How does one determine whether a film adaptation of a book is a good one? In the first place, for a well-written book that is brought to life by the writer’s words with just a little help from the reader’s imagination, why should a film adaptation be necessary at all? I haven't watche The Boy in the Striped Pajamas yet because I fail how to see a film can capture the experience of seeing death camps through the eyes of a little boy better than a movie. I don't want to be disappointed. Film adaptations can often be disappointing to those who love a book because the movie is unlikely to correspond entirely to their imaginings or their experience of reading. In fact, I usually enjoy a movie more if I haven’t read the book yet.
Adaptations become more significant when the book has important visual elements. That is why period novels, historical fiction, fantasies and sci-fi are the favored choices for film adaptation. Description, which a good writer is always careful not to overdo, fails to capture the details of an unfamiliar setting the way visuals do. And among my favorite film adaptations of books are of this type: The Age of Innocence, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and the Joy Luck Club.
There are film adaptations which fly off on a tangent, adding onto and enriching the book. Sometimes they just use a character and the general lines of the plot, like Forrest Gump, Shrek, or Minority Report. Of these, I think the best is Minority Report. The broader details of futuristic setting, barely described in Philip K. Dick’s story, are created and integrated well into the plot. The characters, too, are given more depth and strength. I also love Tuck Everlasting, which captures the spirit of the book even better, by turning the protagonist, Winnie, into a slightly older character thus giving more depth and drama to her struggle with the questions of life, death, and immortality. Adding a real intense love affair and a continuation of the protagonist’s story after the immortal Tucks fade from her life enriches her character and gives the film appeal to a broader audience. For another children’s book that was made into an excellent movie, there is The Secret Garden, which as with The Age of Innocence had wonderful visual elements that were especially brought to life in film and used these aspects of the setting to capture the mood of each scene. The bleakness of Mary’s life before the garden is captured by the dry Indian landscape, then the drab winter. Furthermore, it capitalized on the elements only suggested or mentioned cursorily in the book, such as the mystery of her mother’s family, especially her uncle’s bitterness, and the possibility of a romance later in Mary’s life.
Adding innovations more often than not goes wrong, however. Sometimes they are silly, hopelessly cliché, aimed at pleasing the masses such as passionate sex scenes where there might not have even been any sex in the book. Perhaps the worst adaptation I have seen was Circle of Friends, which focused entirely on the sexual tension between the various couples and tritely blaming it all on the rigidness of Catholicism. The best scenes, in fact, were those which focused on friendship, both in the book and movie—the title should make it obvious that the book was focused on that theme! The main love team’s relationship began with friendship, and in fact the question of sex only messed up a beautiful relationship—but the movie shows the opposite! Sometimes a happy ending is forced as in I Am Legend. I do not object to happy endings. Sometimes they improve a story, as when in The Joy Luck Club Rose and her husband got back together, adding a touching and hopeful note that the film needed, because in the book, as someone I know once said, all the men the women have relationships with are bastards, which does not speak too well of Asian women and their relationships with men in this day and age. But the ending of I Am Legend the movie was not well-integrated, making it seem illogical given the preceding events and how the characters were developed. I fail to see why a rabid, crazed vampire population would be grateful to be cured or even know that they were, when all they wanted before was to suck the blood of the one guy who was trying to develop a cure. It’s the same thing when relationships and conflicts are forced in or badly developed. That was the trouble with Jurassic Park. The focus of the film was to make as many scary dinosaur sequences happen as quickly as possible. The characters and their relationships were developed so sketchily, though, that you wouldn’t care very much if they were all eaten by dinosaurs.
Other times elaborations simply don’t add anything to the story, as in The Bridge to Terabithia. The special effects of the fantasy sequences weren’t much more than a marketing ploy. The real delight in the movie is the two young protagonists and their relationship, which was also what made the book memorable. I think that The Bridge to Terabithia could be performed as a stage play with minimal scenery and still be extremely delightful and moving. The original version of A Wrinkle in Time the movie was horribly tedious because of all the additions, which were definitely irrelevant to anyone who had read the book. How Dr. Murry disappeared was shown for instance, in a spectacular sequence with special effects and search helicopters. The entire scene was cut in the Disney DVD. A costly mistake. The heart of the story is the protagonist Meg’s longing for her father. Showing how he disappeared diverts from her point of view since part of the ordeal of his disappearance is not knowing what happened to him. In fact in the final version of the movie, just about everything added to the original plot of the book was cut, and this was better. The other changes were all updates to the twenty-first century, which I think is legitimate. Otherwise, the final version was completely true to the book, as I remember it.
Some people think that a film adaptation should always be completely true to the book. The trouble is people see the elements of book in different ways. Also, those who have already read the book might find be a bit bored sitting through the entire story again. Unless you are watching it on DVD, you can’t skip ahead to your favorite scenes the way you can when rereading. A lot of people find The Age of Innocence slow whether they’ve read the book or not. I personally love it, but after reading the book I never wanted to watch the whole film straight, just the bits and pieces I liked or wanted to visualize better. And it is usually necessary to cut scenes from a long novel when making it into a film, so it is understandable that the filmmakers focus on the most important and popular scenes. This is certainly the case with Little Women, though after seeing so many adaptations of it on film and stage, I wish that adapters would try recreating other scenes in the book. The humorous chapter where the girls all try to keep house with disastrous effect is never shown, for instance.
The important thing when making an adaptation is to be true to the spirit of the book. I love I Capture the Castle’s film version almost as much as the book. It is true to the book’s spirit, and one way it manages to do this is to keep the voice of the diary-writing protagonist and narrator. The film version of In the Time of the Butterflies lacks the appeal of the book because it does not try to capture the varying viewpoints and voices of characters of the book. Admittedly this structure is hard to translate to film, and only The Joy Luck Club has done it so well. I also like Vanity Fair’s movie version, mainly because it is more focused than the long rambling book. The book, though delightful, is too long and paring it down seems to improve it, though the same cannot be said of Les Miserables, all of whose film versions have had to cut beloved characters and simplify the ones they do include. It succeeds far better as a musical because the music helps capture the spirit without long dialog and introspection. Mansfield Park is better as a movie but only because the way the heroine of the book is presented leaves so much to be desired; the movie focuses on the more important quality of her moral courage than the book, which focuses on her being good, shy, and frail.
Books with an unusual structure and long books like the Harry Potter ones (I’ve never been satisfied with a film version so far) must be hard to capture in film. But I think it is possible if they focus to being true to the spirit, to paying attention to what the book is really trying to say and keeping what is important, memorable, and moving rather than simply looking for scenes they can show impressively or that seem to fit in with popular formulas.
In fact it is possible for a film to be simple visually, even to show the wrong visual details and still be wonderful. Proof of this is Pride and Prejudice, the earlier version starring Lawrence Olivier and Greer Garson. Gone with the Wind captures the spirit of the book and is visually stunning as well, using excellent period details. As a film it is excellent, still holding its own beside the more lavish and expensive period films of today. Pride and Prejudice, though, is pared down and has the wrong period costumes. The latest version tried to correct this but did not succeed. Why not? The black-and-white film captured the wit of Elizabeth and the cool dignity of Darcy and the caricature quality of the other characters. They really were meant to be caricatures, and the latest version failed to understand that, and tried flesh them out.
It all boils down to whether the makers of the film understand the book and what igives it appeal. How can they make their audience love it if they do not know what made the book lovable and are only thinking of what usually works onscreen? The first Pride and Prejudice was clearly made lovingly, with all of Austen’s best lines kept and further emphasized: When Elizabeth’s father says “I will never see you if you do” to Elizabeth the scene closes with a joyful hug because what could be a better closing line for the scene than that? The film shows respect and admiration for the author’s skill. And that is all that could be desired of a film adaptation.