From Pages to Screens

Posted July 29, 2014 by Roshan Krishnan in Nerdy Bits

The debate between books and their filmed adaptations has raged on for what seems like eons. Proponents of the written form claim that the filmed versions are never on par with their literary counterparts. As an almost neutral observer, I decided to examine this phenomenon that has struck the world of multimedia.

Books have been one of the best forms of propagating stories from historical times. Although films initially had their own stories to tell, there has been a paradigm shift as filmmakers scramble to nab the rights to a book series. Firstly, I wanted to look at the most prominent series, those that tend to be dealing with fantasy. For the time being, I’m staying away from classics, nonfiction, and grounded fiction.

One of the most famous transformations from pages to screens was Harry Potter. The novels were themselves bestsellers, installing author J K Rowling at the throne of fiction for an entire decade. The filmed adaptations were uneven, considering that four directors were needed to film the entire series. Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets were directed by Chris Columbus and it was clear that they were family movies that stayed mostly true to the book. I say this cautiously, as Chris’s handling of Chamber of Secrets isn’t up to the mark for most moviegoers, as it has too many plot holes and loose ends.

Longest movie from one of the smallest books

Prisoner of Azkaban from Alfonso Cuarón was different; the first scene with the dementors marked a change for these films, as they were no longer just for kids. It wasn’t rated PG for its kid-friendly themes. Prisoner of Azkaban was one of the best books and the film continued the trend, as it was one of the best, if not the best film in the series. Goblet of Fire, directed by Mike Newell was both worse and better. The book is much, much longer than any previous book as it featured many intricacies but the movie skimmed over them. The visual aspect of the movie boosted it, but this was arguably a step down. The last four movies were from David Yates, and while the fifth and the sixth were despised by me, I learnt to love them all. The most puzzling aspect of them, were the creative choices made by the team – did they really need to change that line, character, or sequence?

The exclusion of Dobby and Winky from the fourth movie makes some sense in retrospect as the CGI would cost a lot of money in a movie with an already bloated budget. But the choices made by Yates and his team are downright surprising. While Deathly Hallows: Part 2 received a whopping 96 on Rotten Tomatoes, the (SPOILERS)disintegration of Voldemort was completely unnecessary and probably cost more money than a regular death scene. The readers of the series would probably agree with me in hating that scene and everything it stands for, as the whole point of Voldemort’s death was that it was just like any other. He was supposed to be, in the end, mortal.

So why do they do it? Why did they have to change it?

Before I get into that, let’s look at the flip side of this issue, where the lack critical success of a movie does not grant it immunity. Percy Jackson’s foray into the big screen was disastrous to say the least, as it garnered meager rakings at the box office. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 49, but I think that even that score is too kind. The adaptation was abysmal, as the characters were never fleshed out, the script was chock-full of clichés, and the source material was butchered. Percy wasn’t Annabeth’s adversary; Clarisse battled Percy. But don’t worry, Clarisse is jammed into an even worse sequel. The plot twist that was unexpected in the books, is downright boring in the film. And come on, the books have Percy battle Ares, the god of war, but the movie just keeps on disappointing.


So now we arrive at the mystery again. Why do they do it? Why do they mess up the source material? Why do they feel the need to add their own elements?

Well for starters, some hope to streamline the franchise and make it more accessible to people other than the loyal fans. As a case in point, let’s look at Game of Thrones. It succeeds at what it does and seems to be going from strength to strength. But the people who watch the show aren’t just GRRM loyalists, there are others sampling the universe to see if they like it. And the HBO show does it with finesse. Sure, they make weird choices from time to time(I’m looking at Cersei and Jaime in Season 4, Episode 3) but the show makes it easier for everyone to follow the show. Let’s be honest, A Song of Ice and Fire can get convoluted at times, and so the show refines its strengths while dimming its weaknesses.

Some of the best content on TV

A sometimes troubling reason to make changes is the creativity. Some movies like to add their own twist to certain franchises, either to attract moviegoers or simply show their prowess as a director or screenwriter. This depends on the franchise of course. The most prominent success that comes to my mind is Sherlock, the BBC series. This series is one of the best on TV ever, and yet there is fresh material. Arthur Conan Doyle’s fans will not recognize the new age Sherlock of the series, but they will appreciate the ability of the showrunners to capture the essence of the character. The screenwriting is just great.

Perfect casting + great screenwriting = Sherlock

The problem with this is that sometimes they get it wrong. And when they get it wrong, they get it really wrong. Cue Cirque du Freak. The Saga of Darren Shan is a great series, although it’s meant for the younger demographic. The movie utterly bungled this one, with its cheap laughs, campy acting, and terrible screenwriting. They could have literally used the first novel as the script and still made a better movie. The creative team did not even try, and probably just wanted a lazy money-maker.

I don’t want to live on this planet any more…

The most irritating reason for filmed adaptations to be bad, is that the filmmakers just want to make money. Even though it would probably make a good example, the Twilight series is one that I haven’t read(and never will) and hence I refrain from commenting on it. The next example is then the Hobbit. Warner Brothers has ploddingly continued this utterly futile trend of chopping certain novels into multiple movies and the Hobbit is when this practice reached its height of absurdity. The unnecessary fluff was mostly so that Peter Jackson and the studio could earn as much money as they could.

Peter Jackson and his crew were actually, in my eyes at least, the ‘good guys’, mostly because of their interpretation of the original trilogy. Lord of the Rings is one of the most celebrated fantasy works and Peter Jackson did do it justice. The extended version of the trilogy clocks in at over 11 hours, and the movie is visually compelling. It almost seems asinine to suggest that the visionary behind the LOTR trilogy would helm the Hobbit trilogy. The Hobbit films desperately seek to cram in connections to the LOTR trilogy.

It’s not bad, it’s just meh(poop jokes and singing)

So, in the end, readers of the books are probably doomed to disappointment. Why? The reader’s imagination takes them through their own unique adventure and portrayals of their characters. They will almost always view the movie differently. However, some movies, considered in a vacuum, can be enjoyed depending on the choices of the filmmakers. I strive to  go in to an adaptation of a novel with no preconceived notions or expectations, and find some enjoyable. Another hopeful thought is that adaptations are getting better, as seen in The Hunger Games. The movies are sometimes a good outlet for filmmakers to use their own creative licenses and expand the universe. Going back to Game of Thrones, there are some scenes that have not yet been written in the books. George RR Martin has given the showrunners freedom to move ahead. Maybe, we might end up liking the show’s version of events more. Maybe this whole issue is simply addressed by identifying the detrimental impact of expectations. In the end, I’m glad to see my favorite characters come to life on the screen. I’m satisfied with it happening, regardless of issues related to casting, butchering of source material, or reinterpretations. Books and movies must coexist and make each other better, instead of taking up arms against each other.

About the Author

Roshan Krishnan

Roshan is an avid writer and was recommended by four out of five doctors. He loves watching TV shows, reading as many novels as he can, and generally surfing the internet. He would be a much better writer if he knew how to finish stuf