Ask the Reader: worst book to film adaptations

Here at Film and TV, we love knowing more about what our readers think when it comes to the Silver Screen. Have a browse through our next Ask the Reader – and yes, expect some controversial opinions.

Sol Noya Percy Jackson 

As a 10-year-old going through her mythology phase (because who among us didn’t), discovering the Percy Jackson books was a eureka moment. I immediately delved into the world of Camp Half-Blood and grew attached to the characters as I saw them grow. So, when I got my hands on a DVD copy of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, I had high hopes – which were quickly dashed.

I’m not the first and will likely not be the last to point out that every departure that the movies made from the book series that inspired them was completely misguided. The main crime: ageing up the characters, presumably in an attempt to capture older audiences. This meant that the timeline of the books was inevitably crammed into a shorter time span, so that some of the events of the book that seemed minor but would be key further on in the series never happened, and some episodes from the subsequent books were crammed into the first movie.

Other regrettable decisions involved Percy’s best friends: the characterisation of Grover lost a lot of his loveable awkwardness, and making Annabeth brunette, seemingly a meaningless change, actually took away from her determination to prove herself beyond the stereotypes of what a girl could and should be.

In short: you know an adaptation is bad when the author of the original series states that his peace of mind required him stepping away from it.

Harry Potter and the Goblet Fire

Mike Newell’s 2005 film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Goblet Fire is a perfect example for how having zero passion for your project can severely affect the final product. The previous directors of the first three films – Chris Columbus and Alfonso Cuarón – laboured over the original source material to put true thought and depth into every scene. Yet Newell couldn’t even be bothered watching the first three films in the franchise. Right from the offset, there is barely any enthusiasm for the series. Such a nonchalant attitude towards the thematic content of the book is what ultimately led to its downfall as a film adaptation. 

The book was shrouded in mystery with so many questions left up in the air such as; “who put Harry’s name in the goblet of fire?”, “Who cast the dark mark?”, “Did Barty Crouch Jr actually commit the crime?” The answers to such questions are withheld until the very end keeping the reader engaged.  However, Newell took away all the mystery soiling our antagonist’s characterisation and leaving little to no investment. Any time that could have been spent delving into the mystery or fleshing out the characters for the rest of the ongoing series was instead utilised to show off the visual effects. Despite how visually captivating these scenes are, from dragon chases to mermaid attacks underwater, it leaves little to no storytelling or character investment.  

Girl On The Train

If you love books which have unreliable narrators and multiple perspectives, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on The Train is well worth a read. I say read specifically, because the 2016 film remake loses the most gripping elements of this psychological thriller. Arguably, Hawkins’ ability to misdirect and disorientate the reader is what makes the book so engaging. The story is told from three different perspectives – the first being Rachael, a recovering alcoholic whose dependency only worsened after her divorce. Her voice comprises hazy memories and drunken recollections, so we’re never sure if we trust her sanity; she often doubts herself. The first-person retrospective narrative is done so effectively that reading becomes an active fill-in-the-blanks activity as we try to navigate past and present. In the film, however, these hazy flashbacks are forced and predictable; Rachael’s story is told through a voiceover, and it feels as though viewers are being spoon fed revelations rather than acting as part of the investigation process. The fast-paced narration is mis-translated into uncomfortably long establishing shots and awkward cliché dialog, isolating the viewer even further. 

Megan and Anna are neighbours who narrate the other portions of the book – Megan babysits Anna’s child and Anna is married to Rachael’s ex-husband, Tom. Hawkins’ writing of three interconnected female narrators bolsters the plot as an exploration of femininity, sexuality and motherhood. Each narrator grapples with their femininity affecting their mental health and personal relationships, but the book explores this in far greater detail than the film. This is one of many reasons why the film lacks substance. Anna, in particular, isn’t given enough attention and so her character becomes subsidiary to the film’s plot, despite narrating parts of it. Conversely, Rachael’s obsession with Anna’s baby is revealed only 17 minutes into the film, making other parts of the plot cliched and predictable. It’s almost as if Tate Taylor was so focused on making the plot a conventional ‘thriller’, that she missed what makes the plot thrilling altogether. Many reviewers of the film found it frustrating and dull, tarnishing the reputation of a bestselling book with heaps of potential for a film adaptation.

Frankenstein 

Critically acclaimed, commercially successful and regarded as the first ever horror film, this 1931 adaptation is not a film many would expect to see in a list such as this. Undoubtedly it is a technical marvel and the performance of Boris Karloff as the infamous monster has etched itself into the consciousness of popular culture for almost a century. The issue is that Frankenstein’s ‘monster’ is portrayed as a genuine monster, with his seemingly violent nature originating from the accidental use of a ‘criminal brain’. This clumsily removes any nuance from the ensuing character study leaving a vacuous good versus evil battle in place of a literary classic. The novel’s message was that Frankenstein’s creation was never born a monster, but was made a monster through prejudice, neglect, crippling loneliness and a lack of human empathy. As a result this raises questions of how we perceive ourselves in society, how we treat those that are different and whether we have the right to ‘play God’ and create consciousness as we may well do with artificial intelligence.

The novel is timeless, while the adaptation is a dated, deterministic piece of pseudo-eugenics that strips all heart from the story. In fact, it could hardly be called an adaptation, if you really want a cinematic experience in line with the original story I implore you to watch Ex Machina instead.

One Day

David Nichol’s One Day is a sensitive and simple account of two friends who fall in love in a complicated dance of ‘will-they-won’t-they’, spanning two decades, and ultimately ending in their inevitable marriage in their late thirties. Each year over this period we see how our protagonists: down-to-earth Emma from Yorkshire and posh boy Dexter are spending 15 July, getting a glimpse into their hearts, minds and souls through David Nichol’s tender and nuanced voice – we see them in and out of touch, relationships and love and Nichol’s breaks our hearts with a cruel plot twist.

So, when the 2011 film came tumbling into cinema, there was high expectation that Anne Hathaway, Yorkshire accent in hand, and perfectly charming Jim Sturgess came onto the screen as Emma and Dexter, and Nichol’s himself writing the screenplay, it seemed that of course it would be a deliciously satisfying rom-com with generous trimmings of Paris, heartbreak and weddings. The result is the opposite, and critical reception tended to agree, with the film scoring a meagre 36% on Rotten Tomatoes. We come out of watching the film not really sure who Emma and Dexter and those that touch the character’s lives are, whereas you finish the novel with absolute certainty.

Illustration: Samantha Fulton

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