Books on Screen: Adapting to Adaptations

I recently came across Erika Olson’s posts on the Redbox Blog, specifically ones that referenced beloved books that were being made into movies, and she agreed to do a Q&A with me about book to screen adaptations. This is part one of two. Part two will run next week.

JD: I have a pretty firm policy about books and movies. I generally try to avoid watching a movie any less than six months after I’ve read the book. When the movie is too fresh in my mind, the small changes that are inevitably made really bother me. What about you? Have you found something that allows you to enjoy adaptations or that inhibits your enjoyment of books on screen?

EO: Up until this week I didn’t have any sort of policy — the book-to-film adaptation process is typically so long that it hasn’t really been an issue for me in the past. But after rereading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince three days before seeing the movie version, I now realize how wise you were to institute a six-month waiting period! I learned the hard way how disappointing it is when it dawns on you that your favorite scenes from a novel are missing from its cinematic equivalent. Quite frankly, I’m pretty sure that — even if I hadn’t just reread the novel — I still would’ve realized that a few things were amiss in HP6 while I was sitting in the theater watching it (because they left out some major parts… grr, can you tell I’m still bitter about it?), but I don’t believe my feelings of “WHAT?!?! They left THAT OUT?!?!” would have been as strong if more time had passed since I’d read the book.

JD: Not to be a name-dropper here, but I had the opportunity to sit in on a conference call with Nicholas Sparks, who has seen many of his bestselling books made into blockbuster films. He said that the changes from page to screen don’t bother him too much, because it’s a different medium and some of them are necessary. As a reader and a movie buff can you appreciate that?

A: I see your Nicholas Sparks name-drop and raise you one Audrey Niffenegger! Audrey, the author of one of my all-time favorite books, The Time Traveler’s Wife, gave a talk in Chicago two summers ago and I was thrilled to be able to attend. I summarized her lecture here, and near the end of that post I cover what she said about the process of watching her novel be turned into a film. I won’t paste in the whole paragraph, but one particularly interesting comment she made was that as she read the four different screenplays that were being considered for development, she felt like someone was rewriting her. She found the whole thing really odd, but in the end she seemed to agree with Sparks’ sentiment and hoped that a film version of The Time Traveler’s Wife would in fact bring something new to her story, or else “it’s just like an illustration of the book.” Unfortunately for me and my fellow TTTW fans, from the looks of the trailer (the film’s out next month), we might have reason to be seriously concerned. I personally have no problem when a movie changes or leaves out parts of a novel that just don’t seem to fit with the flow of the movie.

For example, I had no idea how anyone could adapt Into the Wild in a way that would make a halfway decent film. The book was fabulous, but the bottom line is that it was about a kid wandering around the country on his own. So yes, they ended up exaggerating a few things in the movie… but overall I was amazed at just how much the film stuck to the original story and how effective small tweaks were at keeping me engaged. Long story short, I do appreciate the need to alter some aspects of a story — within reason — for the silver screen.

JD: But what about those unnecessary changes? Do they drive you nuts as much as they do me?

EO: Oh, yes. They drive me insane. There was an uproar over The Time Traveler’s Wife trailer because the main character, Clare, did not have red hair like she does in the book. This may seem like an insignificant modification to someone who hasn’t read the story, but to anyone who has, it’s the equivalent of the film version of Harry Potter not wearing his trademark glasses. So small things like that — which seem like they were changed just for the heck of it — really grate on me. Then there’s the bigger problem of major changes, like leaving out entire sections that are pertinent to the story or a certain character’s development. There was a lot of that going on in Half-Blood Prince and Potter fans are up in arms.

JD: What’s the best book to film adaptation? The worst? (Readers–feel free to chime in here with yours, or with other comments)

EO: As a Lord of the Rings fan, I was so incredibly nervous about that trilogy of films. But I have to tell you that I couldn’t have been happier with how they turned out (they even inspired a trip to New Zealand!) and am certainly pleased that it will still be Peter Jackson at the helm for the adaptation of The Hobbit. The Fellowship of the Ring in particular was brilliant — to me it was everything an adaptation should be. The appropriate side stories were cut out, the casting was spot-on, the characters seemed “real,” time was taken to set up the plot (as in, I don’t feel they rushed anything just to get to the action scenes), and even though I’ve seen it countless times since its premiere eight years ago, it still moves me to tears in two specific parts (hint: they both involve Gandalf). So that gets my vote for The Best Book to Film Adaptation.

As for the worst? Hmm… that’s a tough one… I’m sure I’ll think of other movies immediately after I write this, but what’s coming to mind right now are The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. I enjoyed both of the books (even though I think Dan Brown’s usually not too skilled at sticking his endings), whereas the movies were huge disappointments. First off, Tom Hanks was all kinds of wrong to play Professor Langdon — don’t even get me started on that. Secondly, there’s just too much detail in the novels about various conspiracy theories, secret societies and Symbology to ever be able to coherently explain on screen. Therefore, the films resulted in a jumbled mess of chase scenes interspersed with forced speeches trying to explain everything to the audience. When those movies weren’t mind-numbingly boring, they were head-scratching confusing. For shame, Ron Howard!

Erika Olson is a freelance writer who reviews movies and DVDs and covers film industry news for redbox, the company behind the $1 DVD rental kiosks you’ve probably seen outside your local grocery store. Her posts can be found on redblog. She also runs Long Live Locke, an extremely popular site dedicated to the TV series Lost, and — whenever she has free time — blogs about completely random topics (including books she’s read) on her other site, According to e.


  1. says

    I’m definitely with you on the unnecessary changes! It’d be like if Anne of Green Gables had brown hair or something. Totally would not work. If the author makes a point of a detail, and it’s not a big deal to stick to it – then the movie producers should stick to it!

  2. says

    Great post! I have to say that I am almost always partial to the book version. In my opinion the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice is a very well done adaptation, but it is six hours long. I understand that for most silver screen versions, things must be cut (but wouldn’t it be nice if they asked my opinion about what should be cut first).

    Great interview! I look forward to reading Part 2!

  3. says

    Okay. I’ve read through this twice now, and I’m still trying to pick my mouth up from the floor from the complete shock I experienced. Erika– I can’t agree MORE with everything you’ve said here. Jennifer knows that I am simply impossible to please with movie adaptations, and TTTW is my hands-down, all-time favorite book ever. (Don’t I sound 12??) I’ve read it 3 times, and I have a huge stack of sticky-notes organized by decade chronicling all of Henry and Clare’s meetings. Yeah, I’m crazy. So, I’m all sorts of terrified about seeing this movie. I finally convinced my hubby to read it this year, and friends of ours both read it too, so we’re planning a double-date on 8/14 to go see it, although everyone has warned me that if I get too obnoxious during the movie, that I’m going to be banished to the front row by myself. AAARRGG about the trailer… I’m bracing myself for major disappointment.

    And as far as worst movie adaptation ever– for me, no question about it– 1998’s Les Miserables. It was miserable. Without the s.

    Can’t wait for part two of your interview!!

  4. says

    I’ve rarely enjoyed a screen adaptation, especially of my favorite books. The changes, even the small ones, really bother me and tend to ruin the whole experience for me. If I do see the movie version of a book, I tend to do so right after I’ve read the book. Maybe I should try the 6-month rule and see if it makes a difference.

    Still, even though I read My Sister’s Keeper over two years ago, I will not be seeing the movie.

  5. Jon says

    Bad book to movie conversions? Jumper by Steven Gould. The book is fantastic. The movie is nothing like it.

    Another? Starship Troopers. Please. We all know how bad this movie is, but the book is actually pretty good.

    For the most part, I don’t mind book to movie conversions. I look at it this way — the movie is a retelling of the same story. It’s not an adaptation of the book — it’s (supposed to be) the same story, told by someone else. As with any story retold by someone else, details are slightly off and parts can be missing. It doesn’t bother me, because I know that I can always go back to the book and re-read it the way I like it.

    Besides, the special effects are better in my head.

  6. Lisa writes... says

    The best adaptation? A&E’s Pride and Prejudice closely tied with The Lord of the Rings trilogy…

    The worst? Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (or, rather, the worst I most recently viewed!)

    Great post!

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