Cinematography Sins: The disasters of film adaptations

Book to movie adaptations have long been one of the most debated upon topics by readers and viewers alike. The genres they fall under are of little importance; fans of the novels always find things to complain about in the screen adaptations, be they fantasy, classics, young adult, or science-fiction. Very few of these types of films actually please the audience they are aimed at, with the industry doing such a poor job that it has become a universal joke among readers. But why do they get it wrong? What is the recipe for success?

Understandably, those with little to no knowledge of the source material may argue that the movies based on books do a fine job at drawing in audiences and are, in fact, quite enjoyable. And on their own, they might be. But as soon as you grasp the depth and effort put into the original story, the movie, with all its changes and plot twists, starts to feel more like a cheap and even offensive knock-off. So why not simply do it right the first time and stick to the original plot?

The truth of the matter is, it is very hard to transpose a story to the big screen. It is high time that readers understood just how much work is put into such a project. From the visual effects to the expositional scenes needed to convey the emotion or facts that the author uses words for, it is easy to understand why directors struggle so much to find the balance between adding their own plot points and keeping to the source material. Some elements of stories are hard to put into images, like the internal monologues of characters or the backstories of places, objects, and people.

Be that as it may, audiences are right about one thing: much of the magic of the story gets lost along the way. Lack of love and appreciation for the source material, fast pacing, too little character development, unrealistic dialogue, and “telling, not showing” destroy any good story, being even more unfortunate when it is an actually enjoyable one if properly depicted. It is imperative that movie creators should pay more attention to these particular elements.

At the top of the list, we have the issue of the portrayal of characters, or, to be more precise, their development and behavior. Not only are much of these lost on the script due to scriptwriters’ lack of effort in understanding the plot of the books, but they are also cut down by the limited runtime of the films and the unfortunate consequent need to directly express certain things instead of having audiences deduce them. This is a practice known as “telling, not showing”, and it should be the exact opposite: show, not tell. It is supposed to be limited to a few scenes in each movie, not as the overused easy way out of explaining things it has become. A big part of the beauty of literature is that much of it is up to the reader’s imagination, each having a different view on the same event. By spelling everything out for the viewer, movie makers often leave nothing open to interpretation, subsequently having more people that dislike the plot.

Another big issue is the dialogue. Coming as a direct result of the lack of time to develop certain aspects, lines that are very out of character and are written for the sole purpose of exposition make their way into the final script. What is more, they are more often than not extremely awkward, especially for characters of specific age groups. Attempting to incorporate the language used on the internet is a very difficult task, walking the very fine line between natural and cringe. Unfortunately, we rarely see adults find the balance that is needed for a flowing, natural dialogue between the characters while also including some of the argot of the youth.

Both of the things mentioned beforehand are premises for disaster on their own, and yet they are both strongly tied to the greatest issue of all: the pacing. Nothing can be done if the rhythm at which the plot moves forward is not fitting for the story. Were it not for the pressure of time, perhaps adaptations would be more loyal to the books they are based on. As of now, very few of them have been deemed to have a decent pacing which leaves room for secondary plot points, and even the successful ones had to significantly reduce the content they took from the novels.

One might at this point start to believe that all hope is lost when it comes to visual adaptations of their favorite literary universes, but that is not entirely the case. There is one simple solution to the problem: fragmentation. Be it in the form of a movie series or a TV show, having multiple components allows the directors to incorporate as much of the original as they can, given that they have unlimited screen time. It is virtually impossible to satisfy all the criteria of a good movie while also staying loyal to the long source material and not surpassing the two-hour mark, which is when most viewers give up on a movie. So just make it a series.

One great example of this is represented by the adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice.” The movie based on the book with the same name is a rather controversial topic among fans, some saying it did a great job, while others argue that it left out many aspects. The British BBC series, however, was very well received, receiving an Emmy Award as well as a British Academy Award. It follows all the major and minor points of the tale written by Jane Austen and it manages to set a proper atmosphere, all because they had time to properly develop the action and the characters that had a natural and not forced evolution.

It seems as though some writers have finally been hit by the idea of switching the movies for the much more accessible, profitable, and loyal-to-the-source series, with platforms like Netflix and Disney+ having announced many beloved book titles as upcoming shows. Hopefully, this will become the regular practice, and disastrous adaptations such as “Twilight”, “Percy Jackson” or the “Divergent” series will be avoided from now on.


articol scris de Catinca Apostol

fotograf: Cristia Anghel