Some book-to-movie adaptations, like Jaws or the whole Harry Potter franchise, stand the test of time. Others, not so much. It’s tough to distill exactly what makes a compelling literary adaptation to the big screen. It can be a combination of winning performances by beloved actors. Deeper still, any good adaptation must tell the best story from the source material.
There are some literary classics that had no business being adapted into films. Some, like The Hobbit, would have been better suited as a movie or series geared towards children. Others, like The Handmaid’s Tale, proved that some literary classics are meant to be adapted in a serialized format. Still other books should have been left well enough alone.
‘The Hobbit’ (2012)
JRR Tolkien’s classic fantasy series saw great success with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It seemed natural that the prequel novel should get an adaptation eventually. However, the trilogy that was based on these children’s books received mixed reviews, at best.
The flaw from the beginning was that these children’s books were being adapted into three movies all around three hours long. There just wasn’t that much content. It’s also at its core a simple story with simple morals. There were unnecessary parts to this epic quest that were added. Ultimately, the source material may have been better suited to another format.
‘The Book Thief’ (2013)
On its own, The Book Thief was not a bad movie. Some might even say it was quite good. The performances especially were incredibly endearing. Unfortunately, the movie never quite captured what made the book a modern classic.
The book on which this movie is based is narrated from the point of view of Death. This alone makes it a near-impossibility to adapt faithfully. There’s a richness to this story that never quite fully translates, in spite of Geoffrey Rush‘s best efforts.
‘The Kite Runner’ (2007)
Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, The Kite Runner, captured a cultural moment in the most spectacular way. The story of a family across generations and continents resonated with readers around the world. Every new revelation was a heartbreaking twist. The story was a commentary on human nature that was easily accessible to so many.
Unfortunately, even a stellar performance from Shaun Toub doesn’t save this movie. Perhaps there was too much pressure to adapt such a culturally significant work of art to the big screen. The twists and turns don’t feel earned. Everything about the movie feels rushed, which maybe indicates that a movie was not the right venue in which to adapt this story.
‘A Wrinkle in Time’ (2018)
An adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s defining work needed to be nothing less than magic. The source material combines faith and science, and a classic hero’s journey. The themes of good and evil are presented at a child’s level, but are important lessons for readers of all ages.
Sadly, 2013’s A Wrinkle in Time did not live up to the challenge. All the components for a great adaptation were there. With the combination of stellar performances from iconic acting legends, and Ava Duvraney’s direction, this could have been a winning adaptation. Instead, everything feels very lost, and the core of the source material is nowhere to be found.
‘The Giver’ (2014)
For anyone who had to read Lois Lowry’s novel in primary school, it was not soon forgotten. This dystopian hellscape became worse and worse as each new horror was revealed. There was a very specific tone that to be fair, was always going to be difficult to adapt to the big screen.
This is another example of a book told from a first-person perspective, which automatically makes it a challenge to adapt. This arguably never should have been adapted, at least not in the way it was, because there is too much that doesn’t translate well visually. Even the one aspect of the story that does translate well on-screen, the color scheme (or lack thereof), falls flat.
‘The Scarlet Letter’ (1927)
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel about a Puritan colony in Massachusetts remains an American classic to this day. The source material is also very much of his time, so it’s a challenge to capture Hawthorne’s original intent. Many have taken inspiration from this story, with varying levels of success.
Any adaptation was always going to have to walk a fine line between remaining faithful to the source material, and providing a venue for commentary on the modern world. This fact alone arguably precludes a satisfactory adaptation. Arguably, Easy A successfully brought the story into a modern age, but had to sacrifice the historical commentary of the novel.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)
The Handmaid’s Tale has inspired fear in all of its adaptations. It’s a dystopian tale of violent misogyny which frankly feels way too plausible. Unfortunately, the characters and stories aren’t always fully fleshed out, and the world-building is exceptionally chaotic.
This is another example of their being too much content in the source material to be a satisfying film adaptation. The recent HBO series is proof that this novel needs a TV series to be adapted faithfully. This gives the chance for the world in which this story is told to be more fully developed. A movie doesn’t allow for this.
‘Blade Runner’ (1982)
Phillip K. Dick’s science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? honestly reads like a fever dream. There is just so much going on in so little time. It’s a dystopian, futuristic nightmare that blends into a mess of a story. Happily, the visionaries behind Blade Runner saw the potential, and never looked back.
Science fiction is a particularly difficult genre to do well, in film, television, and literature. The disorganization of the original novel was always going to be a roadblock in the path of any adaptation. Perhaps only the performances of Harrison Ford spirit Sean Young could have pulled everything together.
‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1961)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is still held up as a classic of American cinema, as it should be. Audrey Hepburn is nothing less than a legend, and it’s a privilege to witness anything of her kind. Sadly, not even Hepburn’s star power is enough to distract from the fact that this is an adaptation of a novel that should probably never have been made.
There is a lot to say about how problematic the end result of this adaptation ended up being. Casting Mickey Rooney as a Japanese man is a massive red flag. Author Truman Capote apparently felt that his novella was too bitter, and that the end result of the adaptation was too light-hearted. This cautionary tale was perhaps too dark to be brought to life in the form of a movie.
‘The Shining’ (1980)
Horror legend Stephen King’s novel The Shining is famously despised by the author. While the movie is held up as a film classic, as well as a classic of the horror genre, King has spoken frequently about how the stories and characters deviate from what he originally intended.
Perhaps the lesson from The Shining is that an adaptation shouldn’t be made, or should be made with caution, if the original author is not involved. Particularly when looking at characterization and storytelling, an author could provide valuable insight into their vision. Conflicts like this can possibly be avoided.
NEXT:From ‘The Shining’ to ‘American Psycho’: 10 Great Film Adaptations That Were Despised by the Original Authors