The Film Adaptation Theory

Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

The book versus movie argument (which I’ve decided to name the Film Adaptation Theory) has fascinated me since I was a kid. Most people I know would automatically say “it’s so different from the book!” without giving much explanation as to what the movie was like, or even explaining why the book was better than its medium transfer. Even in cases where I’m inclined to agree, just hearing the phrase “they made too many changes!” makes me stop and think “…really?”

Okay, I can understand some examples of this. For instance, the live-action Cat in the Hat movie wasn’t just the worst movie based on a book ever made; it was one of the worst movies period. But what about the Mary Poppins movie? Every time someone mentions the title, we almost always talk about the movie and not the book. In fact, aside from PL Travers, I’ve never heard of anyone who thought the movie was flawed, even with its deviance from the book.

I know a lot of people support the Film Adaptation Theory, but I have two problems with it. One, a book and a movie are two completely different modes of storytelling. They rely on different ways to get their point across, as well as different methods of reception. For example, a book can be as long as it wants, and its audience can always take a break if it needs to. In that way, it could take some people days—even weeks—to read a book. A movie, however, can only fit into a three-hour timeslot without a break, and even three hours is pushing it. So in order for an adaptation to work, the source material needs to undergo a few changes in order to fit the new mode of storytelling.

Two, books aren’t always perfect. I know I sound like a heretic for saying it, but it’s true. The best example I can think of to illustrate my point is the Hunger Games franchise. Yes, it’s no secret that Suzanne Collins is a brilliant writer whose books were just as much a critical success as well as a financial success, and for good reason. But that didn’t mean the books were perfect, and I’m sure I don’t need to bring up the most common complaints people have had about the story. Funny thing is, when I talk to Hunger Games fans about the films, all I’ve heard from them is how much the movies not only captured the spirit of the books, but also made smart changes to the story in order to fix some of the problems it had. For instance, the love triangle in the books wasn’t that interesting, particularly in Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Every time it comes up, it brings the story to a halt rather than keeps it moving forward. In the films, they don’t spend nearly as much time focusing on the romance. It’s referenced here and there, but only enough to let us know what’s going on. And honestly, it was a welcome change.

Despite the problems I have with the Film Adaptation Theory, I kind of understand why so many people treat it like the Golden Rule of cinema based on literature. I had this conversation with a friend of mine over a year ago. I asked her why people feel like a movie based on a book is bad if it digresses from the original source. She reminded me that such movies are adaptations of original stories, not original stories themselves. So if film adaptations don’t tell the story the way the books did, they demonstrate a misunderstanding of the source material. And…yeah, it’s hard to disagree with that. One of the reasons adaptations such as Ella Enchanted and the live-action Cat in the Hat didn’t work was because they completely misinterpreted the spirit of the original stories. It’s almost as if the movies had never even heard of the sources they claimed they were trying to recreate.

So yeah, I’ve complained so much about the theory, and I’ll probably continue to make fun of it in the future. But on the whole, I have to admit that it still carries a grain of truth. A film adaptation isn’t an original story, but one that’s loosely based on an original story. And film directors who wish to make such adaptations need to have a good understanding of the stories they want to recreate.

Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”

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