Great books, terrible movies

I was just watching a bit of Breaking Dawn on TV. It’s been four years since the movie hit theatres and I had almost forgotten the movie. The two seconds I saw made me sigh. Why didn’t they capture the feel of the book?

Hollywood has the ability to create amazing movies. And there are incredible books out there. Why can’t those two winning combinations create an even better result?

Time after time, I’ve gone into the movie theatre and come out disappointed. I know I’m not alone. As Adam Holmes aptly explains in his great post, “I’m talking about movies where, having seen them, you have to re-read the book as quickly as possible just to assure yourself that the original story was actually good.”

I too go back to the books and unfailingly fall back in love but my frustration doesn’t abate. Why can’t the genuine, honest talent translate from the page to the screen?

 has a theory in his post Great Book, Bad Movie. He says: “The answer is simple, but it has complex implications: Novels are long, but movies are short. It’s impossible to encapsulate the tonal shifts of a book like Revolutionary Road  in a feature-length film, no matter how long those two hours feel.

“The movie replaces character with plot, and the result lands with a wet flop.”

Is that it? Is the movie too short? Can no film ever live up to the book’s great triumph?

But I can think of some successes. What about The Godfather? Or Lord of the Rings or Forrest Gump or Jaws or The Silence of the Lambs? Those were all amazing movies and they were made out of great books.

But maybe none of this matters. Idiotic or loyal, if I see a movie made out of a book I’ve read, I’m going. I won’t care if it has received bad reviews or good ones. I’m going to see how those characters I loved did and how the story that so enthralled me has come to life.

Then, if the movie doesn’t live up to my expectations, I’ll moan and grumble and curse…


Until the next time a book becomes a movie.


14 thoughts on “Great books, terrible movies

  1. I think the fact that movies can’t capture the whole of a book doesn’t help. But the LOTR I think brought quite a difficult book for some to read, and made it digestible for a more modern audience.

    I dunno, guess it’s a bit of a lottery when turning books into movies 😀 I watched Divergent last night and, apart from Jai Courtney, I didn’t think it was amazing, it was all right, but not great. Again, I think movies focus on the wrong aspects from books, and cut a lot of side things and characters which are what people love.

    • I’ve heard the same thing about Divergent…but I haven’t watched it. After Hunger Games I was too disappointed. I totally agree with the focus idea. They have to get the gold of the book or it won’t work as a movie.

  2. I did a book-to-movie review of the Hobbit for Comparative Geeks (I think it published while you were taking your break) and the first criterion I identified for evaluating adaptations is whether or not the film captures the world of the story. That’s a difficult thing to do in any circumstances, and the more fantastical the story, the harder it is to do right. I think this is why we get so many bad movies from good books.

    I like Willing Davidson’s take on it and I think he’s right.

  3. I’m totally with you because, I can’t help myself – I have to see the movie! Sometimes, as you said, they get it right. Thinking of all the Stephen King films I’ve seen, hardly any of them live up to my expectations – his books are just too rich to capture within the length of a feature movie. Plus, how we see the characters in our head very rarely translate to the big screen! 🙂

  4. I don’t read King (ducks to avoid rotten produce being flung at her), but I love the movies. I have yet to read a book and love the movie as much. My imagination is better than any director.

    I am looking forward to Maze Runner. I liked the first book and really want to see what they did with the movie. Even with bad reviews and knowing my own preferences, I’m still going to see the movies eventually.

    • “My imagination is better than any director.” – That pretty much captures it. The other point is – and I know most will disagree with me there, because it goes against what most consider a golden rule – that movies show everything and sometimes don’t tell enough. Imagine Dances With Wolves without the narrator. A picture can tell a thousand words, but it’d better be a darn good picture… and the right words to support it could still help a great deal.

      • I just saw what you meant when you used Dances With Wolves. It would be a million times worse without the narrator. A key feature. And you’re right, a picture can tell a thousand words but they’re different to each person, while a narrator guides the audience to a certain point. Great comment, Amos!

  5. It depends on three things how a book translates to film. One, how much control the author has over the script and film; two, how dedicated the scriptwriters are to remaining true to the base material; and, three, how much knowledge of the source material the director knows when he/she goes to film from the provided script.

    As an example, J K Rowling was heavily involved in the HP movies and insisted that the cast and director read the books. So, they “knew” the material and could bring that too the films when they made them. What’s-his-name who filmed Hobbit and LOTR was really, really into the books and Tolkien’s world. It may not be a perfect translation in the regard to Hobbit, but it was a very good one with regard to the LOTR. But when the author just assigns the rights and doesn’t have a lot of creative control over the result, the films are often turned into “draw” films by adding romances and subplots that aren’t in the original material or are subplots in the original and turned into main plots in the films.

    It can be frustrating but that seems to be how it works in Hollywood – they want the money from the audience so they make sure the needed draws are there – action to bring in boys/men; romance of some kind for girls/women – regardless of if it mess up the base material.

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