The Art of Film Adaptation

Attribution: DCPL Commons

“They’ve decided to do an adaptation of your book Under The Moon’s Shadow, professor.”

“How curious. We need more films which explore the ethos of man, but how will they capture the essence of my art? The book is three hundred pages of a single, nameless man sitting in a room, watching the moon as he contemplates the foibles and vanity of mankind. There’s not much action.”

“They’ve added a bit of action, sir.”

“Oh? What sort? I thought of adding a walk in the park, but it took away from the purity of my vision.”

“Well, they’ve added a bit where he goes to the moon itself.”

“In a dream?”

“No, he really goes. And there he’s captured by moon people who ride dinosaurs, which he fights one. There’re a few other action bits in the script, but he’ll still be a philosopher. A philosopher with muscles and a past as a boxer, but a philosopher all the same. I think it’ll be a great hit.”

In the perpetual cycle of remakes and reboots, apparently Anne of Green Gables was up next on the list and so this trailer has been released:

I’m both intrigued and saddened by this trailer. Perhaps the actual miniseries will be better and live up to the source material. However, based on the trailer, this is the precocious Disney Channel version of this great book.

“Look what trouble Anne gets into! Isn’t this kid precocious and spunky! The adults tell her no, but can’t help but love her!”

I’d also expect the film to have a laugh track.

Marilla: “Anne, what did you do?”

Anne pulls down blanket, revealing green hair.

Audience: Ha ha ha ha.

[Side Note: This reminds me of the fake sitcom Grizz and Herz from 30 Rock, where the punchline is Grizz meeting eyes with a dog and saying, “Don’t even say it.”]

Fortunately, there’s also this trailer:

Despite the presence of Martin Sheen, the acting feels subpar and Anne’s hair has the sheen of hair dye. Still, this is closer to the essence of the period and the book remains intact. I’ll wait till its released in November to pass full judgement.

The true question, however, is why is this adaptation necessary when a near-perfect adaptation already exists.

Sure, the children are a bit older than their roles at the beginning, but the film covers enough years that you can suspend your disbelief. Other than that, each actor fully embodies their character, from the fiery Anne Shirley, to the busy body Rachel Lynde, to the stern Marilla and sweet Matthew. And never forget the first crush of many young women: Gilbert Blythe

Image result for gilbert blythe

The world, the story, and the pacing also capture the essence of the book, bringing us more than a mere copy, but a fully realized adaptation of a great story.

As for other adaptations, I argue there are five types: (1) Adaptation in Name Only, (2) What Did They Do To This Book?, (3) The Photocopy, (4) Better Than The Book, and, (5) Absolutely Perfect In Every Way.

Adaptation In Name Only

This travesty tends to happen when someone in Hollywood has bought the rights to a book and the rights are about to expire. Or, the basic concept is there, but the storyline is completely different. Some of these are terrible, and might fall in the category of “What Did They Do To This Book?” Generally, they tend to be okay to high quality, despite the divergence from the source material.

For example, Alice In Wonderland is a pseudo-sequel which name-checks everyone from the original story, but has little more to do with the actual book. Though, the actual book is a doozy to adapt. There’s not really a plot, but more a series of clever vignettes. The greatest redeeming quality of this film is the Burtonesque concept art. I don’t think it has much more to offer than that.

What Did They Do To This Book?

The story is mostly there and the character names are the same, but the rest is a messy travesty of the book. The filmmakers clearly didn’t understand the charm or appeal of the book and the film is tossed out on the unsuspecting public.

For example, Ella Enchanted takes a fun, sweet fairy tale and turns it into a post-modern twist on the Cinderella story. It has some redeeming qualities of silliness, but is not the same as the book.

The Photocopy

These are the adaptations where the filmmakers hold the book so sacred that they don’t want to make any changes for the medium of film. The film is accurate to the book, but there is a flat lifelessness to the characters and story. The filmmaker wasn’t able to make the small leaps which builds the heart and soul of a film.

For example, the first Harry Potter film. Christopher Columbus did an excellent job setting up the world, establishing the setting, creating the costumes, and introducing us to the Harry Potter filmverse. However, the acting is wooden – even among many of the adults – and while the movie goes through the motions of the story, it does not fully capture the magic of the books.

I would further argue that the movies became progressively better, but didn’t meet the awesomeness of the books until The Order of the Phoenix and the super-epic wizard battle that felt like a real wizard battle.

Better Than The Book

There are some books that are either pretty good or insubstantial and the adaptation takes the story and concept and builds it into something unexpectedly awesome.

Both How To Train Your Dragon and Shrek are based on very basic children’s books, and both are franchises with a pair of extremely fun and well-made films (though, we’ll ignore everything past Shrek 2).

Also, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, despite stretching out a book for a cash grab by the studio, does of a better job of keeping Katniss as a dynamic and empowered character than the book. Not a perfect film, and slow in parts, but I enjoyed it more than the book.

Absolutely Perfect In Every Way

Then there are the masterpieces, the adaptations which stand as great movies on their own while also transferring the full heart and soul of the book to the screen. These are the ones we cherish, the ones we sigh when we see them for the first time and sigh in relief that our precious book is intact. The plot may have been tweaked here and there, but the film is so spectacular you can ignore the differences and just enjoy your favorite story unfolding before you.

Here are some of my favorites, besides, of course Anne of Green Gables with Megan Follows

To Kill A Mockingbird is a masterpiece of acting, pacing, and helping us to face our own prejudices.

Pride and Prejudice with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is a spectacular, romantic journey. I love the Keira Knightly version as well, which offers a more romanticized and excellently truncated version. What Jennifer Ehle adds to Elizabeth Bennett is the clear sense of humor and cleverness, whereas Keira Knightly’s Elizabeth is more earnest. Both Matthew McFadden and Colin Firth’s Darcy’s are great, but we must also consider the entire film franchise of Bridget Jones’s Diary is based on Colin Firth’s portrayal.

And, of course, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. These films fully capture the epicness and wonder of Middle Earth, tell a grand story on a human scale, and are spectactular. The Hobbit, however, falls into the What Did They Do To This Book category.


  • What are some of your favorite and least favorite film adaptations?
  • How do you feel about this adaptation of Anne of Green Gables? Will you be watching it next Thanksgiving?
  • Or, like me, will you be too busy watching the Gilmore Girls revival on Netflix?


16 thoughts on “The Art of Film Adaptation

  1. Ah, the endless question of adaptations. I’ve discovered that I’m generally happier just skipping most movie adaptations now. If I enjoyed the book (and imagined it well), the films seldom add much to my experience.

    Favorite movie adaptations: most of yours, actually! LOTR (not Hobbit), Hunger Games, original Anne of Green Gables, Keira Knightley Pride & Prejudice. The Princess Bride, which isn’t often discussed in context of the book, but might be one of the best adaptations in the true spirit of a book. I actually really like the live-action 1994 Jungle Book, although it’s not very true to the book at all. I just recently watched If I Stay (based on the YA novel by Gayle Forman) and thought it worked quite well.

    (moving to TV shows, a new element of the adaptation world) Have you watched any of the Shannara show? Curious to get another opinion.

    I like the original Anne movie just fine, but I can see how adapting it could draw in a new/younger audience. In that sense, it’s probably a good move. But I probably won’t watch the new one myself.

    I’ve been watching Gilmore Girls for the first time (drawn in by many Pinterest posts & the attention on the revival), so I’ll probably be watching that!

    • It helps that The Princess Bride novel was written by William Goldman, who also wrote the screenplay and happens to be an Oscar winning screenwriter.
      Have you seen the latest version of the Jungle Book? It’s a much, much better film than you’d expect. It mixes a good story with characters with incredible digital effects and enhancements which don’t pull you out of the movie.
      I have watched the first couple episodes of Shannara. I’m having a hard time getting past the Elven manbun and the showmakers’ love of goo – I prefer my fantasy with less goo and blood spurts. You can tell it’s the MTV version of Shannara, so it’s shinier and hipper than it should be, but it’s surprisingly better than I hoped. I’d say it’s average to good – though, the actor playing Wil has grown on me as he’s done a good job portraying Wil as an everyman who’s not used to the danger and magic he’s thrown into. The rest of the characters are ok to pretty good, but I really don’t like the demons. They’re pretty generically evil, their design is trying to be cool, but not quite making it, and, once again, I don’t like goo.
      My roommate for the last year drew me into the world of Gilmore Girls, which was tricky as I was trying to finish my Masters program while getting sucked into the show.

      • Ah–I was not aware that Goldman wrote the screenplay! That explains a lot.

        I have not seen the new Jungle Book, but perhaps I should.

        I’m having equal difficulty with Shannara, which I think gets at my core issue with adaptations–even if specific details change, the feel of the world should be right. If I see an adaptation that feels like entering a new fictional world from the original, then I don’t think it’s right. MTV Shannara is–as you said–too shiny, hip, and, dare I say, modern-feeling. It’s unsettling.

    • I have a double major in English and Film, so I like to see book adaptations with the thought in mind that these are two different mediums, so therefore these are two different art forms. Also, the film version of a book often gets people to actually read, and so even bad adaptations have the redemption of getting people to check out a book.
      However, for people who are huge book fans, I can understand avoiding the film version.

  2. Film in name only: The Black Swan (1942), a pirate movie starring Tyrone Power, is “based” on a Rafael Sabatini novel in the sense that they took the title and some character names.

    What did they do to this book? Wuthering Heights (1939) is a two-generational story of love, hatred, and betrayal, which the movie turns into a romance with a mystically sappy ending.

    Good on its own terms: A Scanner Darkly (2006) has its own look and atmosphere, and is somehow true to Dick’s underlying novel while being an intriguing film on its own.

    The not-quite photocopy: This one I’m just checking out myself: Inherent Vice (2014), based on a Thomas Pynchon novel, Seen movie, reading book. The screenwriter wanted to use as much of Pynchon’s text as possible, so borrowed one of the characters as a narrator. There are other changes, but then there are things repeated that go by so quickly in the movie you don’t pick up the significance as you do for the book. So far I’m liking the book a bit better, but maybe I wouldn’t like it so much if I hadn’t seen the film.

    What do you do with it? Tristram Shandy (2005) and The Saragossa Manuscript (Poland, 1965) tackled essentially unfilmable texts. Shandy is chaotic, so the movie attempts to capture the chaos by being a movie about making a movie about Shandy. Saragossa is way too long and complex, and a bit metaphysical at that, so the movie tries to retain its air of magic and adventure and at least a taste of the text’s many-layered digressions. They both work in ways as movies, but they aren’t the books.

    • I haven’t seen most of these. Of 1940’s pirate films, the Black Swan is one of the weaker ones. Also, it seems to me Thomas Pynchon’s works would be a tough adaptation no matter what you do.

      • I’m told “Inherent Vice” is perhaps his most accessible text, which is fortunate, because it’s the only one I’ve tackled. Having read more, I’d say it photocopied where it could, but had to simplify by dropping or consolidating characters, too. And, surprisingly, there is less sex in the movie, probably because they wanted an “R” rating for the movie, while the novel would get an NC-17.

        Two other movies I thought of later. 1935’s “Captain Blood” is a good movie on its own heroic terms, which are different from the more ironic and complex depiction in the book, another Sabatini novel. And “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), I am told, is so different in tone and the introduction of Strangelove from the original novel that the movie was itself novelized.

  3. My favorite is “A Scanner Darkly”, which I believe captured the feel of Phillip Dick’s novel perfectly.

    In name only, Tim Power’s ” On Stranger Tides”, which Disney bought to base the last “Pirates Of The Caribbean” film on.

    • I haven’t read “On Stranger Tides”, but I do know the rights to the book were bought mainly so they could shoehorn Jack Sparrow into the plot. The second and third Pirates films are in the realm of mediocre, but the fourth one is really painful.

  4. I really didn’t like Ella Enchanted, despite Anne Hathaway’s valiant efforts. The ogres from that book are some of the most frightening villains ever, and the movie just made them stupid.

  5. Oh what a GREAT post. To Kill a Mockingbird is just amazing…the book and movie. The only movie I liked better than the book was Chocolat. The movie makes such great use of cinematography and the book kind of fell flat without the beautiful play of colors in the movie. And that’s the *only* movie I’ve ever thought is better than the book. There are some that are equals, like you mentioned with P&P, but usually I think the book is better than the movie.

    And thanks for alerting to me of this new Anne of Green Gables. It’s amazing what you miss when you have a little padawan.

    • My sister has a young padawan of 15 months that’s over here 2-3 days a week. He’s busy enough to keep most of us distracted from reality.
      Also, Chocolat is a beautiful film.

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