casting, the adults actors were incredibly overdone, so much so it was laughable in parts (very special mention goes to Richard Thomas for his pony tail, st…st…stuttering and visible quaking in parts. How very kitsch!). From what should have been a psychological thriller/ horror, the view is left with a melodrama. The second, and I am sure fans would agree is on equal par is the extremely dated special effects of IT. The giant spider that in print left me with nightmares about deadlights actually produced a chuckle from me in film. It was the kind of special effect I would honestly expect from an Ed Wood film, not something that is supposed to be honouring the work of Stephen King.
Film rating: 6.8/10 IMDb
Part One 7/10, Part Two 4/10

Flowers in the Attic (Writer: Virginia Andrews)

(1987, Jeffery Bloom. 2014, Deborah Chow)

Lifetime's take on Flowers in the Attic (2014)
Lifetime’s take on Flowers in the Attic (2014)

It is arguable that perhaps the filmmaker didn’t have the best material to work with, but the book did enjoy quite a lot of success after its 1979 release. The first attempt to make this book into a film was in 1987 and was poorly received by both critics and fans. The film did deviate from the novel in many ways, the controversial incest storyline between the elder brother and sister was omitted from the film in addition to the death of the mother character, Corinne, who survives until the third novel. The Lifetime network remade Flowers in the Attic in 2014 which while being more authentic to the novel included rather lacklustre acting from Heather Graham
Film Rating 5.5/10 IMDb

Quick Mentions for Other Culprits

The Golden Compass (2007)
No religious undertones and allegories in this film, which made this book so interesting, but instead there are a hodgepodge of senseless action sequences. Also I don’t know what happened to Nicole Kidman after The Others but she is still doing that breathy, whispering thing when she speaks. Is that meant to be sexy? I don’t know what is going on there at all.

The Scarlet Letter (1995)
Demi Moore, who forgot that you can act with your clothes on, forewent a speech coach (that is NOT an English accent gov’ner!) and really failed to explore the inner turmoil of Hester as a pariah.

Queen of the Damned (2002)
Anne Rice’s stance on this film on her Facebook page is that she is “hurt” that her film was “mutilated the way it was”. She repeatedly comments that the film is not something that she can understand or embrace. To say that this film is loosely based upon the novel is very much a stretch. The film lost the charm of allure of the class vampire. Completely modernised, the characters became two dimensional and lost that sense of the balance between being aged and ageless.

Eragon (2006)
Great book and filmed into another mundane fantasy, CGI-fest.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightening Thief (2010)
See note about Eragon.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)
As always, Tim Burton’s work is always visually breathtaking but Alice’s casting (Mia Wasikowska) gave a rather mediocre performance. Alice’s character is supposed to be the anti-Victorian era woman and is supposed to gain strength as she progresses through the narrative. Instead Alice seemed to float through the narrative events, almost unaware of what was going on. Also, while the film began well, it ended in the same predictable mega fight finale that almost all CGI based films use.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Kahlia is a PhD candidate at Griffith University who specializes in horror genre films, gender performance and audiences.

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  1. Anna Williams

    I’d like to read IT. I saw the film and thought the first half was pretty good with a few creepy scenes. In the second half the (adult) actors were quite hammy and over the top.

  2. Fred Moss

    Adaptions that I liked in both movie and book form:

    Trainspotting, Man on Fire, Silence of the Lambs and The Crow.

    The one I think that gets the most from its source material yet couldn’t be “faithful” if it wanted to, is “Blackhawk Down”. The book is a GREAT book on modern warfare (as opposed to how great “Generation Kill” is at portraying the modern warfighter); but it’s simply too much, like adapting a textbook. Yet the movie is done well enough to get the major piece right and not be weighed down by too many facts as they happened.

    • Kahlia Sankey

      I thought that both Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon were quite well written and filmed, they were pretty spot on.

  3. I problem with some adaptations is the changes that makes it completely different from the source. Like the series Legend of the Seeker. The only thing that was the same as the source in the series were the characters and bits and pieces of what they could do.

  4. Duane Black

    For antagonism in making a pseudo adaptation, there is Starship Troopers. The script was started a something else, then had the book slapped on, though the Director (Paul Vertoven) famously said he never finished the book because it was “to depressing.” So the film becomes at best a parody of a book about a militaristic society, and looks like a sci fi version of a WWII era propaganda film.

    • Kahlia Sankey

      That is a good point, Shakespeare has been used in the same way, whether as drama, comedy or reimagining it has at time been successfully reproduced. There is an article somewhere on theartifice I think somewhere that discusses Sons of Anarchy in terms of Shakespeare which is great.

  5. Kevin Licht

    Film adaptations are something I studied quite a bit in college. In doing so “the book is better than the film” became one of my least favorite phrases. I feel that the main issue in regards to book vs. film is that audiences have trouble separating the two mediums. Furthermore, film creators have difficulties doing this as well, and that can come through in the film when a director is trying to be faithful to the book and is too afraid to create their own vision.

    Most, if not all, of Stanley Kubrick’s films are adaptations from literature, and he had a knack for making those stories his own through film.

    Having said that, these are terrible adaptations.

    • Kahlia Sankey

      I couldn’t agree more that there are some films that can stand on their own feet without being exactly like the book.

  6. Thaniel

    To my mind the perfect film-book adaptation was Akira.

    it manages to perfectly capture the magic of the manga, while diverging quite a bit from the story in order to keep it within the constraints of a feature film. otomo’s hand in both versions was probably the crucial factor.

    • Akira is a great one. My choice is Grapes of Wrath. I wouldn’t say it was perfect, but solid. Even Steinbeck said Henry Fonda was the perfect Tom Joad. Fonda personified the perfect mix of mischief and morality. I believe it even incorporated one of those interlude scenes that would’ve been hell to fully adapt into the movie (I can’t remember if the diner-bread scene was an interlude in the book or part of the main Joad storyline). Plus ending on a positive note wasn’t a disservice to the book at all, but reinforced the theme of strength through family. And no one wants to see some old guy suckling Rose of Sharon’s teat.

    • Lonesome Dove, anyone? It’s almost a thousand pages freakin’ pages long, and yet the 6 hours miniseries was astoundingly faithful without dragging or losing depth of character. There are a lot of minor characters, a whole bunch of wandering sub-plots and it’s surprising how few of them are jettisoned.

      I think the key to a successful adapation is to get the feel of the original source right. I had my fanboy nerd-fits about some of the changes in the LOTR movies, but after some distance and writerly-nerd consideration of those changes, the feel of the whole thing, the whole world, was mostly dead-on the money, and therefore I consider those movies to be extremely successful adaptaions.

    • GuillermoJimenez

      One of the best book to screen adaptations I’ve ever read/seen was Gods & Monsters. And although both incarnations were good (with many moments of excellence each), the success of the screenplay and film in capturing virtually every salient moment and thought of the book perhaps only points out the (bottom-line) pedestrian/”timid” quality, limitations, and “slimness” of both creations. I can call each an interesting “success,” and neither great Art.

    • Alex Estrada

      It’s definitely not the best film or the best adaptation, but I was surprised at how close the Coen brothers stuck to the novel of True Grit. As I was reading it, it seemed like it was an ideal fit to their sensibilities. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I would love for them to adapt Masters of Atlantis by the same author.

  7. A good director can take something he or she has minimal or no respect for (like The Shining, American Psycho or Starship Troopers) and make a good, different movie out it, while a bad director will try the same and get crap. In the same way, a good director can keep the important parts of a faithful adaption while bringing forth the things only film adds, while minimizing the stuff that just won’t translate. A bad director will slavishly follow the source adding nothing, fall upon the “authenticity” crutch when it doesn’t play, and fail.

    In other words, talented people who care about what they are doing can make a good movie-going experience out of nearly anything, while disinterested/untalented people can make any concept a chore to sit through.

  8. Liz Kellam

    I have seen a lot of bad book-to-film adaptations, but I think my most notorious would have to be Blood and Chocolate. Wonderful book with lots of themes of what it is like growing up, falling in love, and going through physical changes (here symbolized by becoming a lycanthrope). There is very little good werewolf fiction out there, so this movie was a huge let down.

    • Kahlia Sankey

      The balance between the actual shape shifting and narrative/ character changes never seems to be on even keel. Either the director has gone overboard on the spectacle of shape shifting and neglected explaining how this affects the shifter his-self or you end up with Teenwolf. One day they will get it right, I’m sure.

  9. Emily Lighezzolo

    Add “City of Bones” to this list. I was so excited for the movie and yet was so disappointed in the Hollywood debacle that manifested on my screen.

    • Kahlia Sankey

      I have to agree with you there. There was no chemistry between the female and male leads. Perhaps they wanted to tip toe around the incest farce?

  10. leah tyl

    there’re a lot of great movies based on forgotten short stories: all about eve, stagecoach, blowup, rashomon, stuff inspired by poe, freaks, in the bedroom, it goes on. i think adapting a standalone story is usually a more interesting project than trying to translate the long slog of a novel. stories have more in common with the movies than do novels. maybe that’s why we’re seeing a lot of premium cable adaptations of novels, where the directors are permitted/expected to drag things out over the course of several weeks/months.

    • Kahlia Sankey

      I think that might be one of the harder decisions for a novelist, to choose what kind of medium their work will be adapted to. True Blood was cued to be a movie series but Harris felt that would skate over all of her side narratives. That being said, Alan Ball ended up making it his own anyway.

  11. A great adaptation takes what works in the books, throws out everything else, and expands on what it uses so masterfully that when you reread the book, you miss the scenes from the movie.

    Case in point: Election and Fight Club. They both used voiceover, they both took the best parts of the book but elaborated on them with lots of new material, and they both added radical new endings that surpassed the original book ending in every way.

    Election’s original ending was leaked on the internet. It was pretty much the novel’s ending. And sucked. Sometimes, you can be faithful to a fault (see Watchmen, etc).

    • This is a magnificent point. To me, the perfect example is The Princess Bride. In the book, William Goldman repeatedly has asides where he details how he is just translating and editing the original The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern, though in reality, he created both the story and Morgenstern. He wrote the screenplay for the movie, and completely changes the asides to make the story quicker and more presentable. Now, the asides from the story follow a boy and his grandfather (who is reading the story). The adaptation accomplishes the same task and gives the viewer a similar feeling, all in a much more screen appropriate manner.

  12. Percy Jackson, so much ruined potential. Hurts just thinking about the botched adaptation.

  13. IT is a book I didn’t read until high school, but because I saw the film when I was a kid (and because it frightened the crap out of me, it’ll always be a guilty pleasure of mine. A lot of Stephen King films are not-so-faithful adaptations of their fantastic source, but Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise the clown will haunt me forever. Reading this article makes me want to read IT again, actually.

  14. I thought Percy Jackson was almost there. Almost. Nowhere near the tragedy that was Eragon!

  15. Pedro Flores

    Thinking about this piece made me remember that probably the book-to-film adaptation that I had more arguments about than any other in recent years was Into the Wild. I don’t know if I just know more people who read that or what, but it seemed to be a constant conversation topic the year it came out. Personally, I thought the movie was fine, but aside from a couple of scenes, it really lacked the aspects that made me love the book so dearly.

    • Kahlia Sankey

      I’ve never read the book but my parents had and they thought the same thing. I found that the film stood quite well by itself not having the book to compare to but my parents argued quite convincingly that certain aspects of personal growth had been skated over somewhat.

  16. Although most book to film transitions are awful, I would say there are a couple that definitely lived up to the hype. For one I would say “No Country For Old Men” would be at the forefront of that conversation, also including both renditions of “True Grit.” “The Lord of the Rings” franchise must be discussed in this conversation, I would even add “12 Years A Slave” to the argument too. It was a autobiography, yes, but it still lives up and perhaps surpasses the book in that regard.

    • Kahlia Sankey

      I would add to that Angela’s Ashes, A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest – I have heard a lot of arguments otherwise against these and The LOTR adaptations but that’s because fans tend to get stuck on the details. These films held their own, were interesting and had depth. I only saw 12 Years a Slave last week and thoroughly enjoyed it, I’m looking to get my hands on a copy of the book as I’d not heard of it prior to the film’s release.

  17. jwt02806

    I really enjoyed reading your piece, made me think about some of my favorite/least favorite adaptations and why some fail and others succeed when a brilliant story is already established for them to depict. Cuckoo’s nest, A clockwork Orange, Fight Club, American Psycho, and Shawshank Redemption were all incredibly well done adaptations. The problem today is that Film is much more commercial than the novel tends to be. Movie tickets sold means more than any adherence to artistic integrity in blockbuster films…the one tragic example of this that is fresh on my mind is The Hobbit films. One of my favorite books of all time, and as an avid LOTR fan, I’m a sucker for the movies as well…but Peter Jackson’s insertion of a love story between an elf and a dwarf in the Desolation of Smaug that is does not exist in the book is a pathetic attempt to appeal to a wider audience and sell more tickets at the expense of Tolkien’s perfect story…

    • Kahlia Sankey

      Yeah internet high five to the love story being a crock in Desolation of Smaug.
      I’m always taken aback by the number of film viewers who have no idea that what they are watching is based on a book, a poem, a game and when you ask them to compare the generalised response is “Oh, I’m too lazy for that. I’ve seen the movie now”. That’s fair enough, each to their own. But it doesn’t give much chance back to the original piece, especially if its reproduction was particularly underwhelming.

      • jwt02806

        Yea i agree…and yea, whatever floats your boat when it comes to book vs movie, but I think it does come down to a laziness or just the state of the consumer today that we want the sparknotes version of things, and thats how people look at movies. film adaptations arent meant to be a simply condensed retelling of the story, though…they are supposed to achieve something new through the new medium, and can take on a whole new meaning entirely…and if the author had meant for the story to be told in two hours, they wouldn’t have wrote a 300 page novel. One of my professors always says sparknotes is like going to a fancy restaurant and eating the menu. I am by no means bashing the adaptation of movie into film, just acknowledging we have to recognize it for what it is. I think people use film adaptations as a stimulating condensed summary of the book, and it’s irresponsible.

  18. AnnaMayOtaku21

    I will agree that the Golden Compass wasn’t the greatest book-to-film adaptation ever made, it wouldv’e been difficult to put the anti-religious elements into the movie without a good chunk of America, which is made up of Christians, having a hissy fit. To me, it wasn’t a bad film. They were just playing it safe.

    • Kahlia Sankey

      See, I think there is room for dangerous filmmaking look at what Dallas Buyers Club has to say about the FDA or what Red State (as underwhelming as it was) had to say about cult religion (specifically christian). Playing it safe doesn’t get filmmakers anywhere.

  19. It is so hard to give a clear stance when it comes to book to film adaptations. On the one hand, it’s always fun to see storytellers from other mediums present the story in their own way to see if they can explore different themes within the same story (like the Shutter Island adaptation). But change too much and it should come as no surprise to the filmmaker’s that the fans of the original source material will be upset. I suppose I’d consider an adaptation good if it at the very least captures the spirit of the book and, with respect to the original story, tries to add something different. Kevin Licht was dead on when he said that Stanley Kubrick always did a splendid job of making a film that, while faithful to the book, still provided audiences with a fresh look at the story.

    • Kahlia Sankey

      That is right, I agree that there doesn’t always need to be exactness so much as artistic justice. Game of Thrones for example is not exact but it is particularly well done due to clever casting and a well used (rather large) budget. Cinematic television at its best.
      True Blood, for people interested in that book and series went in a totally different direction with the Tara storyline, and while there might be a lot of fan argument against this I would suggest that Alan Ball did make the series his own in a lot of ways – which ended up helping with the level of “girliness” between the book and the series. (Although, I don’t agree with Anna Paquin’s take on Sookie… or her acting)

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