From book to film: good and bad examples


Brad Pitt, center, stars in the zombie apocalypse film “World War Z.”

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Published: Wednesday, July 24, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 6:29 p.m.

In their younger and more vulnerable years, film-studies students often get the following advice from their professors. “A good adaptation captures the spirit of the source material” the professors say, “and isn't just a literal translation of it.”

Those of you who have taken a high school English course will likely recognize those lines as a paraphrase of the first chapter of “The Great Gatsby.” “Gatsby” was recently adapted into a mediocre movie, which makes it the perfect story to open with in a discussion of the difficulty in effectively transforming a book into a movie.

So what makes a good adaptation? To find out, let's take a look at three pairs of recent movie adaptations. Each pair includes a good adaptation and a bad adaptation, and each pair is related in how they approach the task of bringing the words on the page to life on screen.

Harry Potter vs. ‘The Hunger Games'

Harry Potter may be a fantasy adventure while “The Hunger Games” is a dystopian science-fiction tale, but they have enough in common to make for a good comparison. Both the Potter saga and “The Hunger Games” are genre titles primarily aimed at younger readers. Both movie series are also multi-part franchises, echoing the format of the books. Where the movies differ, however, is in what elements of the source material they chose to make the center of their narratives.

After a bit of a rough start with the first two movies, director Alfonso Cuaron jumpstarted the Harry Potter franchise in “Prisoner of Azkaban” by jettisoning the focus on the magical world (i.e. all the Quidditch scenes) and instead bringing the characters and relationships to the fore. Cuaron also brought a distinct sense of visual flair that was much more vivid than the rather bland approach from Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter movies. Though Cuaron only directed one film, his take gave the directors who followed after him the freedom to transform the sprawling novels into a relatively tidy, character-centric narrative.

“The Hunger Games,” by contrast, missed the point of the novels completely. While the book offered pointed social and political satire as well as the story of Katniss Everdeen's struggle during the actual competition, the movie instead removed much of the horror of the games and forced yet another “Twilight”-esque teenage love triangle on the audience.

Furthermore, the movie itself just looked cheap and generic, especially in contrast to the more-imaginative Potter series. The lesson here: Hire directors who have some imagination, and make sure you know what people actually like about a book series before you make into a movie.

‘The Lord of the Rings' vs. ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'

Given how astoundingly successful “The Lord of the Rings” was, both artistically and commercially, it's rather remarkable that “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” didn't take over the world in the same way. “The Hobbit” even had the same directors as LOTR, Peter Jackson, and he brought back much of the cast and crew from his first trip to Middle-earth. So why wasn't it as much of a success?

Let's start with what LOTR did right. It cut substantial pieces out of J.R.R. Tolkien's novels and reordered plot lines as necessary to streamline the narrative. Second, Jackson matched the tone of the movies to the tone of the books: They're both sprawling war epics, and so the movies feel faithful to what's come before. Third, the visual imagination on display is simply stunning, in part because nothing of this sort had ever been attempted before.

“The Hobbit,” unfortunately, gets all three of these things wrong. The book is a compact tale centered on one character, but Warner Bros. made it a trilogy and included a bunch of material from Tolkien's supplementary archives. Furthermore, Jackson got the tone all wrong by going for the same feel as he did with LOTR instead of the lighter touch of the novel. Lastly, the 3-D gimmicks Jackson employed robbed “The Hobbit” of visual splendor that helped propel “The Lord of the Rings.” While “The Hobbit” trilogy is incomplete and could improve as it goes, it's hard to escape the feeling it's already a disappointment.

‘The Social Network' vs. ‘World War Z'

While the above adaptations more or less strived for fidelity, sometimes filmmakers decide they want to go for a different approach. This is neither inherently good nor inherently bad; if the movie works and is a recognizable take on its source material, it doesn't really matter. That said, some movies have definitely done a better job in this regard than others.

Take “The Social Network.” The book the movie is based on, “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich, was based primarily from the accounts of Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, not Mark Zuckerberg. It also centers on the litigation over the ownership of Facebook and the fast-paced life of Silicon Valley startups. “The Social Network,” on the other hand, focuses on Zuckerberg, and while it's “about” Facebook in a superficial sense, it's really about how Zuckerberg uses Facebook to build himself up and tear others down. Writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher understood nobody would really care to watch a bunch of rich smartasses argue about intellectual property, but a power struggle featuring intrigue and betrayal? That makes for a good movie.

If only the makers of “World War Z” had that kind of insight. “World War Z” the book is a multi-faceted oral history of the profound social, political, environmental and even economic impact of a fictional global zombie apocalypse. Its nuanced take, shifting points of view and sharp commentary make it stand head and shoulders above most zombie stories out there. The movie from director Marc Forster (who also helmed the abysmal James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace,” so we saw this coming) is a totally generic zombie movie that utterly abandons any of the smart material that made the book great. This is a real shame, because it's easy to imagine what could've happened if the movie had strived to be better than ordinary.

For more of Rob Ryan's takes on movies, see his blog at projections.blogs.gainesville.com.

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