Jo Talks Books: On What Makes A Good TV/Movie Adaptation of A Book

Hi all! I’m so sorry I’ve not had one of these for you in the last couple of months, honestly, time’s just kind of got away from me in the past few months with lockdown easing and seeing friends, starting my new job and of course working on job applications, it’s been a busy few months.

Anyway, this month, inspired by watching Shadow and Bone in April, I wanted to talk a bit about book to screen adaptations as I think so often as book lovers, we complain about bad screen adaptations of our favourite books, but don’t necessarily talk as much about what makes a good one? Now this is understandable to me as it is infuriating when we see our favourite books torn to shreds on screen, but I wanted to take today to talk about what I think makes a good screen adaptation of a book. Now, disclaimer before I start this: these are all my personal opinions, book lovers don’t all want the same things from book to screen adaptations, and I’m sure if you asked someone else, they would give different answers than me!

In general, I have found that I prefer TV adaptations of books to films. For me, I think that’s because TV feels like a more natural fit than film: books and TV both have a more serialised, episodic format, and TV allows for characters and stories to be explored in more depth because of this. TV also allows for more of the little details that fans of books love, that sometimes get missed in movies because of the restricted running times. That’s not to say that movie adaptations are bad, I’ve loved plenty of film adaptations, but in general I think TV as a format lends itself more naturally to book adaptations than films do.

The best example of this for me in recent years was the A Series of Unfortunate Events adaptation. That novel series got two different adaptations: first a movie adaptation, which focused on the first three books and then a Netflix TV show, which had three seasons covering the whole series. The reason that the movie adaptation didn’t work for me is because it crammed so much story into a two hour movie and didn’t really do justice to any of it (even with the first three books in that series being fairly short). The Netflix show on the other hand, took their time, had two episodes for each book, which allowed the story to be explored in much more depth. It’s all about choosing the right format for the material: something like Outlander (though I will admit, I’ve not read books, only seen the show) could only ever have been a TV show because there’s just too much material for a two hour film. Whereas a relatively short book, like for example Matilda, could be made into a film pretty easily because there’s not as much material so you don’t have to massively condense the story to fit into a restricted running time.

I’m maybe somewhat strange as a reader in that it doesn’t massively matter to me whether the actors look exactly the same as the way the characters are described in the books? I think this comes from not being a visual reader, I don’t have a picture of the characters in my head already, so whoever plays them in the screen adaptation will usually just become how I think that character looks. Obviously there are some major caveats to this: I wouldn’t want a character who is described as non-white in a book to be played by a white actor because that’s just…..a big no. Appearance details that are intrinsically important to who the character is should be kept on screen. But in general, it matters more to me that an actor is able to get across a character’s personality, that they feel like the character they’re meant to be playing, than that they exactly match the description given in the book. An adaptation is not going to fail if the actor has a different colour eye than stated on page for instance.

For example, Annabeth in the first Percy Jackson film having brown hair rather than blonde was annoying, yes, but that’s not to say that an actress with brown hair couldn’t have played her well. But the actress is the wrong age for the character (who should have been 12 rather than 16) and doesn’t capture Annabeth’s character from the books well: Annabeth in the films isn’t as smart as she is in the books (which is pretty integral to her character, being a daughter of Athena) and they take away all of her emotional moments (like when she tells Percy about her issues with her Dad and growing up with Luke and Thalia) so she seems to lack depth. She’s also completely devoid of any humour, and whilst Annabeth in the books is more serious than Percy, she has a sense of humour and enjoys poking fun at Percy which doesn’t come across at all in the films. If the actress who played Annabeth had looked different but portrayed her personality well, then I think it would have come across better, but as it stood, she had no resemblance to Annabeth in either look or personality.

However, when actors do a really good job capturing a character’s personality, it don’t necessarily matter if they don’t look exactly the way the character is described in the books, at least to me! For instance, Alina in Shadow and Bone deliberately doesn’t look the way she’s described in the books as the writers chose to make her part Shu in the show. I’m not going to talk about the show’s handling of Asian representation because it’s not my place to do so and many Asian women have already spoken about it with far more depth and eloquence than I would be able to. But that’s a side note, my main point here is that Jessie Mei-Li does a great job of bringing Alina to life on screen, she really embodies her character and I actually liked her portrayal more than I liked Alina in the book, which just goes to show how important casting can be!

I understand that both film and TV adaptations aren’t able to include absolutely every single detail from the books they’re based on because of time constraints. But I want the essence of the book to be there, I want to see that the filmmakers or TV show producers have understood what the fans love about the book and translated that to the screen. I mean someone has to read the book in the first place for the film rights to get optioned, you would think, so at some point someone has read a book and decided that it would make a great film. I don’t want the film to be completely unrecognisable from the book that it came from (I’m looking at you Percy Jackson film), otherwise they’re not worth watching!

The Hunger Games film series is a pretty good example of this done well for me, there are changes from the books, but generally the films are very faithful to the plot and capture the essence of the characters and the stories well. I think that’s one of the reasons why The Hunger Games did so much better than any other dystopian franchise that came after: for both Divergent and The Maze Runner, the filmmakers didn’t stick close enough to the original plot of the books to please book fans and the films just weren’t really good enough in themselves to please non-book fans.

I don’t mind if the writers add details that weren’t in the books if it works to enhance the film or TV show: for instance, adding the Crows into the plot of Shadow and Bone and essentially creating a prequel for the Crows in Shadow and Bone, actually worked really well and enhanced the plot of a book that I honestly hadn’t been that interested in when I read it. However if they add new plot points or change things massively and it actually detracts from the story, that’s when I get annoyed. The film adaptation of My Sister’s Keeper was really bad for this, in changing the ending of the book for the movie, it detracted from the whole point of the story and made it feel really cliche.

I also think it’s really important that the author has some involvement in the adaptation: though I am aware that the authors themselves have little say in how much involvement they get. But generally, I’ve found that the best book to movie or book to TV adaptations are that way because the author has been involved in the process. As a reader, it’s always quite reassuring to hear when an author is involved in the adaptation process, either writing the scripts, or as a producer or just being consulted, because you know that author will push for the adaptation to be as close to the book as possible.

Take for instance The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Author Stephen Chbosky was director and screenplay writer for the film version and the resulting film was incredibly faithful to the book and for me personally, I actually enjoyed it more because I thought the story worked better in that format. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is another example where authorial involvement made for a great film, she again wrote the screenplay and the resulting film was incredibly faithful to the book, with Rosamund Pike being particularly memorable as Amy.

I know that not all authors will want or be offered the opportunity to write the screenplay for their novel, but I have liked the trend towards authors getting more involvement with their screen adaptations in recent years (being executive producers or producers for instance) because I think adaptations tend to work out better when the authors are involved in some capacity. For example, Rick Riordan has been pretty clear that he wasn’t involved much in the Percy Jackson films and didn’t like the decisions that the filmmakers made for them, such as aging the characters up and changing a lot of the source material. These were both decisions that were also disliked by fans: authors know what their fanbases want to see so it stands to reason that having their involvement in screen adaptations can only be a help!

That’s not to say that all movies where the author isn’t a screenplay writer or executive producer turn out badly. As far as I’m aware, Markus Zusak didn’t have a massive role in adapting The Book Thief for film, and it’s a beautifully done film, it captures the same feel of the book, it’s wonderfully cast and amazingly acted and it’s largely faithful to the plot of the book. However, it seems to be one of the exceptions rather than the rule.

Ultimately it’s going to be very difficult to please everyone when it comes to a book adaptation. Readers all interpret different stories in different ways and have different ideas of what a story will like on screen, which makes it very difficult for filmmakers/TV show writers to bring a story to life in a way that will please absolutely every fan of a book ever, and attract non-readers as well. I do think though, in general, if you manage to stay true to the spirit of the story and the characters, then you will by and large be able to create a satisfying adaptation for both readers and non-readers alike.

How do you feel about book-to-screen adaptations? What do they need to be good for you? Any favourite ones? Any that you feel were particularly awful? Let me know in the comments!

I don’t know what my Jo Talks post for next month will be, or if I’ll even have one, it depends how busy I am at work, so I guess you’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, I will have my regular Top Ten Tuesday post up for you guys tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “Jo Talks Books: On What Makes A Good TV/Movie Adaptation of A Book

  1. Rosepoint Publishing 30/06/2021 / 3:18 am

    yes! i’ll be doing another of these shortly as well. they are fun to compare, but i’ve generally been favorably impressed with the screen version.

    • iloveheartlandx 04/07/2021 / 10:23 am

      It depends on the movie, some I’ve really loved and some have been awful.

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