Of course, we’re not the ones doing the allowing. It’s up to the screenplay writers to adapt the book to screen, however they see fit.
Sometimes the books themselves pose the problem: whatever universe is created in the author’s mind might be extremely hard – indeed, sometimes downright impossible – to translate to the screen in a believable way. In some cases it’s done masterfully, in others… well, the results can range from kitch to awful, with bad CGI and even worse acting and directing being the usual culprits.
But for the sake of this post, I have to assume that the writers’ and directors’ vision was originally to stay true to the raw material. To take this carefully crafted world they were handed in book form and bring it to life in front of our very eyes. So what is it that usually goes wrong?
Take Stephen King, for example. The master of horror hasn’t earned that title in vain. He can truly transform the mundane into an exciting experience. He can take our nightmares and make them real. At the same time, he can delve into his characters’ souls and make even the most bizarre premises utterly realistic, as long as we’re willing to suspend disbelief. Not too much to ask, if you ask me.
But he can write just as beautifully about people that aren’t monsters, supernatural beings, strange powers no one can control; he can describe just as vividly situations that aren’t post-apocalyptic scenarios or fantasy worlds that we haven’t even dreamed of.
Both make him the king; but what happens when someone takes King’s vision and translates it to screen?
For me, scenario #2 is when his book adaptations shine. Take Stand By Me, or Dolores Claiborne, or even the Green Mile. All of them masterpieces, all of them with supernatural elements kept to the minimum, at least visually if not implied. Then take Pet Sematary, for instance. A difficult premise to begin with, on screen it ended up looking almost comedic. Take The Dark Half, or Desperation, or even It. Terrifying in book form, touching on B-movie territory on screen.
Is the technology available at the time the films were made to blame? A limited budget, perhaps? Or is it lack of vision on the director’s part? Had bigger names been involved in the making of these movies, would the results have been as impressive as the books?
Maybe the books themselves were just impossible to convey in film form.
Wait, that can’t be it. If a virtually unknown director from New Zealand can tackle the admittedly impossible task of bringing The Lord of the Rings to life to universal acclaim and win a few Oscars while doing so, then surely the same could be done with King’s books, if given the budget and the right crew.
But all of that is pure conjecture at this point. The thing is, a lot of books have been brilliantly transformed into movies. As viewers, we can appreciate the standalone film, even if he haven’t read the book – indeed, even if we don’t even know the film was based on a book to begin with.
The examples are as numerous and varied as they come: from Gillian Flynn’s recently acclaimed Gone Girl, to the multitude of John Grisham‘s or Tom Clancy‘s novels; from Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer to teen sensation The Hunger Games; from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and About A Boy to Brett Easton Ellis’ and Chuck Palahniuk controversial American Psycho and Fight Club respectively to… yes, even Stephenie Meyer’s sparkly vampire saga.
The list goes on and on.
But what these movies all have in common is that they stayed as close to the original material as possible. Slight deviations are always permittable, of course; sometimes they’re simply necessary for the story arc. A several hundred- (or, indeed, thousand-) page long book, with all its nuances and inner dialogue, can’t be translated into script verbatim when you only have 90′ or 120′ minutes to contend with.
But then, what happens when the book is made into a TV show? Surely the screenwriters have much more freedom to exploit the original text and come up with gripping episode arcs, all the while not straying from the intended result?
Oh course they do. And in some cases, they can. Whether it’s a story of epic proportions, like Game of Thrones, or one where poetic license allows for literally fast-forwarding Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic story a couple of centuries and adapting them to the modern world, both GoT and Sherlock are perfect examples that truly great books can make equally great TV. Immensely well-written, well-acted and well-produced shows that don’t offend the viewer, but that also don’t offend the reader.
The Leftovers are a good example of this. Moody and dark, the tone of the show matches the literature, it is well cast and paced accordingly.
Or take Bosch, another instance of book-to-screen adaptation. The ten episode arc of the 2014 series was based on three different books of the Harry Bosch saga. It’s not exactly a case of adapting a book to film, but rather borrowing heavily from a number of books (3, in this case) written by the same author, with the same protagonist, in the same vein of cop playing cat-and-mouse with the criminal. It’s beautifully done, and although I’m a Michael Connelly fan, I didn’t mind the deviation one bit.
Then take Bones, a show based on Kathy Reichs’ book series. Both she and Connelly are quite prolific, which I expect makes it easier for the show writers to draw material from. Yet whereas Bosch stays true to the main facts of the story, from the location to the main characters and, most importantly, the actual tone of the book, Bones takes a different approach.
The main heroine is completely different to Reich’s Temperence in every respect: in the books, she is a smart, confident forensic anthropologist consulting for the FBI and the Montreal police. Her love life isn’t the central theme of the novels, nor does she tackle a different case each week with a standard team of forensic scientists. In the series, we basically get a CSI-like procedural with the main protagonists sharing a Moonlighting-type chemistry. The heroine could easily have Asperger syndrome, especially as portrayed in the first few seasons. And while the books offer an abundance of well-contructed mysteries that are solved after several hundred pages of research, investigative work, forensic science and action, the showrunners opted for sensationalist cases solved thanks to the genius of Temperance’s colleagues as well as her own, interspersed with quirky dialogue between herself and the – non existent in the books- handsome, beefy FBI agent doubling as her partner, love interest and later husband and father to their child.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s an incredibly entertaining show based on a not-so-much fun (or funny) series of books. But had the heroine been called Jane Smith instead of Tempe Brennan, I wouldn’t have been the wiser.
Which brings me to my main gripe about deviating from the books when it comes to TV adaptations. True Blood was a fun show. It was obviously meant to be taken with a grain of salt, as would any vampire and werewolf story. It was funny, it was gory, and before it started unraveling in later seasons, it was atmospheric and quite enjoyable, if you go for that sort of thing. And I do.
Now, I realize that a story told in the first person – indeed, a story where Charlaine Harris insists on making her heroine report on every single mundane detail of her everyday life, from what she’s making for breakfast to how long it takes to apply her makeup or straighten her ponytail – is hard to put to film. But in the thirteen books and several short stories featuring Sookie Stackhouse, thirteen books spanning little over 3 years of her life, there is plenty of action to build a series on. You don’t need to bring in extra characters that serve no purpose other than to cut from Sookie to another scene before you cut back.
Charlaine’s writing will probably never win a Pulitzer, but she knows how to write a compelling vampire story. She knows how to build tension, and she knows very well how to introduce each new supernatural element with a pacing that gives the reader time to absorb the information and the impact this has on the lives of everyone in her created universe. First came vampires, then shape-shifters and Weres, then witches and Fairies, as the storylines became increasingly complex, along with Sookie’s own personal life.
Alan Ball was obviously not as patient. He threw everything he had into True Blood right from the get-go, and when he deemed it not enough, came up with twice as much all on his own. The first season was more or less true to the book. It was a basically a whodunnit, with vampires thrown in. Everything after that, with the exception of a few key characters, was his own creation. Sookie was so miscast, the show lost points for me right there. Under Ball’s direction, the telepathic heroine became a caricature, and eventually the rest of the characters followed suit. Sex was aplenty, because sex sells. Villains and heros were interchangeable in the True Blood universe, because… I suppose because that’s what passes for good TV?
I beg to differ.
I would propose that had the show remained true to the books, it could have been a sensation. No matter how low-brow a series of vampire-themed books might be considered, in the skilled hands of someone who’s not trying to make a mockery of the source material to score viewership, it could have been a gripping story, where the characters’ personalities shone, and the supernatural element was incidental, there only to push the story along, while the main heart of the series were character development and the relationships formed.
This is what Robert Kirkman, Frank Darabont (oh how we miss thee), Scott Gimple, Greg Nicotero et al were smart enough to realize, and even smarter to follow up on. They managed to turn a comic book series into what arguably is the biggest show on TV right now.
The Walking Dead is a prime example of how to deal with the gory, the macabre, the unbelievable. Instead of making a zombie show, these guys have made a brilliant drama about humanity, about relationships, about good vs. evil. The Walkers are wonderfully brought to life (ha), but they exist mostly as the force that drives the heroes’ decisions. The gory scenes are spectacular but they aren’t there just for the sake of gratuitous violence. We only get a sex scene every couple of seasons, and no one is complaining.
Does the show deviate from the comic books? I haven’t read the books (yet), but according to those who have, yes, it does. Do they feel this takes away from the story? No, because it’s done so well. Daryl was never a character in the books, yet we can’t imagine a world where Rick and Daryl aren’t on the same team. In this case, poetic license is welcome, because it’s handled with respect.
That’s how much poetic licence we allow. Enough to feel like justice’s being done to the original material. Enough to feel respected. Enough to make compelling film.
That’s really all we can ask for.