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Book to Screen Adaptations: When Are They Successful?

Cindy Burnett
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Books adapted to movies

BOOKS TO MOVIES Transitioning a popular book to a movie can be a tough proposition. 

When it comes to adaptations of books to the big – or small - screen, a common book lover’s maxim is “the book is always better.” As a result, I frequently view these films with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, especially if I loved the original book.

Movies based on two bestselling books are out this month, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (Aug. 9) and Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple (Aug. 16), causing me to contemplate the adaption of books to the Big Screen (and for TV  too). The past several years has brought an increase in book adaptations, particularly for TV. The abundance of channels and providers such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime has led to a large increase in the number of TV shows, and producers are always looking for new ideas so using books for inspiration is a natural solution.

Some adaptations manage to capture the essence of the book effectively. As I reflect on what makes a good adaptation, I think two main factors play roles in this equation - one that is more individual, and one that is easier to quantify.

First, by their very nature, books require readers to use their imagination and create their own ideas of how the characters look and behave within the boundaries of the details the author provides. I have found that when the actors cast in the production contain some elements of the way I envisioned them originally (and the way the author described them), then I enjoy the movie or television show a lot more. 

Second, when the movie or TV show script hews closely to the book’s plot, I generally am happier with the result, particularly when I loved the original story. A script that veers off into completely new territory is not generally going to be loved by readers who want to see a favorite story brought to life.

Below I list the adaptations that I really enjoyed, the ones that I felt did not accurately represent the book, and a couple of new ones that come out later in 2019.

Here are a few of my favorite adaptations:

  • The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019) – This book by Garth Stein stars a sweet dog named Enzo who looks out for his human family as they navigate life’s ups and downs. I actually like the movie better than I do the book. The characters are more likeable, and the story flows better in the movie.
  • Crazy Rich Asians (2018) – Kevin Kwan’s over-the-top series about the uber-wealthy in Singapore is brought to life beautifully on the big screen; both the casting and the setting are excellent.
  • The Help (2011) – Katherine Stockett’s book about segregation in Jackson, MS in 1962, and the women who choose to challenge societal norms. Another movie that perfectly maintains the heart and soul of the book through the casting and the setting.
  • Pride and Prejudice (BBC version, 1995) – Jane Austen’s timeless tale about life, manners, family, and love in Georgian-era England. This mini-series closely follows the plot of the book, and the casting is superb.

These adaptations fell flat for me:

  • Bosch (Amazon Prime show) – This book series by Michael Connelly is one of my all-time favorites. The books feature Harry Bosch, a police detective who solves murders in Los Angeles. However, I feel that the TV show is a disappointment. Titus Welliver looks nothing like I envision Bosch, and the setting is too noir-feeling for the tone the books set. 
  • Jack Reacher (movies 2012, 2016) – In this series by Lee Child, Jack Reacher, a former major in the U.S. army, travels around the United States stumbling upon and investigating various crimes and dangerous situations. Casting Tom Cruise as Lee Child’s larger-than-life protagonist Jack Reacher ruined the movies for Child’s fan base. Cruise’s short stature make him a poorly-cast Reacher, whose massive physical size is a central part of his character’s composition. 
  • The Lightning Thief (2010) – The Lightning Thief is the first book in Rick Riordan’s Greek myth-inspired young adult series about Percy Jackson and his quest to locate Zeus’ thunderbolt. The entire time I was watching this movie I wondered if the script writers even read the book.

Movies coming out in 2019 based on popular books:

  • Where’d You Go Bernadette (2019) – Told in a series of emails, letters, and other documents, Maria Semple’s book Where’d You Go Bernadette tells the story of an agoraphobic mother who disappears prior to a family vacation to Antarctica.
  • Goldfinch (2019) – This award-winning (including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) tome from 2013 is coming to the big screen starring Nicole Kidman. This coming-of-age tale is about a boy who survives a terrorist bombing and the aftermath. The movie opens in theatres on Sept. 13, 2019.
  • Little Women (2019) – The 8th film adaptation of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott will release on Christmas Day and contains a star-studded cast including Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan and more. The focus of this production is said to focus on Meg, Jo and Amy after they have left home.

This weekend I am excited to go see Where’d You Go Bernadette; I loved the book and hope the movie will be fabulous too!

For more book recommendations and bookish thoughts, see @ThoughtsFromaPage on Instagram or Cindy’s Reading Recs

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