Hitchhikers's Guide to the Galaxy

Weekend Roundtable: The Book Was Better

Hollywood often turns to adapting popular books as the basis for new movies. Occasionally this works out, but frequently the resulting films are pale shadows of their source material. For this week’s Roundtable, we look at movies that fail to capture the essence or particular brilliance of the books they were based on.

Luke Hickman

When the first two ‘Lord of the Rings‘ movies were released, I hadn’t read the books. Peter Jackson’s movies were my first introduction to the world of Middle-Earth. I loved the first two so much that I couldn’t possibly wait a full year to see how the story came to a close, so I finally took a crack at the books.

I started with ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ and ultimately felt that the movie did the book justice – especially by omitting Tom Bombadil. Reading ‘The Two Towers’ was especially interesting because of the non-linear storytelling and how the events of the book don’t sync with those of the chronological film, but it was still pretty solid. Some pieces were wildly adapted, but it’s justifiable to make it work for the medium.

I read ‘The Return of the King’ approximately ten months before the film opened. I absolutely loved it. What a perfect way to end the story! Unfortunately, the movie took so many liberties that I walked out of the theater wanting more – and I’m not just talking about The Burning of the Shire. Upon reading the book, I knew there was no way that it would be included in the film. Another climax would serve no purpose in a tale that already concluded. The extended edition does better at capturing more of the book’s strengths, but it’s still too loose and not as tight as the previous two films.

For what it’s worth, being such a beautiful and worthy adaptation, ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ is still my favorite of the three movies.

M. Enois Duarte

Granted, ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘ isn’t a book in the traditional sense of the word, but it nonetheless still counts as an adaptation of a published source. Five of Alan Moore’s graphic novels have been translated into film, and Stephen Norrington’s movie is by far the worst. After the failure of ‘From Hell’, which frankly wasn’t all that bad, Norrington capitalized on his success with ‘Blade’ with another beloved and popular comic book. Sadly, as wildly imaginative and visually eye-catching as the movie was, the plot felt like a rushed, jumbled mess trying to squeeze tons of exposition into too short a runtime. Even the likes of Sean Connery, whose performance as Safari adventurer Allan Quatermain is one of the few highlights, couldn’t save this poorly conceived production. Today, the movie has grown in cult status, but it only succeeds in proving the difficulty of properly adapting an Alan Moore comic.

Brian Hoss

In spite of its iconic nature and the pervasiveness of its star, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s‘ is an entirely unfaithful adaptation of the Truman Capote story. Compared to the dark turns of the novel, the film is sanitized. Capote’s work is literary gold and deserved better. The movie is a pop fluff-fest.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

There is no book I’ve owned more editions of than Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. It’s been a favorite of mine for decades now, and I found myself as eagerly anticipating its lavishly budgeted 2005 theatrical adaptation as just about any movie, ever. I was over the moon about the cast, it was a thrill to learn that Adams co-wrote the screenplay before he passed away, and the trailers hit all the marks I’d hoped to see.

Even knowing how Adams would reinvent his work every time it was brought to a different medium, I struggled to imagine how ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘ could be adapted into a feature-length motion picture. What I so deeply fell in love with in high school weren’t the beats of the plot so much as Adams’ entrancing writing. As the cliché goes, it wasn’t what he wrote but how he wrote it. That voice has all but vanished from the film adaptation. Too much of its sense of humor has been snuffed out, with wit gutted to make room for slapstick and sight gags. The most quotable lines from the books have been at best mangled and at worst excised altogether. The titular Guide is practically an afterthought. Zaphod having a proper second head probably would’ve been a budgetary and logistical nightmare, but just about anything would’ve been better than placing it in his neck. The film has a heavier emphasis on action and romance because, well, that’s how movies are supposed to work, I guess. The pacing and tone are all over the place. I think you ought to know that I’m feeling very depressed about how this adaptation came out.

Josh Zyber

Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go‘ is a nearly impossible novel to adapt into film. The author very slowly lays out the story in such a way that its true nature isn’t revealed until at least halfway through. What seems for a long time to be a period piece coming-of-age drama about a group of teens at an isolated boarding school eventually turns out to be something much different, stranger, and darker. How do you make a movie faithful to that? Even if you could, how would the studio promote it without giving away the whole show?

In addition to condensing portions of the story (which is to be expected), screenwriter Alex Garland and director Mark Romanek make major changes to its structure, the most important of which is to forego any mystery or suspense about its premise. The plot twist isn’t treated as a twist at all, but is acknowledged right up-front. Other details that the author left intentionally vague (such as the setting’s actual time period or place) are also made explicit.

When I first saw the movie, I had a really hard time getting over these changes. They took me out of the story and left me with a profound feeling of disappointment. Whether I would have felt that way had I seen the movie first without reading the book, I can’t say. Nevertheless, it didn’t work for me.

A second viewing later went over better, and I can understand why Garland and Romanek took the approach they did. Even so, I still can’t fully get behind the movie. Perhaps this is one story better left on the page?

Which books do you feel were butchered when made into movies? Tell us about them in the Comments.

26 comments

  1. All things Tolkien. I blame Jackson’s screenwriters. In the disc extras they explain their choices, how they felt obligated to use the cliches of 20th century drama.

    The Lord of the Rings was bad enough; the anti-Tolkien rays emitted from the Hobbit movies are painful.

    (Aside: I enjoy the LOTR films on a certain level, but compared to the books… words fail me).

  2. Johnny

    probably have to go with harry potter and the half blood prince the ending of the book was very well written I mean I get why they had to change it after seeing the last movie which I thought was great was a pretty good idea.

  3. Erik Walsh

    I like the book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” more than the movie version “Blade Runner.” It’s a good example of how each story uses their medium to full effect. The book has time to guide the reader through a strange future Earth. The movie is a visual delight and kudos to Rutger Hauer for a great performance. The book is just a bit better to me because I enjoyed the really off wall world the book presented, which is different than the typical broke down future aesthetic of the film.

    • Charles Mall

      Blade Runner is an incredibly dumb down version of the book that also says the opposite of what Philip K. Dick was trying to say man and machine. In the making doc Ridley Scott even says that when he was having an argument with Dick about the nature of the androids, Scott stopped the conversation and said, “That’s an intellectual idea, and I’m not making an intellectual movie”. Which is ironic, because lots of people consider it one of the most cerebral sci-fi movies. It’s basically another variation of humans bad, robots good cliché.

      I still the like the movie, but mostly for its visuals.

  4. Dennis Heller

    I’ll take the easy one: World War Z. Although even calling it an adaptation is a stretch. “Adaptation,” on the other hand…

  5. Elizabeth

    Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining. There’s a reason why Stephen King hated this adaptation of his novel. Besides some superficial similarities, they were two entirely different creatures. The novel was a supernatural horror story while the movie was a psychological tale. Couple that with Shelly Duvall’s grating, whiny performance. It also didn’t help that by the time I saw this movie, I had seen several other later Jack Nicholson movies so seeing him as the insane psycho was to me just Jack playing the only character Jack plays. The TV miniseries was more faithful to the novel but suffered from being a low budget TV miniseries.

    Jurassic Park. It was a good movie with groundbreaking CGI but it changed and omitted many of the really good things from the novel. The movie shoehorned in a romance between Drs. Grant and Sattler, dropped most of the science, and changed Hammond into a Walt Disney type instead of a money grubbing monster. It also ditched the T-rex following Grant and the kids subplot and omitted their really cool jaunt through the aviary (though both of them seemed like the bases for similar sequences in JP3). One of its positive changes was to make the girl, Lex, actually be more than just a whining boat anchor of uselessness by giving her computer skills (in the book Tim was both the dinosaur fanatic and computer geek).

    And I second the LOTR. I actually made the mistake of reading the book shortly before seeing the first movie so it was fresh in my mind. I nearly walked out of Fellowship about 20 minutes in when they had the party scene and Merry and Pippin crawled out with black face after lighting off the fireworks. It seemed like something from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. And the fact that they didn’t let there be any suspense about why Gandalf didn’t meet fhe hobbits at the Prancing Pony. And then it kind of went downhill over the next two movies. Too much desire to show horror elements like the birthing of the Uruk Hai, again destroying suspense by showing Suraman’s destruction of the forest around his tower. And then removing the Scouring of the Shire, which basically removes the entire theme of the novel, which was a cautionary tale about the dangers of industrialization. Removing it turned LOTR into just another fantasy adventure.

    • Csm101

      Good call on The Shining. I was actually going to go with that, but opted for the easy way out instead.

      I still love Jurassic Park the movie, but the book was much more cold and calculated. I would love to see a more faithful adaptation of it some day.

      • Elizabeth

        I wish the premium channels would take novels and turn them into event series. For example, take Jurassic Park and turn it into a 10 part series that is a faithful version of the novel (with maybe updates to the science of dinosaurs). No thinking about what to do in Season 2, just a one-off season.

        • Yes! I have been stating this for the longest! Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Little House on the Prairie, Gone With The Wind, all of these would make for fantastic mini-series!

          I am odd, but I preferred the movie Jurassic Park over the book. However, the Lost World movie wasn’t even remotely like the book, and in that case, I prefer the book

      • Oops…but only about The Shining. While i would agree that LOTR as a literary series is a classic, I’d further suggest that because of its combination of scope and lore, there’s no way possible that 3 excellent movies could still do it justice.

      • photogdave

        I dislike the first one so much I didn’t bother with the second.
        Even if I had never read a “Reacher” book I’m sure I would have found the pacing slow and Cruise’s performance wooden. Having read most of the novels I just can’t get over how the poor casting completely changes the nature of the character. Also, they gave away a big plot point in the middle of the film that was used more effectively at the end of the novel.
        I’m usually quite happy to objectively separate films from the novels they are based on and enjoy them on their own merits (like LOTR or Bond adventures) but Reacher was just a big mess.

  6. Thulsadoom

    Worst book adaptation for me, personally, was John Carter. The Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian tales are my favourite books, but the only thing the movie did right was some of the visuals. It absolutely butchered the characters and story, dumbing it all down into a Wall-E-esque eco-message movie.

    • Barsoom Bob

      I feel you brother, sad but true. I live in Austin, TX, and if I ever run into Robert Rodriquez, I am going to tell him that he should get the rights to “Gods of Mars”, a tale of hollow religions doing great damage at it’s core, and make an adult, return to it’s pulpy roots adaptation. He could save ERB’s franchise from modern oblivion with a fun, sexy, swashbuckling take on that novel.
      I still like “John Carter” better than the recent “Tarzan” adaption. Had more life and a subtle but better romance besides much more striking visuals.

  7. Bolo

    ‘Inherent Vice’

    I’d read the novel and found it to be generally entertaining, but nothing amazing. Since I consider P.T. Anderson one of the best working filmmakers, I actually figured he would end up elevating the material. How I wrong I was. It ended up being, by far, Anderson’s worst film.

    The highlight of the novel was the spiteful repartee between the aging hippie protagonist and a squarehead Dolph Lundgren-esque Swedish-American corrupt fascist cop (played by a somewhat miscast Josh Brolin in the film) who fancies himself an action star. The funny dialogue-based humour of the novel was all jettisoned in favour of far more lowbrow humour. It frequently felt like desperate bottom of the barrel Farrelly brothers material.

    The novel also did a good job of touching on the end-of-an-era disillusion sentiment. This also got lost in the film. What Anderson did manage to do is get virtually every character and almost every scene (with the omission of the stuff in Vegas) from the novel up on screen in a way that was rushed and probably incredibly confusing to anybody who hadn’t read the novel.

    Hope Anderson’s reunion with Daniel Plainview himself gets him back on track.

  8. Bolo

    I’ve also got to put ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ in there for worst ratio in terms of quality of the source material to the film adaptation. Its adaption was so wrongheaded it justified an entire book documenting each blunder.

  9. Oh, where to start, where to start!

    The Vampire Lestat / Queen of the Damned. With Interview with the Vampire, it followed the book really well (although quite a bit was cut out, but I am okay with that – you can’t fit everything in a movie). However, the Queen of the Damned was just AWFUL!

    While it is one of the greatest movies ever made, Gone With The Wind is better as a book. That doesn’t detract from the movie at all, it is just that the book is better.

    Harry Potter 2, 4, 5 and 6. With Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, it felt rushed, and Columbus does not know how to direct kids. With Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, too much was cut out of the books (and in Goblet of Fire, too much was changed for my tastes). Goblet of Fire, while one of my favorite books, was one of my least favorite movies.

    The entire Twilight series. I got dragged to the first movie by a girlfriend. HATED it. Second one, i was dragged to by my goddaughter. HATED it. Then just to shut some people up, I read the books, and they were actually pretty good. I then went back and watched the movies, and was like “OOOOhhhh, I see what they were going for”, however it fell apart if you didn’t read the book. The problem was that the books were told through Bella’s perspective, and she was your typical mopey teenager who didn’t bother to get to know anyone other than Edward. As such, other characters are just sort of “there”, even if they are major characters. The problem is, when it translated into a movie, it made the characters and world she lived in flat and one dimensional.

    I’ll address the elephant in the room. Dune. Its a fun movie – IF you read the books or seen the mini-series. If you go into the movie blind, you are lost. Watched Dune 3 times over the years and was bored stiff and lost every time – UNTIL I saw the mini-series. Then I was like “Oh, that’s what’s going on?” Then read the books (or at least 1 and 2 and part of the third one – I never did finish – lost my copy of the book on a plane). Then went back and watched the movie again, and now I really like it.

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