I know whenever we think of story-ruining adaptations, we probably have flashbacks to the poor, disgraced nature-bending boys of 2010. *thinks sadly about the Percy Jackson and Avatar: The Last Airbender fandoms*
Although I’ve never seen* any of the Avatar-related medias, I know the film was granted “Worst Movie of the Year”, and I may not be the best at deduction, but that sounds pretty bad to me. So I can only imagine how hard that time must have been for people who were in both fandoms. 😦
Last year, I made a post about what I would love to see in a Percy Jackson TV series, and it got me thinking… what exactly must happen in order for an adaptation to satisfy the fans? Is there a formula for this? Because if so, Hollywood sure as heck has not found it yet.
*i would like apologize for the all HP references in here! i used them because it’s the largest, most recent series adaptation which a lot of people have seen and i know a lot about it. but i do not agree with JK Rowling’s recent statements and i will no longer be posting anything related to HP ever again.
Step One: Should This Book Be Adapted?
Look, I want more adaptations just as much the next book lover. But just because some of our favorite books are good, doesn’t mean they should get a movie or TV adaptation.
One of the most recent examples is one of my favorite books, Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman. It’s a great book about growing up and mental illness, loosely based on Shusterman’s experience with his son, who dealt with schizoaffective disorder. It’s a great book, and you can tell the author put a lot of thought into how mental illness was portrayed in the story, but… does it really need to be a movie? And a Disney movie, no less?
A few months ago, Disney announced Challenger Deep would be released as a Disney+ original, and although they haven’t confirmed if it will be a film or show, most likely it will be a movie.
(Source: Disney+ Acquires Neal Shusterman Novel ‘Challenger Deep’ With ‘Toy Story 4’s Will McCormack Adapting)
On one hand, its great that Disney is willing to tackle a story about mental illness, schizoaffective disorder in particular, because this is something not often represented in films for young people (especially the Disney audience). On the other hand… it has to be done right. Not necessarily accurate to the book, but at least accurate in its experiences, since mental illness is a very real thing you can’t take lightly.
💫 related: BOOK REVIEW ✨ Challenger Deep
Ultimately, I think the answer to this question really depends on how the content is handled overall, in every aspect of the film. The most important things they need to consider carefully are the themes and how the audience already perceives the book, and in this case, the theme of mental illness is a highly important aspect to be handled with care and accuracy. And the team of people already signed on, a writer from Toy Story and a producer of Dumbo, have to take this seriously.
So it seems the big question is actually… why should [insert book here] be adapted, and will it work for the target audience with the story’s original intention?
Why Change The Plot?
When adapting a book into a movie, or a book series into a movie/TV series, everyone should expect for certain scenes and characters to be taken out of the story. In that case, it just isn’t possible to keep everything in the story. Movies are typically 90-120 minutes long, while it can take anywhere between 3 and 16 hours for the average reader to finish a book. It’s just not possible to keep everything!
But there’s a difference between cutting some random scenes and changing scenes to make the plot a completely different thing.
Examples of films which changed the plot from the book:
- Percy Jackson (The Lightning Thief)
- Divergent and Insurgent
- Artemis Fowl
- Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
If a filmmaker feels the need to change the plot, it should be in order to make the plot better, not just to fit the filmmaker’s desired target audience.
However, all of the above films seem to have lost their charm due to major changes in the plot. For example, I never read the Artemis Fowl books, but I know that Artemis is kind of a gray hero. He’s supposed to be an evil genius boy who is more like a villain than anything else. And yet… Disney took those characteristics away, made Artemis a confused and excited child, and that, in turn, changed the tone and plot of the story. It’s no longer about mischievous plots – now, it’s about a scared boy trying to find his father.
I’m sorry if I’m wrong here, but I’m just trying to prove a point!
Handling Character Ages
One of the most obvious differences between the Percy Jackson books and the films is that the characters are 3-4 years older in the movies (and the actors were, at least, 6 years older). While some may say* this change was beneficial to the films because it made them more appealing to a wider audience, my only response is… did it really?
*(it’s funny because I really don’t think anyone would say this, but I needed an argument for the sake of my point 😉 )
One of the biggest obstacles in the plot is that Percy and his friends need to get from New York to California (roughly 3,928 km away, or 2,441 miles), but since they’re basically 12 years old and cannot drive in any way, they must find other ways to travel around. But by making the characters 16 in the movie, they’re all able to drive and pass as good drivers… and then that obstacle is mostly gone, taking several interesting scenes with it. There were no emotional late-night talks about life and mistakes in the middle of the woods, no heart-felt scenes in the back of a hijacked circus van.
In general, there were no serious “getting to know you because we’re in this terrible situation together” scenes at all, unless you count that little talk at the motel pool. And why? Because they were old enough to drive, and no one stopped them from doing so. And that’s it! More than half of their problems were solved!
In other words, a lot of the struggles Percy and his friends faced were due to their lack of trustworthy transpiration, because they were children. And can you imagine taking a deathly road trip around the country when you’re 12? and people are trying to kill you? It would be very scary for any 12-year-old, but that concern the audience is supposed to feel doesn’t have the same effect when it comes to
grown adults teenagers who look like they’re in their 20s.
If Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events adaptation could find a way to remain faithful to all thirteen books in almost every way, then I’m not taking any more excuses. Either keep the character ages, or give me a very good reason to change them.
Character Development… Or Character Decline
Evidently, there are only two ways we can see our favorite characters on screen: 1) they’ll either be represented perfectly, or 2) they’ll have the emotional range of a wet towel.
Based on what I’ve experienced, one of the worst things that can happen to a character is when the filmmakers don’t keep what makes the characters unique. They don’t include any backstory or characteristic dialogue, and the characters end up just… boring shells of whatever they used to be.
It’s simply not enough to hire an actor with the canonical hair color. In fact, despite your grudges against Annabeth in The Lightning Thief, hair color doesn’t matter as much as you think it does! Physical characteristics are (in my opinion) less important than the other fundamental things that make a character special.
More than anything, what we really want is to see the character development. If we can’t see the main character’s growth, then we can’t feel much towards them. And this has nothing to do with whether their hair is brown instead of black.
Click for a small rant about eye color inconsistencies in the Harry Potter films, if you wish:
Throughout the Harry Potter books, Harry was constantly reminded by adults that he had his mother’s green eyes. Naturally, when Daniel Radcliffe played Harry in the films with his blue eyes, some fans were upset, and I understand, but… it wasn’t that big of a problem. The important thing is the connection of his eye color to his mother, not his eye color in general. The characters in the films also reminded Harry about his maternal eye color, which was good. Yay for the filmmakers keeping a reoccurring aspect of the books!
However… in the last film, during a close-up of Harry’s mother when she was young, you can clearly see that she has brown eyes. Dark brown eyes! How hard could it be to find a young girl with light eyes so it kind of looks similar to Daniel Radcliffe’s eye color??
This isn’t really a huge issue, but if you’re going to keep some canonical aspects of the books, you should either follow through or not do it all. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Please Don’t Add Things Just Because You Can
There’s a bit of romance in just about every film adaptation, and you know what? That’s fine, but we don’t need it unless it makes sense to the story.
I mean, you can’t just throw in random concepts that didn’t originally fit into the plot. Sometimes it’s okay, but it really needs to be kept to a minimum.
And this doesn’t just apply to romance – it applies to other things, such as montage scenes unrelated to the story or… I’m running out of brain words. You know what I mean.
I don’t think this has really been an issue in the adaptations I’ve seen, but I figured it needed to be mentioned. The idea is that the author knows what’s best for the story, so filmmakers should really just stick with the content they were given in the canon.
This is what I’m referring to: Have you seen the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children film with Asa Butterfield? The last 20 minutes were completely made up for the film and had nothing to do with any of the books. I cried with confusion during these scenes, and then I cried at the end bc I realized they could not possibly make another film in the series, what a relief!
Don’t Take Away Key Concepts, Either
This is pretty self-explanatory. Just… please don’t take away key parts of the story.
One of my absolute biggest pet peeves with the Harry Potter films is their lack of explanation for the Marauders. (If you don’t know who they are, you can just read this HP overview post. 😉 )
If you only watched the movies, I really don’t understand how you picked up on all of it. Here’s a timeline of what you need to know about the Marauders, and the things in bold are what they left out. *spoiler alert if you haven’t seen/read Harry Potter*
- Sirius Black is the prisoner of Azkaban
- an animagus is a wizard who can turn into an animal at will
- to become an animagus is a very difficult task which must be signed off by the Ministry of Magic
- Remus Lupin is a werewolf
- the Marauders made a map which shows everyone/everything around Hogwarts
- the Marauders consist of Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs
- the real names of the Marauders are Remus Lupin, Peter Pettigrew, Sirius Black, and James Potter respectively
- between ages 13-15, the Marauders illegally and secretly became animagi so they could assist Remus during the full moon
- they also made that map for the same reasons
- Sirius Black was able to escape Azkaban because he was very thin from starvation and turned himself into Padfoot, a dog
- Harry saw a glowing stag chase away dementors and he assumed it was his father
- Harry thought it was James Potter because James was Prongs, and the “prongs” nickname refers to the stag’s antlers
Please let me know if you can’t see the bolded parts, because it’s seriously a lot. Those are all of the things they left out of the films, and because they never got mentioned, there were scenes in other films which also did not make sense. *sarcastic slow clap for the movie producers who tried, but not hard enough*
How to understand what is important:
- Is it relevant to other parts of the book or the series?
- Did it make the readers cry?
- Is this character in at least 1/3 of the main plot?
- Did the readers love this character/scene? Are there memes?
- If you took it out, would you also have to take out other parts in order for everything to make sense?
If the answer is ‘yes’ to any or more of these, then it’s important. It should probably stay, even if it has a small part in the final product.
The Formula: Decoded
Back to my original question: Is there a formula for making a great adaptation, and if so, what is it?
In general, I think each book-to-screen adaptation can be made differently depending on the original intentions with the plot as a whole. Sci-Fi books must be adapted differently than one would adapt a Contemporary Romance book. Young Adult books have different structures and character types than Middle Grade and Adult books. There are different key concepts and plot points which are important to each individual book, and ultimately, there is no one “formula” for any story, either. It all comes down to the specific needs of each individual book, and what makes those books special to the audience.
Ultimately, the audience is most important. Although the people who see the adaptation will not be the exact same people who originally read the book, and vice versa, the people who make the adaptation need to find a way to interpret the story so that both sets of audiences can enjoy it for multiple reasons. They just need to learn how to do it right. (And that no, you can’t just cast Logan Lerman, Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, or Katherine Langford and consider it a job well done.)
*Since I started writing this post (like 7 months ago, haha), I have seen 14 episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and let me just say… I later watched the trailer for the movie, and I actually cried. Real tears of anger.
How do you feel about adaptations? Do you agree or disagree with my points? What are some other “ruined” adaptations?
Knowing me and my Many Thoughts, would you… want to see a Part II of this post?
Chat with me about it!
Happy reading, everyone! 💕 💫 Have a lovely day! Stay safe and healthy!