What is a “Bad” Book Adaptation?

A few days after I saw the first Hunger Games movie, I overheard a couple of women discussing how bad it was over coffee. One woman said to the other, “Oh, it was awful. They cut out entire characters! Katniss was supposed to get that Mockingjay pin from the mayor’s daughter, but in the movie she gets it from her sister! Ugh, terrible. Hollywood always ruins books.”

I remember that so well because of the simple beauty in which it characterizes the way people treat book adaptations. For most, especially those who (for better or worse) assume that novels are just inherently better than movies because they’re words on a page and not images on a screen, book adaptations are just something we must all suffer. They put faces to the names we’ve learned to love, and they put concrete locations and visual motifs into our brains, forever hindering our own mental recreations.

And, shock of all shocks, the film usually changes some things around from the book.

When the woman who hated the Hunger Games talked about hating the movie because of the change of one minute detail, I couldn’t help but wonder why she saw the movie in the first place. Or if she had even thought as to whether that change was better.


Isn’t more narratively compelling for Katniss to receive her symbol of heroism from the very person she’s protecting, and not some ancillary character who has little to no impact on the novels themselves? It’s an inspired change that hammers down the emotional resonance of an already-emotional scene. It’s better than the book. But it’s also different.

Of course, The Hunger Games made a lot of changes to the text in order to make it fit a runtime that is, yes, shorter than the time it takes to read the novel, but those changes didn’t seem to bother this woman.

So I ask a simple question. What exactly is a good book adaptation? What is a bad one?

All of Stanley Kubrick’s films are based on literature, but hardly any of them resemble source material (Lolita coming the closest, but that in itself is an example of how far Kubrick often strays).

His Shining only matches its source material in its characters’ names and in the name of the hotel. Everything else is pretty much Kubrick’s creation. Does that make The Shining a bad adaptation? How could it be? It’s one of, if not the, most beloved horror film of all time.

Of course Stephen King hates it, but it’s his own book. Few fans of the book can deny the power of the film. It’s a great film. And, at least for me, a great adaptation.

But why?

Adaptations are strange animal. They exist as weird relics of another medium, trying desperately to cross over into a more (hopefully) financially lucrative space. Yes, some adaptations may be made for the sake of an artist wanting to put her/his hand on the material, but these are almost always made in order to retell a story to the same audience who will pay for it again. Some adaptations rise above their greedy origins, and others don’t, but their successes largely hinge one very, very important thing.

That Barton Fink feeling. 

In other words, a good adaptation is one that can capture that intangible feeling you got when you read the book. It’s a feeling that might be different for everybody, but you know it when you get it.

For me, King’s novel reveals the haunting history of America by focusing on one man’s horrific mistakes. Kubrick’s film reveals one man’s horrific nature by focusing on America’s haunting history. It’s a reversal that can be quite alarming, but for me it’s an amazing example of one piece of art being filtered through another artist.

Other adaptations are filtered through a less cerebral lens, but can still be quite good.

While John Carter is a fairly boring trudge through hero narrative tropes, it stands as an excellent adaptation of its source material. Just in the wrong decade.

After the success of James Bond and Star Wars and The Matrix, our culture has grown tired of the “last great hope” narrative in its base form. John Carter itself isn’t a bad movie, it’s just boring and predictable. It’s boring and predictable because its source material did such a great job influencing nearly every adventure narrative that followed.

Because of the context surrounding the tropes from that story, director Andrew Stanton would have been wise to adapt the source material a little more liberally in order to make it fit with the times. In this sense, it’s a “bad” adaptation. Not because it got the book wrong, but because it got the audience wrong.

Small gripes about little changes mean very little in the scheme of things. No book-t0-film adaptation can replicate exactly the novel in which it’s adapting. It would be a mess. They’re entirely different mediums. What we really want, as an audience, is a film that captures the feeling we had when reading it. That captures the themes and arcs in a presentable way.

The only problem is, books are an inherently singular experience. Once it’s a film, it’s shared. The difference is so fundamental to its respective mediums that they shouldn’t even be compared using the same system of measurement. My idea of Katniss and your idea of Katniss are different. They both exist only in our heads. Once Jennifer Lawrence fills that role in a film, every person’s Katniss looks the same. It limits our experience of the novel.

With that in mind, it’s important to understand that film is all about limitation. It’s never about expansion. No film will expand a novel for you, it will only limit it. The expanse in our imagination is manifested as a singular experience.

However, in the case of Kubrick’s Shining, that singular experience can be made inscrutable by taking the themes of the novel and playing with them. By giving the novel and its adaptation a symbiotic relationship that makes both works stronger.

After all, what is an adaptation without the bridge?

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