What makes a book to film adaptation (un)successful?

The worst day of my life was when I went to see Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. It was not good. The sequel, Sea of Monsters? Even worse. It was an abomination. It took the narrative of 5 books, merged them together, and crafted 106 minutes of pure audio-visual torture (that’s right, even the credits were awful). The real issue is what every bad film adaptation seems to do: they never grasp the heart behind the book.

I think the undeniable greatest book adaptation ever (not the best film based on a book) is The Lord of the Rings. It’s a long, extensive novel with a huge amount of exposition, detail, and description. There are huge sections just describing where the characters are. The film captures these by making the world absolutely beautiful. Peter Jackson doesn’t utilise any real “fish out of water”, audience-insert characters to explain the world. The world just exists, and the audience is immersed in it. It’s amazing. That’s how the best film adaptations work, they understand how the novel works and try to maximise what works about it.

That isn’t to say novel-to-film adaptations should just copy the books entirely – that would be a failure in itself. What it means is that filmmakers have to look at the book and decide what makes it work in a narrative, thematical sense, and then convert that into film. The Shining is an infamous example of a film completely changing the book, but still achieving excellence, despite the author hating it. The Shining took the concept, characters, and setting, but Kubrick changed the inherent theme to turn it into a truly iconic film. Would it work if he’d copied King’s book entirely? Possibly. But Stanley Kubrick knows more about films than Stephen King, so I back him.

The real thing that makes both of these adaptations work is that they find soul in the story. The Lord of the Rings talks about friendship, goodness, working together, and the film captures it entirely. The Shining is about a man’s insanity destroying him and while it’s entirely different to the book, it’s still something deeper which affects audiences. Both films find that soul and imbue it within the work.

There’ll never be a flawless way to adapt any book to any film perfectly. It’s likely a dangerous thing to say in the Books section, but I prefer films to books. I think films are harder to make. There are more things going on, acting, cinematography, sound design, music, etc. A book, while not an easy thing to write, especially not easy to write brilliantly, is a single person (or a few at most) crafting a singular work, using only words. A film just has more to get right, and it’s a lot more difficult to do so. And to be fair, most of the time with film adaptations, especially with ones like Percy Jackson in that 2010s YA novel adaptation explosion, it’s not a filmmaker who loves a book – it’s one paid to direct a film, while a studio tells them what to do.

At the end of the day, all a filmmaker can do when adapting a book is try to find the soul of the piece, and try to imbue a narrative with that. They can’t be stuck on every single detail or trying to make hardcore book lovers happy about every detail. The best adaptations are never going to be one-to-one exact replicas of the book. But if they can capture the soul of the piece, they can make a separate but equally brilliant work of art.

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Matt Branston

Comment Editor - 2019/20

Co-Deputy Editor - 2020/21

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October 2021
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