The first book-to-movie adaptation I remember seeing is “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.” My then-best friend and I begged our parents to take us to see it in theaters almost immediately after it came out in 2010, only to be sorely disappointed.
It wasn’t that it was an awful movie (although author Rick Riordan did bash the script before the movie came out and 13 years later, I’m not inclined to defend it), it just wasn’t what I was expecting. I wanted my favorite characters to come to life and instead, I got teenagers who felt like strangers and way too many CGI action scenes. Since then, I’ve held my breath when my favorite books have hit the big screen, going so far as to avoid watching altogether until the details of the book are only a hazy memory. Internet discourse about adaptations abounds. Many posit that they’d pay a premium to see a painstakingly accurate adaptation of their favorite books, but those people don’t know what they’re asking for. Books and movies are different mediums with different strengths and weaknesses. A good adaptation isn’t one that replicates its source material, a good adaptation captures the spirit of reading the book so well that one can ignore the inconsistencies.
Adaptation is a difficult task. According to Mark Feeney, Pulitzer prize winning arts writer and critic, “The very qualities that make for a great work of fiction — voice, sensibility style — simply do not translate into film.”
Movies can visually convey dramatic irony in a way that books can’t, bringing “show, don’t tell” to a whole other level. But as a result of being a visual medium, they also have material constraints — financial and otherwise — that books don’t. For example, a story in which a journalist writes an article about 17 novelty coffee shops is easy to describe in a book but having to individually rent or create these different cafes would probably be unjustifiably expensive.
In adaptation, writers and producers should play to the medium’s strengths. In fact, some changes can even make the movie better than the source material. The “Wizard of Oz,” “The Shining” and “The Godfather” are all classic movies which are quite different from the books they’re adapted from which have surpassed their bookish counterparts in terms of commercial success and arguably, storytelling.
In “Crazy Rich Asians,” the iconic mahjong scene in which Rachel confronts her boyfriend’s mom (Michelle Yeoh) is nowhere to be found in the book. According to Vox, it was added in part because Michelle Yeoh refused to play the stereotypical tiger mom character from the book, but it’s also an emotive visual scene full of subtext which would not have worked as well in print.
To be sure, movie adapters can take it too far. The details that are changed can sanitize the original work or bring us backwards in terms of representation. Sometimes, BIPOC, disabled and/or fat characters in books might be cast as white, non-disabled and/or thin. In doing so, studios are erasing an important part of those characters’ identities and depriving audiences of representation of marginalized groups. In “Holes” (an otherwise pretty solid adaptation of a novel by Louis Sachar), the main character, Stanley Yelnats, who is described in the book as being fat, was played by a thin actor. Writers have a responsibility when wielding the biggest platforms they have, and nine times out of 10, many more people will see the two hour movie (or at least the commercial) than will pick up a 300 page novel.
But what if instead of seeing adaptations as literal translation, we saw them as opportunities for transformation, allowing our favorite stories to grow and change with us? Adaptations also have the benefit of coming after the source material, and depending on the timing, the writers might have knowledge of societal shifts and other changes the author didn’t know about. Recently, my family went to see “A Man Called Otto” which stars Tom Hanks as the curmudgeonly titular character from the source, originally Swedish, novel, “A Man Called Ove.” I love Backman’s prose, and the book is genuinely a good read, but some elements of “A Man Called Ove” have not aged well. Some of the characters are fatphobic, and certain elements of the story don’t land in the same way that they would have when the first came out over a decade ago.
A gay character in the book is trans in the movie. The film’s producers changed details such as brands and even names (including the main character’s) so that they would resonate with an American audience. But as I sat in the theater with my family, I realized that the movie evoked the feeling of reading Backman. Even if it wasn’t to the letter of the book, it allowed me to share the experience of the story with my family, who probably wouldn’t have encountered it otherwise. That’s what good adaptations do, they help stories find a new audience while also satisfying the readers that loved them in the first place.
This article was originally published in the Yale Daily News as part of my biweekly column, “Reading the Room.” For more on books, check out the dearyall book archives or my last column on the American Dirt book drama and what’s really at stake.