The Book was Better – My Thoughts on Adaptations

I recently reread the Harry Potter series, and watched the movies available on Netflix at the time (from The Goblet of Fire and on).

Of course this started a debate. Wherever I expressed my love for the series, people from ‘the books were better’ camp collided with people from ‘the movies were great’ camp. The discussion always went to other books and their screen adaptations, movies or series, and in some cases, the debate quickly got heated.

In particular, I’m looking at the Percy Jackson fandom, who has apparently been rocking in a dark corner of the internet for years. I can’t comment here. I saw the Lightning Thief movie once with half an eye while I was making art or something, and couldn’t remember the plot at all when I read the book years later. And this is the extent of my knowledge on the subject.

The fans I’ve spoken with, however, are lyrical in their fanaticism. Their movies, according to them, sucked. Worse than any other adaptation ever.

Then you get the LOTR fandom, in their neat little camps with their neat little fences. There are those who loudly bemoan the fact that Tom Bombadil didn’t make the final cut, those who reckon the changes made in the movies were fantastic, those who feel it just isn’t canon, and many, many more. LOTR was one thing, but many of the purists still froth at the mouth when The Hobbit films are discussed. I’m one of these frothy-mouthed idiots, because reasons.

Why do we Care so Deeply?

Reading a book is an incredibly personal experience.

Our imaginations are unique, so the way we see characters and places will almost always be our exclusive creations. I think the almost always part comes in when we see the movie before reading the book, when there will be a fair chance we’ll imagine the characters and places like the actors and sets. This is sometimes true when we reread books after seeing the movie too. Our imagination is influenced by new sensory information, and this new information might stick or might not, but again, this depends on the individual.

Point is, my takeaway from a book, the moments that made me cry and scream and laugh, and the things that resounded with me might very well be unique. Even if I find someone who loved a book in a similar way to me, there will always be slight differences in our takeaway and overall experiences.

What’s more, we get attached to characters for different reasons, but the attachment we feel is quite real. So, there’s a kind of ownership when it comes to our fandoms. These are our babies, our ships, and because of the deep individuality behind our convictions, we often don’t appreciate other takes on what essentially belongs to us.

So, when Henry Cavill is cast as Geralt of Rivia, the internet explodes with tweets and statuses saying ‘this dude is too young’. He turned out great, we can all agree, but that moment of panic still existed that the choice of actor would ruin something that meant so much to so many people.

Adaptations are Essentially Fanfic

What we forget is that the people making the movie or series inspired by a beloved book feel exactly as we do. Most of the time, they put their takeaways and convictions on the screen, cast actors who look more or less how they imagine the characters, and leave out those moments that didn’t resound with them so much.

They’re creating something like fanfiction.

Sure, some people are more gifted at bringing their fanfic to life than others, but that’s another discussion.

Film/TV Productions and Books are not Equal

We have much more information available to us when we’re reading than when we’re watching something. In a book, thanks to exposition and direct stream of consciousness, we’re privy to what a character thinks. We’re actually in their heads.

Except if there’s a constant narration going on for the duration of the film, we have no idea what the character is thinking. Sure, there are visual and auditory cues–the use of music can often convey a pretty accurate idea of emotion–but we don’t know exactly what’s going on in the character’s head.

And that’s a good thing. If we were to sit through a full length film, where we were constantly bombarded with every thought as well as all the sensory cues, I think we’d leave the cinema exhausted. How distracting would that be? There’s a reason filmmakers only include a few select lines of narration here and there.

More importantly, how long would a film have to be to include every bit of exposition from a book? I made this point to someone recently, and they answered with ‘then make it a series!’ That made me laugh, but still.

Books exist in the written word, while everything on-screen relies on dialogue and action to keep the audience compelled. In a book, we don’t have to have dialogue in every scene, and the simplest of actions might have greater meaning than grand ones. We may have an enormous cast, with a character existing for the sole purpose of crossing paths with the protagonist once, and read through pages worth of exposition to help us understand the world, magic system, politics, or whatever.

These things don’t always translate well to screen.

For one, since an adaptation doesn’t have a gazillion hours in which to present their film/series, the plot must often be simplified and the exposition cut. Everything has to be streamlined to still make sense, and still deliver the overall message of the book.

For two, if an actor had to be cast for every rando with a single line, the production cost would be astronomical. So, characters are cut or combined. This is why in the movie, Cho ends up ratting out the DA, instead of her friend (whose name I can’t even remember, and I just read the book). And, to add some drama and further villainise Umbridge, the veritaserum comes into play.

No, this isn’t exactly how it happens in the book, but is that such a bad thing? As a work of fanfic, the HP movies are pretty good. I even appreciated some of the changes in the films versus what happened in the books. I still prefer the books, because as I said, the experience of reading is so much more personal.

Sure, there are adaptations that make me cringe so hard my face aches. I’m looking at you, Divergent. On the flip-side, there’s also the odd adaptation that I enjoyed more than the book, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

The point of this essay is this. Once we get past our complete ownership of beloved characters and storylines, and find it in our little fan hearts to acknowledge that others feel the same sense of ownership, it becomes so much easier to relax our arses and enjoy adaptations for what they are.

Still, it’s fun to debate. 😜

Please share your thoughts on adaptations in the comments.



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