How faithful should book to film adaptations really be?

Film versions: Every book lover's dream... and nightmare.

11:00 am EDT, July 15, 2015

Last week at Comic-Con we saw the first 30 minutes of The Scorch Trials, and there were some noticeable differences from the book. At the Q&A, director Wes Ball had some interesting comments as to why the changes were necessary, and that got us thinking, how faithful do screen adaptations of books really need to be?

Related: James Dashner, Wes Ball discuss The Scorch Trials

Of course it’s exciting when our favorite books get adapted to film or television. The visuals are no longer just in our imagination, we actually get to see what was in envisioned in our heads. But when these screen adaptations deviate from what was on the page, we get angry, upset, and disappointed. Suddenly this magical experience is tarnished because it doesn’t match what we expected. But is it fair for book readers to blame filmmakers? Or does the fault lie with us, for not being open-minded?

the maze runner griever

Arguably, the biggest cause of disappointment stems from book readers’ misconception of what ‘pages’ are being adapted. It’s true the screen version is inspired by a book, but between a novel and what is seen on screen are another set of pages: a script. A film cannot be made by just taking the book and creating something from it. “And that’s the problem, they’re two very separate things,” Wes Ball said in a Q&A last week. A book and film are not the same medium, “they kind of require different things, basically, cinematically.” That’s the crux of it. Book readers, as much as they love the book, have to remember that just because it works in a novel, doesn’t mean it works cinematically.

Take The Maze Runner. The Grievers were completely different from what was described in the book. In the book, spikes stick out of a body that “resembled a gigantic slug, sparsely covered in hair and glistening with slime, grotesquely pulsating in and out as it breathed. It had no distinguishable head or tail…” The description is not entirely specific, allowing readers to imagine all kinds of terrifying variations, but what most people are probably imagining is a big slimy blob with pointy things sticking out.

The film version takes a different route, with the Grievers resembling giant half-mechanical spiders. Different from the source material, but nonetheless effective. The terror and threat would not have been as menacing if you were watching a giant blob, as opposed to reading about it.

game of thrones bran stark

“As a movie, we need that kind of intensity and that kind of excitement. You need that for a cinematic experience,” Ball states. These ‘exciting’ changes are probably the most common in book to screen adaptations. Season 4 of Game of Thrones had an entire Craster’s Keep subplot that was original to the show, and it left viewers polarized on its necessity and entertainment value.

But just because it wasn’t in the books, doesn’t automatically mean it wasn’t necessary. There were many complaints that Bran’s story was boring, so this was an attempt to liven it up. No one acted out of character, and the main points of Bran’s story still transpired. A deviation in the middle changed nothing. It simply added tension and excitement.

So if we agree that making changes to fit a cinematic experience is okay, then that begs the question, how far can these changes go before it’s ruining the source material? As Ball stated, “We’re working with the same ingredients, but we have a slightly different recipe.” Presumably these ‘same ingredients’ include things like main plot points and character authenticity.

If those two things are reflected in the screen depiction, book fans should not have a problem. No, there were no scenes between President Snow and Seneca Crane in The Hunger Games book, but there’s no reason to think that what was shown in the film couldn’t have happened. Snow was very much in character, and these scenes did not change the outcome of either’s story.

When these out of character moments do happen, of course book fans are justified in being angry about it, especially when it serves an unnecessary plot point, (a certain Jaime/Cersei moment comes to mind from Game of Thrones season 4), or no plot point at all (“DID YOU PUT YOUR NAME IN THE GOBLET OF FIRE!”). But what happens when the general audience loves what they see, despite incredible differences from the book? Does mass appreciation excuse mass deviation?

goblet of fire angry dumbledore

Let’s start with Lord of the Rings. Despite frequently considered three of the best films ever made, there were a lot of changes made from the books. Omissions are understandable, one book has too much content to fit into one movie (example: Tom Bombadil and the entire Council of Elrond scene would have disrupted the pacing), but it goes even further. Characters are altered significantly (Faramir), and there are even some thematic differences (the Ents motivation to join the war).

Presumably most of the changes are accepted without (much) complaint because the films themselves were phenomenal. As a standalone medium, the way they were done worked. As a book adaptation, granted there were some stark differences, but the main plot and essence of the story was true.

Then we have World War Z. Both the film and book are regarded positively, but that’s really where the comparisons end. The general idea of a zombie war was the same, but the structure, story, and intelligence were scrapped for a typical action flick. Except, the film was well received, so does it matter if it bears no resemblance to the book? If the general public enjoyed what they saw, does it matter what the minority (ie book readers) thinks?

Some will say it doesn’t. If the end result works, who cares what was different? Others will say it does, that a faithful adaptation with the same ‘ingredients’ had the makings of a great film, and we’re now deprived of that because an entirely different story has claimed the rights, only to use the name.

world war z zombie wall

The extent to which changes are acceptable is, of course, subjective, but that doesn’t mean you should find fault in every alteration. Next time you watch a screen adaptation of a book you enjoyed, take a note from Wes Ball. Look at the two as different mediums. Enjoy them as separate experiences. When you notice a change, don’t be so quick to criticize. It’s okay to be disappointed when a character or scene you loved is cut for the film adaptation, but don’t use that as an excuse to hate it.

Most of the time there’s a valid reason for the change, and it’s always with the intent of making the film better. Remember that films and television shows are made for the general public, not solely book fans. Watch objectively. You’ll enjoy book to film adaptations much more if you watch with open eyes and ears, instead of looking for how they’re different.

How accurate do you think book to film adaptations need to be?

Related: Best and worst book to film adaptations of 2014

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