I hopped online this morning to discover fans of the Artemis Fowl book series reacting to the recently released trailer for the big screen adaptation.  To put it mildly, they are NOT happy.  I haven’t read the series, nor have I seen the trailer, but the twitter reactions seem to criticize the upcoming movie for not remaining true to the source material.  Now I do sympathize with writers working on adaptations.  I understand that, occasionally, changes need to be made for a variety of reasons.  But, in the case of the Artemis Fowl movie, from what I can gather, it’s a big one.  They have changed the very nature of the series protagonist.  And, if true, THAT is a problem.  A problem for the fans of the book series, to be sure, but potentially a problem for the studio banking on the existing fanbase to support the launch.

On the flip side, I’m reminded of a similar response to the Sonic the Hedgehog trailer when it was first released.  Fans were pissed because Sonic looked…different. More to the point, the character’s visual design had, for some mysterious reason, been changed from the original video game design.  “Within two days, the trailer was viewed more than 20 million times on YouTube, and had received hundreds of thousands of “dislike” ratings, drastically outnumbering the “like” ratings” (source).  The studio responded by delaying release of the movie and actually going back to redesign Sonic, releasing a “new and improved” trailer some seven months later – to a very appreciative fanbase.  As of top of March, the movie has earned over $265 million worldwide.  In retrospect, listening to the fans and doing a better job of honoring the source material proved a wise – and profitable – move.

For all of its single-minded obsession with acquiring I.P. (Intellectual Properties), Hollywood often seems mysteriously unable or, perhaps, unwilling to honor the same source material in its adaptations.  How to account for this apparent dichotomy?

Well, as I already mentioned, there are perfectly sound reasons why certain changes are made.  Outdated concepts, dialogue, and characters may need to be updated.  Anachronisms may need to be addressed.  Often, especially when adapting something as an extended or ongoing series, a writer may be required to build upon and expand the world and characters established in an original property, creating a series that honors the source material while, at the same time, offering something new and entertaining.  Think The Handmaid’s Tale, You, Friday Night Lights, and the first five seasons of Game of Thrones.

But, a lot of the time, changes are made for no good reason.  And those no good reasons may, depending on the project, amount to one or more of the following…

1 – The writer and/or producer are not familiar with the source material.

I know, it’s crazy to think that someone would invest in securing the rights to a property but then not even bother to familiarize themselves with it – but it happens. More than it should.  I’ve heard of instances where a producer simply purchased the rights because they liked the basic premise.  Or cases where a writer was specifically brought on to a project precisely because they were unfamiliar with the original property.  Even occasions where a writer was instructed NOT to consult the original source material while writing.  Why?

2 – The producer wants a “fresh” take.

And by “fresh” I mean “at times totally different from the book/video game upon which this movie or series is based”.  Again, while it would seem logical to build on the success of an existing property by realizing what is there, many producers prefer to jazz things up by doing a twist on the source the material.  Last year, I was invited to offer my take (vision) on three different adaptations: an anime series, a foreign language series, and a video game.  In all three cases, I immersed myself in the materials, did the research, and came up with pitches that honored the work of the original creators.  Which was, evidently, a mistake.  In all three pitches, I was told my takes hewed too close to the source material.  They told me about one take they really liked that served as a not-so-subtle critique of consumerism and capitalism.  It sounded pedantic, and a total bastardization of the original anime but, I had to admit, it WAS very different.

3 – The producer has a skewed perception of what will make the project more successful.

This usually happens when some other movie becomes a surprise hit, so an attempt is made to instill some of the elements that presumably made THAT movie a success into the adaptation.  What’s the perceived flavor of the moment? Car chases?  Magical toddlers?  Talking dogs?  Chances are good someone will try to squeeze them in somewhere.

There are plenty of other no good reasons, but the aforementioned are really the cream of the crop.

Still, there are a lot of truly great adaptations that do honor their source materials, delivering a series or film (or series of films) that rewards the existing fanbase while, simultaneously, introducing first-timers to an amazing new world of characters they can, subsequently, further explore in the original books.

Some of my favorite adaptations include –

Homicide: Life on the Streets, I, Claudius, Friday Night Lights, The Boys, The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs, Stand By Me, Don’t Look Now, The Shawshank Redemption, The Princess Bride, Misery, Oldboy, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Deadpool, Iron Man, Kick-Ass, Logan.

So what are some of your favorite and LEAST favorite adaptations?

19 thoughts on “Why can’t Hollywood get adaptations right?

  1. My favourite adaptation so far has been Good Omens (although not a movie but a tv miniseries). I believe it worked so well because one of the authors was very involved. On the flip side I am concerned over the new The Watch series based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Judging by the photos released so far they seem to have gone for way too many unnecessary changes with the characters. It feels like someone skimmed the character descriptions without taking the time to read into the books. It’s a shame because there is a lot of potential in the books for a great TV adaptation.

  2. Feature length films are a very rigid format that need to hit certain emotional and story-changing beats practically at a prescribed minute mark. Novels and episodic series can tell what they need to tell to get to that moment. It seems impossible to go from one format to another unless a story were originally outlined with format interchangeability in mind. Most writers are just trying to write the best story they can in the chosen format.

  3. Jack Reacher (2012) First was the casting of Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Total misfit except for Cruise’s ego. The second was when they took a well constructed and tight plot and reworked it into something that left a great deal lacking, to the point that it came across as contrived. So bad for me I never went to see the second movie, and I love the books.

  4. With any science fiction story, it’s necessary to do a little “suspending disbelief”, but the remakes and adaptations that I hate the most are the ones that throw the “reality” of the fictional universe out the window. Like Captain Kirk being given command of a starship when he’s fresh out of the academy. I mean COME ON!!! There is no alternate reality in which that would actually happen. Or like Rey picking up a lightsaber for the first time and beating someone whose been training with it their whole life. (I’m glad they kinda brought that back more toward reality in The Rise of Skywalker.) If you’re going to do a remake or an adaptation, at least be consistent with the mythos / lore / technobabble of the original!

  5. I have a love/hate relationship with the LOTR movies, leaning towards love. Overall faithful to the source material but I was always annoyed by a lot of the plot tweaks. (Referring to the actual LOTR trilogy, not The Hobbit which was tortured on the rack until it was stretched long enough to be a trilogy).

  6. You have a good list of movies. Sadly, I haven’t read all the books but I might look them up now.

    I’ll add Harry Potter to the list of movie adaptations. I wish they had included more about house elves but I know they couldn’t include everything.

    As for TV, The writers did a great job with Longmire. I loved the books and the TV series. Altered Carbon was a good adaptation. The new Star Trek Discovery is good but it’s not Star Trek. The creators had a good idea and stuck Star Trek on it for the brand.

    I look forward to reading everyone else’s list.

    1. The Rocketeer is one of my favourites. Several changes, especially in the switch from Betty to Jenny (it was a Disney movie after all) but the flavour was right and it was just a lot of fun. It was a shame they marketed it so poorly.

    2. I agree with you on Longmire. I never read the books, but I really enjoyed the TV Series.
      Disagree on S.T. Discovery. I really enjoy it and I think it is more Star Trek than S.T. Enterprise was.

  7. The Tom Clancy Jack Ryan movies never really met expectations, but that’s a particularly hard transition to manage. The details that I loved in the books, would drag down a screenplay, so I have some sympathy for the writers. Still, Patriot Games was an embarrassment. From a too old Jack Ryan, to unexplainable transitions from Baldwin to Ford to Afflack to Pine, Paramount didn’t seem to know how to build a franchise or even a techno-thriller for that matter. Changing the faces of Jack Ryan like the Doctor from Dr. Who didn’t help matters.

    A few of the films were successes (like The Hunt for Red October), but Paramount failed to build a franchise from them. Amazon is giving it a go with a Jack Ryan series (updated to the present), but season two has lost my interest a bit. I might give it another go as a download for long haul flights, so we’ll just have to see.

  8. Absolute best book to TV transcription was Game of Thrones, especially Tyrion who literally walked out of the book onto the screen and could not have been better, all the casting was spot on.
    Absolute worst was The Riverworld , which attempted to film my favourite sci fil book of all time, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, by the incomparable Philip Jose Farmer.
    There should be a painful punishment for those TV execs , I am still thinking about an appropriate one.

  9. One of my favorite adaptations is the Borne trilogy. I loved the movies, then read the books. The books were, IMO, awful. Boring, repetitive, and just not entertaining. In that case (admittedly rare), the movies were significantly better than the source material.

    The Abyss kind of cheated, since the book was written after the movie script was final (or nearly so).

    I live in dread of the adaptation of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern. It likely needs a “fresh take”, but it had better be by someone who at least has understood the source material. If the dragons don’t have twin tails, I will be POed.

    I do not like most of the science fiction adaptations: Ender’s Game, Starship Troopers, etc. They turned some deep thought provoking (painful) novels into fluff.

    The one that still has me scratching my head is Ready Player One. I loved the book. And I loved the movie. Even though they share very, very little of material. They each approach the challenge in their own way and I think they are both worthy.

  10. The Lord Of The Rings is an interesting case in point.

    When I started with the production it was going to be two 3-hour movies. Miramax then told Peter Jackson that it was too expensive and why can’t he do it in a single 3-hour movie! Peter refused and Miramax put the project into turnaround.

    Peter shopped the project around Hollywood and ended up in Bob Shaye’s office at New Line. It turned out Bob was a big LOTR fan and he said, “LOTR is three books, why aren’t you making three movies?” The rest is history.

    Sometimes Hollywood can get it right. Just not very often.

    I’ve also worked on another adaptation. “The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists.” The movie bears very little resemblance to the book even though the author was very involved and co-wrote the script. The book is so weird it was basically unfilmable. There wasn’t any uproar, though, because not many people had read the book and hardly anyone went to see the movie. 🙁

    I’ve just finished rereading Peter F. Hamilton’s “The Reality Dysfunction.” I’ve always thought it would make a great TV series. Epic sci-fi with tons of sex that switches part way into full-on horror. I would have thought HBO would snap it up!

  11. Dare I mention the Hollywood version of Spartacus.. 😐 I loved the book which I read as a teenager. Then the film came up at a cinema that was showing some old ‘classics’. I rarely go see a film if I’ve already read the book now..

  12. I’ll add The Expanse to the like category. My hubby doesn’t appreciate the changes though. I imagine the writers changed the storyline to bring/keep viewers coming from episode to episode. It would be a difficult challenge. I do wish the series would show more of the physical differences resulting from environment (gravity). I imagine finances limit that. 🤷🏼‍♀️

    I’m reading The Giant series now. That might make a good series. I find it interesting reading about physical adaptations from climates/environment. Evolution fascinates me.

    Reading everyone’s list is interesting. Fiction is subjective.

  13. The Expanse is a great example, because the people who wrote the novels are in the writers’ room for the series. The series made a number of changes to the storytelling in order to fit it better to TV, but kept to the spirit of the novels. Contrast to Good Omens, where Gaiman just couldn’t stand to give up his precious narrative paragraphs so he ended up overstuffing the script with needless voiceovers. What I really hate are adaptations that try to be so faithful to the source material and end up merely being illustrations of the book (see the first couple of Harry Potter movies). Blade Runner is an excellent example of an adaptation that made something new that was still recognizably connected in more than name to the original novel.

  14. There was this little TV series…

    it’s hardly worth mentioning…

    you probably haven’t heard of it…

    in fact I’m sure you haven’t….

    Because you didn’t mention it Joe.

    It’s called: Stargate-SG1.

    I heard it was quite popular.

    I’ve seen the film a few times and thought it was okay. The premise was great, but I felt the story didn’t really hang together very well. The characters didn’t have much chemistry either. But what the TV series writers did with this premise really made it superb. They created (along with the actors) a bunch of characters viewers could care about and stories that were based on a moral tale with humour addded in. That’s what drove me to tune in each week.

    As you have been going through the #AmazingPeopleWithWhomIHaveWorked, I’m surprised at how many of the ‘technical’ staff from SG1 are highlighted. Obviously, the chemistry behind the scenes was also instrumental in creating such a memorable show.

  15. I thought “The Hot Zone” was well done. That is one of my favorite books and the mini-series presented the material under the consultation and approval of the author. The little “extras” (undoubtedly produced with DVDs in mind) added to the overall presentation.

    Stephen King’s books and stories cover both ends of the spectrum for me. “Misery” was excellent. “Cujo” had a ridiculously different ending that was hugely disappointing. “The Shining” (original version) was excellent, but I would rather have seen it in a mini-series because the book was much longer and so many compelling parts of the story were left out. Adaptations of his work seem to lack consistency.

    “Silence of the Lambs” was superb, but later attempts to capitalize on the Hannibal Lecter
    character didn’t measure up. I read “The Silence of the Lambs” in one day because I couldn’t stop myself and the movie did not disappoint. I couldn’t say the same for the others.

    Thanks for sharing your insights and opening the topic for discussion.

    1. I think the Shining (original version) is a good example of the need to provide an adaptation. I was so disappointed when the topiary was replaced with a maze. But without the benefit of CGI I don’t think that there was a way to create that effect without out enormous increase in the cost to produce the movie. If the moviegoer had not read the book, the change probably made little difference. But the thought of topiary trying to run me down still sends a shiver down my spine.

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