In the first place, I would like to point out that I do in fact understand that film and literature are two different art forms. That said, there can be no denying that in spite of that, the journey from novel to screen is not always a success, and by that I mean specifically, if a studio hopes to build a film franchise on a series of successful books—in other words, to be able to make the rest of the books in any given series into films after making the first of the series into one—the first film has to be a hit.
I’ve noticed a particular pattern where these film-adaptations are concerned, as far as being a hit goes, and there are a couple things that I think that are required if it’s going to be a hit—at least most if not all of them are—and I’m going to expound on these features, which I hold altogether as a personal opinion, but that I think film execs ought to note when they want to option the first book in a series for a movie in hopes that it will grow into a memorable franchise.
In the first place, the first film adaptation has to hold true to the spirit of the books. In addition to that, it doesn’t hurt to actually follow the content of the book, especially for the sake of the fans, but there have been successful films that have stayed true to the original book without drawing from the original content. Or, in the case of two Hayao Miyazaki films—Howl’s Moving Caslte (by Diana Wynne Jones) and The Secret World of Arrietty (based on The Borrowers by Mary Norton)—remain true to its own spirit. In those instances, Miyazaki took the content and made it his own, more or less, in an organic and honest way. But in the case of succeeding with widely popular book serials, the spirit has to be maintained (and again, no it doesn’t hurt to stick to the original plot material either).
For example, let’s take the hugest book-to-film project probably ever endeavored in history, Harry Potter. That’s eight whole films, all of which were hugely successful. Not an easy feat. When they were first making the film for the first book, Sorcerer’s Stone (or as it goes by its original, European title, Philosopher’s Stone), they weren’t even sure they were going to get to make films out of the rest of the books. That didn’t stop them from working to craft a quality film on the first go. I’m not going to say that Chris Columbus is my favorite director (more on this when I touch on the adaptation of the first Percy Jackson book), but as far as adapting Philosopher’s Stone, he and everyone else made an excellent first impression, and after that, well, the rest was history: from then on, when a Harry Potter film came out, fans left the theaters not wondering if there would be a next film, but already on tenterhooks for when.
Sadly, that hype is now over and done with, but to prove a point, the impact that these books and these films alike has had on people across the generations for the last ten years or so is palpable. There are still Harry Potter conventions alive and kicking, wizard rock is still quite popular (you know you’ve hit it big when your books inspire its own genre of pop music), and with the public launch of Pottermore, fans can relive the magic of the books all over again in a new and exciting way, with ALL secrets revealed! Fans just can’t get enough, though luckily J. K. Rowling has the prudence to know when enough is enough (that’s why I don’t think we can expect to read any kind of series following the lives of Albus Severus Potter and the gang).
Getting back to the adaptation of the first film though, how exactly did Chris Columbus and Co. “keep to the spirit”, as it were? Well, in the first place, the focus was on the human story of Harry, not on the special effects that it would entail, being a fantasy film with plenty of action. Indeed, the techonology for Quidditch was not at its best at the time, but that’s not what was important, and the filmmakers knew that. The other thing they shied away from was adding plot points that were never in the book to begin with, and I think they owe that in part to the third ingredient of keeping to the spirit, which was in giving J. K. Rowling’s opinion its due. When they drafted the script, she was pretty much the quality control system. It’s true things were cut (alas, there was no Peeves!) for the sake of the film medium, but nothing was ever added, like some kooky new character or a tangential plot point (at least not in this one, let’s not forget the little dancing lesson scene in Goblet of Fire, or the attack on The Burrow in Half-Blood Prince, though again, those were plot points that made sense in the world of the book, and by then the films were so successful it almost didn’t matter, because fans enjoyed them for their humor or for their heightened action, respectively).
But it does make me wonder if any other studios trying to adapt books into films ever took much input from the original authors—or if, I hate to say it, the author was too excited about their book becoming a film that they didn’t care if their opinion didn’t matter to the filmmakers, or if they didn’t know enough about film to realize that the filmmakers were making bad choices. It’s pretty clear, you see, that the Twilight Saga benefited from the involvement of Stephanie Meyer, and yes, that first film was an excellent adaptation, down to a T in fact (even if the content is questionable and a little oversensationalized—yes, I did read the books, and I own them on my bookshelf next to my Harry Potters and my Hunger Games, but I enjoyed them purely in the same way others enjoy 50 Shades of Gray).
And on the subject of The Hunger Games, in that case too, they relied on consultation from author Suzanne Collins. And like with Harry Potter (and I’m sure, Twilight too) director Gary Ross was not sure they were going to make another film, but it’s clear that they were, following in the same vein as Harry Potter and Twilight and making the last one into a two-parter, which I have to say, benefits the content of the books all the more. But that first film indeed captures the human story (which according to Ross is what he focuses on anyway, as he did with other films of his, like Seabiscuit), and doesn’t focus on the stunts and action and flashing gizmos. And certainly no adding of additional plot-points (though again things were cut): there was one scene that was not in the book (this film did take a few more liberties in adding the perspectives of people other than Katniss’, being that the books are written in first person limited, like Twilight, which in fact does also veers off of Bella Swan’s POV too) in which Haymitch observes two Capitol children playing and laughing with toy swords given to them by their rich and indulgent Capitol parents, but it adds to the story, and it gets across a point that was actually brought up in the books, that the privileged Capitol children didn’t have to compete in these vicious games, only the children of the Districts had to suffer.
I would also throw The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, but I like to think I’ve gotten my point across.
All that said, here are a couple of films in particular based on two different book serials that simply…flopped. One of them were the monumental and unfortunate aberrations of the first book of The Inheritance Cycle, Eragon. Like with Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, the filmmakers could not be certain that they would be making another film, and unfortunately, they failed to make a good first impression. I myself loved The Inheritance Cycle, and I will say that my favorite parts were not just Eragon and Saphira’s relationship (which I think was glossed over terribly in the film, which is why I was confused when Jeremy Irons as Brom said, “Your bond with her is strong,” because I was thinking, “What bond?”), but also the love story of Roran and Katrina, which if you’ve read the books and then seen the movie, you’ll notice was entirely cut out. I assume it was because they didn’t think there would be any more films, but I think that by cutting that out, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Overall, the book was poorly translated to film. I won’t say that the spirit of the books wasn’t kept alive, but at the time I don’t think it had a good interpreter. And I think that it suffered the secondary pitfall of putting too much into the special effects, making Saphira the best dragon she could be, without giving her a damn good story for her setting.
Now it has been pointed out that the original author of the The Inheritance Cycle, Christopher Paolini (who I admire simply based on the fact that he published the first of this four-book series when he was only 15), drew a lot from The Lord of the Rings, and even if he himself’s never confirmed this, you can tell just by looking at the book: at the beginning there’s a hand-drawn map of the world of Alagaesia, his race of elves are immortal, beautiful, and wise beings, and the Urgals are…well, at first glance I would say they were Orcs, but they actually have more diversity amongst themselves as a race than the Orcs do, and aren’t just a race of monsters for our heroes to slay through to get to the end of their quest and stop from destroying the world, because I’ll concede that the Urgals feel like a race of beings that, while demonized, are not without certain idiosyncrasies that make them more complex as a race. AND a friend of mine even admitted that he didn’t much care for the books based on his feeling that the style of the writing made it seem like Paolini just picked words here and there out of a thesaurus to make it sound smarter (I didn’t particularly agree, but I could see where he was coming from).
THAT said, the books themselves did have a voice of their own, and that’s one of the basic tenets of a well-written story: a unique voice that identifies the story. When turning this book into a film script however, good grief was it ever full of cliche after cliche after cliche (and not the good ones I’ve praised and/or not ones used genuinely enough that I’d let it pass). Now I wouldn’t say it was The Last Airbender bad, but it came close. Maybe it was just a book that wasn’t meant for film, however good the prospect of it sounded.
Another not-quite-up-to-par book-to-film adaptation, I will admit, was the first book in Cornelia Funke’s trilogy, Inkheart. It had basically the same problems as Eragon in terms of formula, and the fact that you could tell that they changed the ending to wrap up on the pretense that they would not be adapting the two books that came after, Inkspell and Inkdeath. BUT one thing it had on Eragon was that, apart from that, they kept to the spirit of the books, and managed to come up with something that, while it wasn’t a masterpiece, had a quirky character and rhythm of its own that didn’t just make it seem like it was a string of cliches. I really felt like the main character Meggie and her father Mo had a real relationship, even if Mo was being played by Brendan Fraser (ah 90s nostalgia). Somehow these cliches in this film worked because they still felt real and natural enough to how the characters played them out. And I think the casting was better done, even in the case of Andy Serkis as Capricorn (though I was disappointed they didn’t have him wear red, because I’ll admit, I imagined him more as looking much like a sort of Cardinal Richeleu from Three Musketeers), but they gave him some interesting character bits here and there that was part of what made the film still an entertaining watch for me. Actually, now that I think about it, it almost reminds me of the so bad-it’s-goodness of Dungeons and Dragons: not nearly as campy, but you could tell everyone involved was having fun and that there was effort put into creating a decent product. Add that to the fact that filmmakers of Inkheart still cared about creating a realism in the world from the page, whereas in Eragon it quite frankly felt utterly slap-dash. So in this case, I enjoy it for what it is, and accept it for what it is as a result.
Then we have film adaptations that try to build a mass-market franchise on a book that quite frankly wasn’t written containing subject matter that would conducive to that end. This is not to say that the Harry Potter books didn’t contain some contemplation on the spiritual, like the nature of the human soul (more or less), but you have something like The Golden Compass, from the His Dark Materials Trilogy, which talks about, ultimately, killing God, (or I’d like to think, metaphorically speaking, the idea of God as the one and only answer for everything, take that as you will) and you make a film about that, and then, as I understand it (this film I didn’t actually see), try to edit out all religious references and yet still adapt that story into film…it’s just going to end up a mess, and you’re going to end up shooting yourself in the foot as far as how it goes in production, which in the end gave us an ending that was premature compared to how it went in the book with no clear resolution, or even purpose for that matter, since nothing was going to be built on all of that. Was it because, on top of not wanting to offend everyone from the church who swooned at the box office success of The Da Vinci Code, the climax dealt with the fact that we have a heroine, Lyra Belacqua, who’s the product of an illegitimate affair, whose mother, Mrs. Coulter, and father, Lord Asriel (no, not religious at ALL) both seem to have questionable stances on morality and are at once villains and anti-heroes, that the screenwriters just thought, “Oh, we can’t possibly put this to film and not cause a riot in the streets, let’s just stop it after the dirigible battle!”?
Whatever the reason, I have two words:
If you’re going to adapt a story into film, don’t betray that story in the adaptation because you’re afraid of offending someone, or whatever the reason might be. If you don’t want to put that content to screen, why put the book to screen at all in the first place? I think this quote below sums it up nicely.
On the other hand, I probably never would have read the very awesome His Dark Materials trilogy if I hadn’t seen ads for the film. Maybe.
So why am I bringing this up? Well, it’s mostly just reflection on the fact that I feel like I’ve seen a lot of it of late. It’s not like books weren’t made into films before Harry Potter steamrollered in with its awesomeness and box office record-breaking, and truth be told when those films came out, I was still a kid and hadn’t experienced any kind of pattern of events in the media like that beforehand. However, I do have memories of being inundated with TV ads as a child, and of those ads, I don’t think I remember seeing so many adaptations of books marketed towards younger kids before, because let’s face it, Harry Potter essentially put YA fiction on the fast track towards a profitable future that went beyond just being a niche genre of fiction with a hodgepodge collection of various sub-genres and a tiny, off-to-the-side corner in every bookstore. It has much more of an identity, and I think gained more respect from those who may have previously looked down at YA fiction.
I get the sense that years ago, children’s books were not written in a way that could appeal to adults and therefore were not read by them. With Harry Potter, the fact that adults devoured them as much as kids doubled their sales, and probably have, as a result, made them an easier sell than they were before, almost to the point that I think that anyone who aspires to be a YA author writes with the awareness in mind that should their book become popular enough (though in the universe of “yet-to-be-a-reality”, that’s still a big “if”) it will probably be optioned for a film. And not that I can speak from experience (yet), but let’s just say that if it were me, I’d take this recent history in adapting YA franchise books into films into account in the case of studio execs approaching my future agent & co. for optioning my manuscript for a film script. I recall that in the beginnings of turning the first Harry Potter into a film, not only was J. K. Rowling initially hesitant about doing it (the books weren’t even all written and published yet), but when it came up that either the studio or whoever had some say, American actors in mind for the role of Harry, or the like–either way, it was established from the get-go that this case would be 100% British (or 100% French in the case of characters like Fleur Delacour, or 100% CGI if you’re Dobby the House Elf) and thank goodness for that.
Now true, we also have an adaptation of Coraline, set in Britain and written by British author Neil Gaiman, which was Americanized. We have Matilda, set in Britain and written by British author Roald Dahl, Americanized, and those adaptations turned out okay (my bestie would disagree where Coraline is concerned, but I’ll leave her to lament the lack of what she coveted so dearly about Gaiman’s original work). So maybe that has nothing to do with it. Again, I think it comes down to keeping the spirit of the source material alive, and keeping the characters honest to how they were conceived in their original manuscript forms. Even the characters of Inkheart had this earmark in the film adaptation. The characters in flops like Eragon did not.
And it’s like with any good story: it’s more than just a good idea, it has to be good in the execution too. The characters have to be just as real and relatable on the screen as they do on the page. No amount of flashy special effects to cover it up is going to fix that, and no amount of trying to rewrite to avoid offending naysayers is going to have the end product turn out any better. Either way, the audience and the original fans and readership will see right through that garish veil. And this is true, to me, of any book-to-screen project, not just in the explosion of YA films.
So yeah, just something to bear in mind when you finally make it big as an author. ;D