Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Novel-to-Movie Adaptations: The Critical Components

Lately, theaters are showing more and more novel-to-movie adaptions. But what makes an adaption good?  ♦ 
The first time you watch the movie adaptation of your favorite novel is an unforgettable experience, and we all have books that we think would be a perfect fit for the big screen. But, regardless of what books have already been adapted or are on their way to being, there are always more books that readers would like to see made into films. (Personally, I am still waiting for the film adaptions of Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, and Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.) Readers spend years waiting to attend midnight movie premieres and watch parties, and then, when the movie is finally available, many fans praise the directors for how their well-loved novels were adapted . . . but there are always a number of vocal critics who think the movie poorly represents their beloved book. For these reasons, we wonder: What makes an adaption good? Why do some succeed when others fail? While there are no set rules to define or predict the success of a novel's movie counterpart, there are some general guidelines a director should consider when creating a solid book-to-film adaptation.

The Importance of Plot

Loyalty to the author’s plot is an important part of making a great movie adaptation. Recklessly changing or removing too much can greatly affect the story, as well as the message the author intended to convey. However, if done carefully, directors can make changes to the storyline that benefit the adaptation rather than hinder it.
   For example, the climax of Breaking Dawn, the final book in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, features a major confrontation between the main characters and their enemies — a mixture of vampires and werewolves with supernatural powers. The characters and readers expect this confrontation to escalate into a bloody battle, but, instead, the characters resolve the issue with an intense discussion. In the movie adaption, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2, the characters arrive to confront their enemies and there is a bloody battle with many casualties. However, it is quickly revealed that the battle was only a psychic vampire’s premonition — it did not actually happen and was only meant to convey the bloodshed that would occur if the two sides could not resolve their issues. The addition of this premonition greatly benefitted the movie overall — it captured the anticipation the readers felt while reading the novel and acknowledged the expectation that the well-known series deserved a bigger finale. But, most importantly, it accomplished this while still remaining true to the story’s original plot.
   By contrast, movies that are excessively unfaithful to their original texts tend to have less success. Chris Columbus’s adaption of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief completely altered the plot and purpose behind the novel. This book series focuses on the main character, Percy Jackson, and his adventures as a demigod — son of the Greek god Poseidon. However, the plot of the movie was driven by Percy’s search for his mother, where the plot of the book was driven by Percy’s search for the lightning bolt belonging to Zeus, a Greek god. This spurred a movie that was only loosely based on the book — an entirely disloyal adaption that angered fans and the author, who refused to watch the movie and asked teachers not to show it to their students.
   A new director, Thor Freudenthal, adapted the sequel, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Sea of Monsters, and also altered major plot points that led to a dishonest representation of the novel. These alterations included killing the main villain of the series, which limited the options for continuing to adapt the books. As a result, only two of the five Percy Jackson and the Olympians books were adapted to film.

The Significance of Tone and Emotion

When adapting a novel into a movie, it's crucial that the author’s tone and emotions are conveyed as they were in the text. The general tone and emotions of the characters must remain the same for the adaption to be successful.
   For example, the two main characters in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men are George and Lennie, the latter of whom has a mental disability. The two have a dependent but devoted relationship and, after Lennie accidentally murders someone, George kills Lennie to protect him from the consequences he will otherwise face. In the novel, George hesitates when he is about to kill Lennie. In Gary Sinise’s 1992 movie adaption, George’s hesitation is removed and he abruptly shoots Lennie from behind. However, George is clearly full of grief in both versions and that is crucial for the reader and viewer to understand: yes, George killed Lennie, but as swiftly and painlessly as possible so that he may avoid a crueler death later on. Therefore, the removal of George’s hesitation did not affect the scene overall because the director still stayed true to the tone and emotion of the original text.

It's certainly possible (and often necessary) to alter the plot of a book in the course of adaption, so that the story makes sense to a moviegoing audience, but it's important that the author’s tone, message, and purpose are still in place. When adaptions are treated this way, they can honor a novel while also making the story less confusing or complicated, and more accessible, for a new group of fans.
  • About the Author
    Currently a senior at Miami University, James Harris is working on his Individualized Studies degree (focus in animal behavior) and a minor in Creative Writing. In his short time at Miami, he has won the Creative Scientific Writing Award and is now performing his own research on the gray squirrel. After graduation, he hopes to find a job in zookeeping as well as conservational research and scientific writing.

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