Lai Jing Xuan
Bad Book-to-Movie Adaptations
Have you ever entered the cinema, heart fluttering with anticipation because your favourite book had been adapted into a film? Then promptly left the cinema seething with rage because the movie had completely misinterpreted the book? Yeah, I’ve been there.
As a kid, I read a lot. Bookstores and libraries were my second home. This was during a time when book adaptations were at an all-time high. The bookworms were praying and begging for their favourite piece of fiction to be adapted. As for myself, I was ecstatic to see books like The Hunger Games and Divergent on the big screen.
But what makes a good book-to-movie adaptation? Well, I propose two components:
1. Conveying the intentions of the original book. We’re not expecting every scene to make it into the film, but the main themes must be fleshed out.
2. Utilising the movie format to its advantage. I’m talking sound design, cinematography, music.
Now, let’s get into my opinions on what are the best and worst movie adaptations for each genre.
*Note: Minor spoilers for the films ahead!
Good Adaptation: Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Of the many movie adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, the 2005 film definitely shines. The story follows Elizabeth Bennet as she battles socio-economic classes and social norms. We see our protagonist butt heads with the wealthy Mr Darcy.
The portrayal of these characters really elevated the chemistry between our couple. Elizabeth is loveable yet feisty, and we really root for her character. Mr Darcy is initially awkward and hostile. We truly see him develop into a charming and respectable character by the end.
The film also expands on the scenes within the book. For example, did you know that Mr Darcy’s confession of love didn’t originally take place in the rain? The decision to have our characters show such affection yet distaste towards each other is dramatised by the pouring rain. There’s also some pathetic fallacy with how the roaring rain echoes Elizabeth’s hurt and anger towards Mr Darcy.
Bad Adaptation: All the Bright Places (2020)
Considering my love for the book, having the film flop is such a tragedy to me. As stated on the front cover of the book, All the Bright Places sees “the story of a girl (Violet) who learns to live from a boy who wants to die (Finch)”.
The movie absolutely butchered Finch’s character. They stripped away many struggles Finch faces, including the intense bullying, the still-present abusive father, Violet’s parents’ dislike of Finch, and more. The fact that they don’t show the bullying Finch faces makes the scene where he beats up his bully seem unjustified and almost stigmatises mental illness — particularly Finch’s bipolar disorder.
This watered-down portrayal of Finch makes it harder to believe in and be invested in the two leads’ love story and character growth. Not to mention, the scenes weren’t creatively adapted into movie format either. The direction was dull, and moments I was looking forward to seeing fell flat on the big screen.
Good Adaptation: Gone Girl (2014)
Gone Girl is a story about a missing woman named Amy. We follow her husband Nick as the police start to suspect his part in her disappearance. Adapting a mystery novel is tough because they have to translate the little clues and slow revelation of the mystery onto the screen. But this movie is adapted expertly, likely due to the screenwriter also being the author of the book.
Amy’s diary is one way readers pick up clues on what happened. This was well fleshed out via flashback sequences throughout the film. The revelation of the mystery is well-paced and tense. When we get to what really happened, we see a perfectly crafted culmination of all the foreshadowing in the film.
Not only do we get the iconic monologue from the books (if you know you know), the amazing use of sound design really elevates the shock that both Nick and the audience felt when the mystery was revealed. I can’t say much without spoiling, but Gone Girl is definitely one of my favourite movie adaptations.
Bad Adaptation: Paper Towns (2015)
Paper Towns sees our main protagonist Quentin on the hunt for the missing Margo. Unlike the books, the film has a complete shift in tone. Whereas the book’s characters were afraid that Margo could have killed herself, the movie felt like a quirky and fun adventure instead. On top of that, the mystery elements weren’t implemented well and felt incredibly surface-level.
The revelation of what happened completely fell flat. In the books, the reveal was explosive and dramatic. We see genuine confrontations and heartwrenching realisations. On the screen, it felt lazily filmed with no creativity at all. It was as if they fed the script to the actors, and just shouted action. There was no cool cinematography, there were no hard-hitting lines, and it felt boring.
Young Adult Dystopian
Good Adaptation: The Hunger Games Series (2012-2015)
The Hunger Games follows Katniss, a teenager who is forced into an arena to fight to her death. Suzanne Collins has crafted a beautiful trilogy about the futility of war and kickstarted an entire genre of YA dystopian books. Producing an adaptation would be a daunting task, but they did it.
The setting of the dystopian country really shines in the films. The contrast between the filthy rich and the filthy poor is expressed through colours and music (or lack thereof). The silence of the cornucopia scene shows the Hunger Games as it is – a horrifying sequence of child deaths instead of the sensationalised and thrilling event the Capitol citizens see it as.
An accidental product of the movies is how the media focused on the “love triangle” between the protagonists instead of the films’ commentary on war and socio-economic inequality. I think that it’s hilarious how Collins critiqued the media’s focus on unimportant issues like love, yet we see the very same thing happen with the media’s coverage of the film series.
Bad Adaptation: The Maze Runner Series (2014-2018)
Now this is a controversial take. The Maze Runner follows Thomas and his journey of escaping the maze. I vividly remember going to the cinema for the premiere of The Scorch Trials (the second instalment in the series) and coming out absolutely shocked and furious. While the first film was an okay watch, the films really started to deviate from the source material after the second one.
What appealed to me about the premise is seeing these kids forced into trials by WCKD, an organisation looking for a cure to the rampant disease. What the movie did was make an action movie about survival after escaping WCKD.
Considering that most of the fanbase for the films would come directly from that of the books, deciding to change the storyline completely was such a disappointment. If it were a standalone film trilogy, the films make a decent storyline. However, deviating from the main intent of the books completely made me lose interest in one of my favourite book series.
Those are my most and least favourite movie adaptations! I hope I didn’t infuriate anyone with my hot takes (Sorry Dylan O’Brien fans). There are so many adaptations out there, and I’m curious to see if you guys have any opinions as well.