As the summer movie season rolls in on us I cannot help but notice a trend. Brace yourselves: the YA dystopian novel book adaptations are coming. With the success of The Hunger Games it’s no wonder people want to bank on stories of scrappy young teens struggling to survive in crumbling “utopian” societies. But alas, I cannot help but cringe at this summer’s hot, new book-to-film adaptation: The Giver.
Call me a book purist, a snob, an elitist—I cannot help but think that there are just some books that just don’t make good film adaptations, no matter what neat soundtracks or snappy visuals you gild them with…
So while the trailers for The Giver may leave me cold, here’s a list of several films that honestly should not have made the cutting room floor. For though these novels may be great to read, a strong blockbuster they do not make.
1. The Great Gatsby
Though both beloved and loathed by plenty of American students, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is notoriously unsatisfying as a film. Whether you’re loyal to the 1974 version or Leonardo DiCaprio’s most recent stint, neither film wins as an overall “hit.” Because let’s face it, when adapting this classic, great American car-wreck of a tragedy, there is plenty that’s lost in the translation, namely those finer moments of Fitzgerald’s precise sentences and descriptions.
For instance, critics complained that Luhrman’s Gatsby is sometimes too decadent, relying far too heavily on visuals while missing the finer points of F. Scott’s words. Though they try to remedy the situation by literally letting our (un)reliable narrator, Nick Carroway, relate his story. As a story. You know, very Inception.
Still, The Great Gatsby isn’t the worst offender out there—though I have my quibbles with the film, they mainly lie not in bad direction, or poor acting, but mostly in the loss that comes from watching a story unfold, rather than reading it. The film cannot—or well, does not—have Fitzgerald’s gift of subtlety. In writing, authors have the ability to hint at a thing, leaving us to fill in the blanks, and immerse ourselves in the scene.
Thus, in the game of book to film adaptations, one of the greatest pitfalls is “visuals” over “substance.”
I believe it was Terry Pratchett that said, “Most modern fantasy just rearranges the furniture in Tolkien’s attic.”
If that’s the case then it certainly explains Eragon’s poor movie adaptation. Infamous as a rip-off of both The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, Eragon follows the typical hero’s journey of a peasant boy with his new dragon to battle the forces of evil. Which should be really cool, but fell flat during my screening, and continues to be heralded as a below-average fantasy movie.
Loaded with flat acting, dubious CGI, and again, that uncanny feeling of “copy-cat” syndrome that makes Eragon tiring to watch. Of course, unlike the other book-to-film adaptations on the list, Eragon may also suffer from its own source material. Though kids and teens still pick up Eragon as a quick read, I find that many readers have their own complaints with the series, including its heavy Star Wars references, the clichés, and the unmemorable characters.
3. The Lovely Bones
Just as Gatsby seems to attract complaints because of its focus on visual stunners, so too did The Lovely Bones sadly seem to lose itself in creating something that was pretty, but definitely lacking in the subtlety of Alice Siebold’s beautiful, but sad novel. Sure, Peter Jackson is a master at creating dazzling CG landscapes to immerse the audience in a truly original, inspired Purgatory…
But again, part of the problems with book-to-film adaptations is just the loss of subtlety that comes from translating written words and the personal tension you find while reading into a visual experience.
After all, The Lovely Bones in and of itself is a rather grim novel. There is plenty of anger, loathing, and whole ranges of subtle writing that wonderfully depicts human emotion as it regroups to move on from mourning and loss and rage. And this whole subtle web of sound and fury surrounding the unfair death of its female protagonist… is kind of sort of, okay, it is lost in the film.
In the film, scenes jump in tone quickly, and sadly by focusing on visuals we lose those inner monologues and inner moments of contemplation that make us feel for these characters, rather than witness them as they go about their days. Which makes this film incredibly unsatisfying—but hey at least it’s pretty right?
This isn’t your high-school read through of that Old English poem that involves Danes, meadhalls, and a monster or two. This is Beowulf 2007, which reads less like an epic poem and more along the lines of a cheesy fantasy thrill with all the CG nudes, spears, and decapitated bodies you need to keep you amused. Oh and some puns along the way, crude stabs at humor that definitely were not around back in 700 AD.
So far we’ve talked about films that don’t do their written word justice, that miss the emotion to be found in writing, and this adaptation definitely fits the bill. It willfully chooses to disregard the entire tone of the source material, and even added in some (gasp) ”modern” concerns and morals to make the film resonate with its audience. Which isn’t a bad thing—that’s the nature of adaptation, isn’t it, to add a spin on things, but if you walk into Beowulf expecting something along the lines of Seamus Heaney’s translation you will be sorely disappointed.
And for such an old text, I find it sad that the epic has been lost for something a little campier—definitely give the poem a read through, instead.
5. The Golden Compass
Ah, finally, we come to yet another problem about book-to-film adaptations that have hurt films just as much as a focus on visuals: controversial content. The Golden Compass is the first book of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which is infamous for its anti-religion stance—so it’s no surprise that the movie adaptation was nipped at the heels for daring to promote such a subject. To compensate, many scenes from the book that were devoted to depicting an abusive, fictional Catholic Church gone awry, were diluted—much to the ire of fans who felt that this killed the heart of the story.
As someone who grew up on the books, and who was shamelessly in love with the idea of having a living representation of my soul—a daemon—trotting along beside me (It would be a wolf, for sure), I was very much excited for the film. And though I was irritated at the controversy—it takes more than that to make a “bad” adaptation.
The Golden Compass suffers from a little more than just bad press. While dazzling in its use of CGI landscapes and animal companions, the script runs awry of presenting a coherent story. Yes, The Golden Compass is pretty much all about getting from Point A to Point B, but in the process of this mad-cap adventure we lose the time to grow to care about the characters… Though, it could also be partly due to the complexity of Philip Pullman’s world.
Sure, it’s sold as a children’s book, however The Golden Compass has incredible world building and character threads that need to be explored, and consumed. Lost in film translation, maybe, but mostly the film suffers from trying to run laps to get to “the end” of the book, instead of with the kind of written care to let us fall in love with a work.
And that’s all there is for tonight’s long-awaited bit of Food for Thought! Tune in next week for more commentary on other things that may, or may not, need this level of in-depth examination! Oh, and be sure to read plenty of books if you can, they may surprise you.