The Problems with Adapting Books for the Screen

pages of an open book

Since the inception of film and television, books were and still are a primary source of inspiration for these mediums. Some of the first films such as “Phantom of the Opera” and the black and white “Wizard of Oz” were adapted from books. However, viewers and critics have recently seen a pattern of book adaptations falling flat on their face.

Look no further than 2013’s “City of Bones” or critically abhorred “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” released the same year. In more recent years, there is 2021’s “Chaos Walking,” which failed to impress critics or break even in the box office, despite its beloved source material.

Only a handful of book-to-screen adaptations manage to succeed, namely films like the “Twilight Saga” or the “Hunger Games” series. But what is happening to the ones that failed?

Take a closer look at the issues that could lead a book-to-screen adaption failing to capture its audiences.

  • Casting Issues

One common criticism lobbed at book-to-screen adaptation is the accuracy of the casting choices. Most of these criticisms often come down to age and race, the latter being far more controversial. When it comes to age, book adaptations that have retained the age of their original characters have historically done better than those that aged them up for some reason.

For example, the cast of the “Harry Potter” movies were cast at the same age of their book counterparts. This allowed them to age with their characters, as well as their primary audiences.

Meanwhile, racial typecasting or the exclusion of peoples of color from film and television has long been an issue. There have even been surveys that reveal institutional barriers that make it difficult for people of color to be cast in anything.

More progressive productions have gone for a race conscious type of casting process to be as inclusive as possible while still prioritizing talent and commitment to characterization.

  • Truncated Plots

filming concept
Movies have more limitations than books when it comes to plots.

One of the most stressful parts of adapting a book into the screen is how much material must inevitably be cut. Unlike books, which have pages and pages to explore characters, expound plots and set the stage, screen adaptations have limited run times. This is especially more crucial when adapting books to film.

Because of the limited time a movie has to relay concepts that a book can “pause” time to explain, it takes a talented writer, cinematographer and director to trim down these plots without losing their essential meaning. This job becomes more egregious if the books were bloated with plots, concepts and characters to begin with. Whittling these down to manageable and filmable portions can be cause of criticism by itself. If poorly done, they can not only turn off fans of the books but also non-readers.

  • Conveying Imagery

Unless they’re illustrated or they’re graphic novels, books rely on the reader’s imagination to present the author’s worlds and characters. Translating these concepts into visual media can be quite challenging and their may be a lot of disappointment of the filmmaker doesn’t get things right. This imagery may be the costumes of the characters or the design of the locations. Or they can be more esoteric concepts like the book’s magic system or strange creatures.

There are practical limitations to how a filmmaker can portray certain things. For example, there could be budgetary constraints or even availability of shooting locations. A talented person is needed to make sure these compromises don’t reduce the impact of the book concepts.

  • Oversaturation

girl staring at her laptop
Oversaturated markets lead to audience disinterest.

Finally, there is the simple fact that sometimes book adaptations fail because there are just so many works from its genre being made into movies. This can oversaturate the market and mean that audiences don’t want to see any more of that kind of film or television series.

One of the most recent crazes that overtook the film and television industry involves the teenage dystopia. These books were largely inspired by the success of Suzanne Collin’s “The Hunger Games” trilogy and the profitability of its film series. In just a few short years, there were film and series adaptations of works like “Divergent,” “The Maze Runner,” “The 100” and “The 5th Wave.”

These movies inevitably had a young teen protagonist (usually a white female) who lived in a grim society that’s controlled by a tyrannical regime. Despite the success of “The Hunger Games,” the genre quickly oversaturated the market and led to mass disinterest from audiences, effectively ending its popularity.

Translating books to movies is a difficult ordeal and only a handful of intellectual properties ever make it to the screen successfully. However, filmmakers or showrunners who legitimately care about the books they are adapting stand a chance to make decent and popular products.

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