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What makes a good book-​​to-​​movie adaptation?

3Qs with English professor Kathleen Kelly
March 27th, 2012

The film adap­ta­tion of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” dom­i­nated the box office this weekend, net­ting more than $155 mil­lion in its first three days in the­aters. We asked Eng­lish pro­fessor Kath­leen Kelly, who teaches classes that cover book-​​to-​​film adap­ta­tions and plans to see “The Hunger Games” this week, about what makes a suc­cessful movie ver­sion of a work of pop­ular literature.

What makes for a successful book to film adaptation?

It’s a com­bi­na­tion of genius, inspi­ra­tion and the nature of the nar­ra­tive itself, but then these ele­ments also have to be com­bined with reader — and now viewer — expec­ta­tions. I don’t think there are gen­eral prin­ci­ples to follow except for aiming for the highest pro­duc­tion values and the lushest kind of visuals.

A reader’s encounter with a written nar­ra­tive is com­pletely depen­dent on the visuals cre­ated by the text and his or her imag­i­na­tion. So when descrip­tions of land­scapes, dwellings and people are trans­ferred from that medium — from the written word to the screen — the resulting visuals have the biggest impact. It’s not nec­es­sarily the plot or the stars; it’s more that the viewer thinks, “That’s exactly how I pic­tured it!” Often, the more a reader’s expec­ta­tions line up with the film, the more suc­cessful the film is thought to be.

What film adaptations stand out as especially good or bad interpretations of the written word?

Right away, I have to say that Peter Jackson’s adap­ta­tion of “The Lord of the Rings” is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s a trilogy I grew up with and loved, as did so many other readers. But Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 adap­ta­tion of Tolkien’s trilogy was one of the worst I’ve ever seen. I think so much of its failure had to do with the choice of ani­ma­tion: It made Tolkien’s vivid, deep char­ac­ters car­toony. Jackson’s char­ac­ters, on the other hand, pro­jected grav­itas and depth that matched the book.

Beyond cap­turing the land­scape of Middle Earth, Jackson lifted dia­logue right from the books. There’s a plea­sure that comes from knowing the nar­ra­tive before­hand — there’s no sus­pense, you know how it’s going to turn out. You’re going for the sheer plea­sure of the visual, so then to hear the dia­logue that you already know well enhances the pleasure.

Do fans of books set unrealistic goals for movie adaptations?

I think when people start out with a fidelity model — when they want the film to imi­tate the book — they’re always going to be dis­ap­pointed. They expect the expe­ri­ence they had reading will be the same they’ll have in the the­ater. But it’s two dif­ferent mediums. If you go into the film expecting that every­thing in the book will be rep­re­sented on the screen, you’re going to be disappointed.

But some­times a film can move too far from a book, focusing more on visuals than story. Take the Harry Potter films, espe­cially the later ones: The visuals are so lush and dom­i­nating, but all the com­plexity of the nar­ra­tive is gone. I think the last two films were extremely dis­ap­pointing, though they fol­lowed the arc of J.K. Rowling’s writing. The story got darker and darker, with a good vs. evil story that became increas­ingly com­plex, but that just didn’t transfer to the screen.

by Matt Collette


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