A look at some of the best and worst TV and movie adaptations and what determines a successful transition from book to screen.
For voracious readers, it’s often a double-edged sword when our favorite comic books, graphic novels, and novels are adapted to TV shows and movies. Avid fans will always be upset by revisions, and they’ll certainly love the books more. Often changes seem to be made for change’s sake, and adaptations lose the spirit and character that made us love the books in the first place. But even when screenwriters stick closely to the source material, the medium of the screen necessitates changes. And if done right, TV and movie adaptations can leave us with a different yet still noteworthy bit of entertainment.
My mother and I both thought the Ben Affleck Daredevil movie (2003) was horrible. When I told her what happened in the comic book, she replied, “Well, why didn’t they do that?”
Comic books themselves often reinvent characters and story lines to keep titles fresh over decades, but even they aren’t always successful. (I’m looking at you, Captain America.) When adaptations vary drastically from the source material, two reasons are often given: “We had to make it more accessible” and “We wanted surprises for the fans.” But if a character background or a story line resonated with fans originally, why wouldn’t it anymore?
Not absolute, but many examples illustrate that veering too far from the source material tends to fail, while sticking to the author’s original formula succeeds. A couple of the best examples of staying quite true to the source material are Netflix’s Daredevil (2015-) and the recent Wonder Woman (2017). Both were tremendously successful, the former spawning multiple spinoffs. Those that strayed from the source material saw lackluster results: Man of Steel (2013) and Netflix’s Iron Fist (2017).
The entire first season of the TV adaptation of Preacher (2016-) takes place before the comic even begins. And while it uses characters and the basic premise of the comic, the plot is completely different. Fearing the audience will know what happens next isn’t a valid justification for making such drastic changes to source material. Readers love the anticipation of seeing what they know is coming. Fans of George R. R. Martin’s books certainly weren’t disappointed to see the “Red Wedding” on Game of Thrones (2011-), for example. But with Preacher such a departure from the source material ended up disconnecting comic fans like me, and I haven’t wanted to finish the recent season.
HBO’s Game of Thrones has found a successful balance in its approach to adapting source material. Before Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire was being adapted for TV, no one thought it could be done. But by omitting some characters and blending others together, the show creators managed to boil the books down to their essence without losing the spirit of the original work. Most people who love the books also love the show, though devoted fans have been upset that two separate character resurrections are missing from the show, since resurrection is a huge theme and main story arc. When the show veers too far from Martin’s vision, even viewers who haven’t read the books recognize it, because the action isn’t true to the characters.
Omitting or merging characters is common in book-to-screen adaptations. Two characters from the book Mash became one when Robert Altman adapted it into a movie (1970). And a large number of the characters that the movie kept were missing from the TV show (1972-83). But both the movie and the show managed to retain the spirit and the main theme that had made the book successful in the first place. As a result, it’s easy to love all three.
Some people are perfectly fine with a movie or TV show not resembling the book at all. (Sigh. Guardians of the Galaxy…) In the Jack Reacher book series, the protagonist is six and a half feet tall, 250 pounds, broad-chested and blond. So, of course, he’s played in the movies by Tom Cruise. Author Lee Child was quoted as saying: “Obviously, Tom Cruise doesn’t match the physical description of Reacher in the books, but the movie is not going to match the book anyway.” And, sadly, the movies did not — especially since in the books every action and reaction is based on what the protagonist looks like.
But then there are instances where the adaptations are as close to the book as possible. Peter Jackson’s tremendously successful adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy still had plenty of readers arguing about what was left out and what was added to the film series. One of the biggest omissions from The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) is the character Tom Bombadil. He is extremely important in that he’s the only character unaffected by the ring. But he appears only in a side trip our heroes take, and he’s a very minor character in the plot. It’s no wonder he was cut, even from the four-hour version.
While the book is almost always better than the adaptation, there are exceptions. With Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012-), the TV show has been much more successful than the books they were based on. And while their attention to period detail is flawless, they’ve made major changes to characters and story lines.
And the TV adaptation of The Magicians (2015-) is successful in a way that the book series could never have been. I hadn’t read the books when I began watching the show — and I adored it so much I stopped watching and went to read the books first (and read all three in quick succession). I noticed a few changes, like the sped-up timing of events, but that was natural from book to TV. As I continued with the show, it diverged so completely from the books that I angrily stopped watching. And yet there are people who think the show is so much better than the book. And I wonder if I would have continued to love the show had I not stopped to read.
Sometimes fans of the book can’t fully appreciate an adaptation because someone with their own vision took the helm of the film or show and their vision doesn’t come close enough to the author’s to be satisfying. Neil Gaiman is one of my all-time favorite authors, but the TV adaptation of American Gods (2017) was more Bryan Fuller than Gaiman.
Most readers prefer books over their adaptations because authors can go into much more detail, spend more time developing characters and let you into characters’ thoughts. As a hard-science-fiction nut, I loved reading The Martian — until the other people show up! (I still liked it, but not as much.) When the movie adaptation (2015) was made, I knew they would cut out all the stuff I loved. After all, it wasn’t a movie about how to survive if you’re ever trapped on Mars. People were expecting an adventure film. I still enjoyed the movie a lot and was surprised by its success. But the book is better to me because I was able to spend time with its hero, stranded on Mars. But unless you’re Moon (2009), no one is going to watch a movie starring one person almost the entire run-time.
That was the major complaint among readers of what I think is the best current science fiction book-to-screen adaptation: The Expanse (2015-) on Syfy. Written by authors who were also fans of The Martian to take place in the same fictional universe, the book series similarly worked hard on the science part of science fiction. Fans of the books complained that space travel was too quick on the TV show, but who wants to watch three episodes where they’re just traveling? Granted, that would give more time for character development. And some folks have had issues with casting, but frankly you’re not going to find an actor who wasn’t born on Earth, so I’ve excused that one. I found that even with the changes, the show creators have done a remarkable job adapting a fantastic book to the screen.
It sometimes seems as if every TV show and movie is an adaptation of a book series. Often movie and TV studios feel the need to change the stories and, in some cases, the characters to placate non-readers. While it’s rare, these decisions can lead to great successes, and an adaptation can sometimes even eclipse the popularity of the original book. Other adaptations, like The Walking Dead (2010-), walk that razor’s edge. But could you imagine all the Harry Potter movies being made had they not been faithful to the books? It’s possible to make significant changes and still capture the spirit of the characters and story lines from the original books. Tough choices need to be made from page to screen. But when done right, they retain what made folks love the books in the first place.