With a dedicated pre-exisiting fanbase eagerly waiting to love or hate the final product, adaptations are tricky terrain. To make a good one is a huge challenge, although not one that’s often shied away from given the abundance of literary adaptations that hit our TV and cinema screens on a regular basis. When done well, a good film or TV adaptation creates a bunch of excited wizards, tributes, or dragons to be reckoned with, but done badly, and all involved become the enemies of said raging fandom for the rest of eternity. Our writers are on hand to provide a deeper look at the source vs. adaptation debate, taking us through some of their most-loved and most-hated.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978 & 2005)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the multimedia oeuvre of the late Douglas Adams, may have ended up most recently as a film adaptation, but began life as a radio series on BBC4 before being reincarnated into both a book and a TV series. Passing away before it began production, Adams still had a hand in the movie, penning the script for the 2005 film (with another credit going to Karey Kirkpatrick). This script included new ideas that would continue to expand his HHGTTG universe, serving us some of the highlights of the narrative such as the Vogons and Deep Thought, yet withholding some of the others e.g. the restaurant at the end of the universe referenced at the tail end of the film. Despite any feelings of déjà vu a fan might feel, I would have loved to have seen a few more of the other brilliant plotlines make their way into the film. In a way, as a diehard fan of the original radio series, the world created on screen is never going to live up to the one Adams etched into my imagination.
Where the film did well was amalgamating his world into a cohesive, imaginative and quirky whole, a pretty monumental task for such an epic and extensive universe. In terms of casting, it really was brilliant. Martin Freeman was the best Arthur Dent you could ask for; the same goes for Stephen Fry as the book (handpicked by Adams himself). Mos Def was an inspired choice for Ford Prefect, Zooey Deschanel a slightly younger pluckier take on Trillian, and I can never ever say anything bad about Sam Rockwell, including his Zaphod Beeblebrox. Yet there was just something about the world in the film, already limited by the framing of the screen, that didn’t make it as boundless as the one Adams had already created inside my head.
Far from the Madding Crowd (1874 & 2015)
The new film adaptation of the 1874 Thomas Hardy novel Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) stars Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak, Michael Sheen as William Boldwood and Tom Sturrige as Sergeant Francis Troy. Mulligan is the perfect blend of headstrong and immature that is required of Bathsheba and her sudden change of circumstance from lowly yet educated farm girl to mistress of her uncle’s expansive estate. Matched in kind by Schoenaerts’ loyal and humble shepherd, Sheen’s annoyingly pitiable neighbour farmer and Sturrige’s wonderfully obnoxious soldier, the strength and chemistry shared by the lead and her three love interests – as well as the rivalry (and pity) manifesting between Schoenaerts, Sheen and Sturrige – is tantalising.
Although, at first, I was a little stumped by the addition of new scenes to the 19th century classic, including one in which Bathsheba gets her hands dirty and joins Oak in the task of cleaning sheep. The drama it lends to the story, while still maintaining the historical accuracy and feel of the film, modernises the relationship and flirtation of the central pair. The whole film cuts through Hardy’s dense literature in much the same way, yet remains respectful of the intertwining nature of Hardy’s plotlines and characters that accurately reflect the rustic and community-based world of 19th century rural England. To top it all off, Craig Armstrong provides a beautiful and memorable score that accompanies the scenery and romance majestically/effortlessly.
Harry Potter (1997-2007 & 2001-2011)
There’s no denying that the Harry Potter films are classics – much like the books, most of us grew up alongside their characters, holding our breath waiting for the next release. Even if Philosopher’s Stone is a very cringey watch and Half-Blood Prince is very much like a poorly acted rom-com, there’s an aura of childhood nostalgia that elevates these films on a pedestal – but compared to their source material, are they really that untouchable?
A film can’t convey what is written in a book with surgeon-like precision. However, as Dumbledore wisely put it, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” – it’s in the nature of films to write out bits of their source material, but a good adaptation never writes out crucial elements – and this, unfortunately, is a test that the Harry Potter films fails on multiple occasions.
Plot points aside, character development was probably the most damaged by the adaptation process. Miraculously ascending in Half-Blood Prince, Ginny Weasley is brutally reduced to Harry’s love interest when she has a fantastic journey in the novels from the traumatic experience in Chamber of Secrets to becoming one of the most skilled and confident Quidditch players. Similarly, Harry’s trademark sass is almost non-existent (come on, who can forget about “There’s no need to call me ‘sir’, Professor”?), and he is more often than not just a moody, moping teen on a mission. Ron’s treatment is probably the most frustrating, with quite a few of his bravest lines being given to Hermione to keep him the clumsy sidekick for comic relief when he is most probably the best character of the whole series. Not to mention Ron and Hermione’s blooming romance in Deathly Hallows, cut upsettingly short, and their get-together scene, butchered because of the absence of the whole ‘Hermione and the house elves’ side plot from Goblet of Fire. And again, where’s Peeves?
This isn’t to say that Rowling’s books don’t have their flaws, but if they were to battle the film adaptations in a duel, they wouldn’t need more than Ron’s damaged wand from Chamber of Secrets to win, really.
A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones (1996-present & 2011-2019)
HBO’s flagship show Game of Thrones may just be the greatest, most exciting television series to ever exist…until you read the books, that is. When you eventually make your way through George R. R. Martin’s behemoth A Song of Ice and Fire series, you’ll likely find that the world of Westeros is even more intricate than its depiction on-screen has ever revealed, that the political intrigue is just that bit more intriguing, and that those morally grey characters are even greyer than you could possibly imagine. So, what’s the catch? It remains unfinished. The first novel of the saga, A Game of Thrones, was published way back in 1996. A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords shortly followed in 1998 and 2000 respectively, but since then Martin’s pace of writing has slowed dramatically. As Game of Thrones gears up for an epic conclusion in 2019, for avid fans of the books there appears no definitive end in sight. It’s a one-of-a-kind situation, with Martin’s magnum opus set to be given completion by other writers in an entirely different medium.
Admittedly, there has been much lost in the adaptation from text to screen. Much of the worldbuilding and lore has been stripped back and dialled down. Many characters have been cut – such as Arianne Martell, the fiery princess of Dorne – and abridged – Euron Greyjoy, for example, altered from a mysterious supernatural pirate to a transparently pompous pervert – but, for the most part, showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have done an admirable job. The writing hasn’t been as refined from Season 5 onward, there no longer being as much opportunity to draw upon weighty source material, yet it’s evident that theirs has been an unenviable task and later-season episodes like ‘Battle of the Bastards’ have continued to stun audiences with their sheer sense of scale. Millions will miss Game of Thrones when it’s done; the series will go down in pop culture history. For the sake of the author and numerous devotees to A Song of Ice and Fire, let’s just hope Martin still gets to provide an ending of his own.
On the Road (1957 & 2012)
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road truly characterises the Beatnik movement. Based on the endless coast-to-coast travels of Kerouac and his friends, On the Road captures the author’s rebellious spirit in a semi-autobiographical manner through the character of Sal Paradise. Paradise and co are the pinnacle of the counterculture generation; carefree and adventurous, even their questionable behaviour oozes cool. And it’s not just the ‘characters’ whose spontaneity we envy, as Kerouac’s intricate use of spontaneous prose – the novel is said to have been written in just three weeks on a continuous reel of paper – not only makes events feel effortlessly natural, but also makes the novel as a whole feel incredibly unique. As such a bold outpouring of emotions, it could easily have been a quickly forgotten disaster, but instead, On the Road will long be remembered as one of the defining pieces of American literature.
Walter Salles’s film, unfortunately, is worlds away from the mesmerising, carefree world imagined by Kerouac. Whilst the beauty of the novel is found in its unpredictability and our lack of knowledge as to where Sal and his friends will go next, the film severely lacks such effortlessness with events feeling calculated – rather than being an exciting explosion of spontaneity; less the dream road trip and more an excruciating traffic jam. Part of the problem lies in the casting. Based on appearance alone, Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart feel perfect for their respective roles as Sal, Dean and Mary Lou, but beneath the surface the performances do little other than suck the life out of such initially free-spirited characters – perhaps only Kerouac himself is really capable of capturing the essence of the Beat Generation. Yes, an adaptation of a novel this poignant was inevitable, but Kerouac’s adventures would definitely have been better left untouched.
IT (1986 & 2017/2019)
Steven King’s It is a long, looong book. Sitting at nearly 1200 pages, any adaptation of the source material would always have a difficult task reigning it all in to a manageable length whilst retaining all the best moments of the book. Andy Muschietti’s 2017 adaptation wisely portrays only the sections of the book which feature the younger versions of the protagonists, the Loser’s Club, doing away with the messy overlapping chronologies of the book. With the adaptation split into two films, each focussing on an different time period, Muschietti has the perfect opportunity to present the story in a way that excels on the big screen, whilst retaining everything that made the book great.
Setting aside this high praise for a moment, I have a few minor nitpicks. For one, changing the setting from the 1950s to the 1980s might help to update the source material, but a faithful adaptation should never, in my humble and subjective opinion, alter anything so significant. The original book triumphed in its depiction of 1950s rural America partly because it drew from Steven King’s own childhood. Everything in the novel feels painfully true to life, which is high praise considering it features a scene of a shapeshifting murder-clown chasing after a young boy whilst offering him a blowjob – but, I digress. Furthermore there were several unfortunate exclusions and alterations, such as the various tall tales that elaborated on Derry’s storied history, and the death of Patrick Hockstetter, perhaps the most grotesque in the entire story, reduced here to a swift sadako-style execution.
The biggest change comes in the lack of anything pertaining to It’s true nature and cosmic significance. Whilst it would’ve been really awesome to see Pennywise’s backstory elaborated on (and actor Bill Skarsgard has teased that we may still get a similar scene in Chapter Two next year) it makes perfect sense to skirt far, far around the bizarre and comical Matarin, a giant space turtle said to have created the universe by… vomiting it up? Yeah, I don’t know. And the less said about the extremely uncomfortable child gangbang scene, the better. Ultimately, Andy Muschietti’s It feels like one of the most successful adaptations on this list, striking a strong balance between a faithful treading of the line and necessary alteration.