A (Long) Word on Movie Adaptations

There are hardly any original ideas in film these days. If it wasn’t based on a book, the last big movie you probably saw was likely adapted from a comic book or a television show…or a ride at Disneyland. Why is there always that push to make the movie whenever a book does well? I suppose it’s nice to see a favourite character fleshed out on-screen. At the same time, there are a lot of movie adaptations that didn’t need to be made in the first place; and many more that didn’t succeed. Here’s my list of favourite and not-so-favourite book to movie adaptations* (in no particular order).


1) White Oleander

Book and movie both had great covers

Written in 1999 by Janet Finch, and adapted for film by Peter Kosminsky in 2002, this title easily fits into my Top 10 list for books and movies (and possibly also the list for most depressing). Admittedly, I watched the movie first, which led me to the book. Maybe that was the wrong way to do it, and maybe that means this is biased somehow, but I still think the movie was a great interpretation. Alison Lohman captured both the fighting spirit and vulnerability of foster child Astrid, and Michelle Pfeiffer reminded us that she’s actually got acting chops. Not only was Ingrid’s poisonous hold over daughter Astrid’s life was so well-portrayed, but so was her shred of humanity. It’s not often we get to see multi-dimensional psychopaths, let alone female ones, but when we do it’s exciting. (Angelina Jolie’s character in Girl, Interrupted springs to mind as another memorable lit-to-film character.)

2) Little Women

Louisa May Alcott’s classic story of four sisters has been adapted for film so many times it’s hard to count. And oddly enough, I don’t actually know if I’ve seen any others besides the 1994 Winona Ryder version (directed by Gillian Armstrong)! So, okay, this one is definitely biased. But what can I say? Ryder made the perfect Jo, Claire Danes was the perfect Beth, and, to me, Christian Bale will always only be Laurie. The movie was different in that it cut out a lot of that sad part of the book where Jo was all mopey and depressed. But no matter – this is still the perfect film to enjoy on a snow day, curled up in a fuzzy blankie with a cup of hot chocolate and, of course, your sister.

3) The Secret Life of Bees

Dakota Fanning grew up in this 2008 movie. Sue Monk Kidd’s Lily Owens is on the cusp of adulthood, and is searching desperately for a mother figure. The first time I watched this movie I just remember thinking, “wow, this girl can act.” I am still convinced no one else in the world could play this role. Queen Latifah was also a stand-out as August Boatwright, and, heck, all the other ladies did justice to their characters, too. (May was just as heartbreaking on-screen as in the book.) Less religious superstition was found in the movie, but I found that part of the novel a little tedious anyways. On the whole, a great book made it as a great movie.

4) The Hunger Games

You didn’t think I’d finish off this list without including this year’s biggest blockbuster, did you? I feel sorry for what the filmakers had to put up with to make this 2008 novel a movie reality. Yes, the book begged for screen adaptation, but the harshest critics are definitely teens. I think because of that, we got a very comparable take. Jennifer Lawrence is sure to get an Oscar nomination (at least) for her turn as Katniss, and the cinematography and editing was nothing to balk at, either.

Honourable Mentions

  • J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Alfonso Cuarón pumped some much-needed new life into the 2004 remake. Sad that he didn’t stay on as director for the whole franchise.
  • The Princess Bride: Rob Reiner’s 1987 fairytale did justice to the William Goldman romp (makes sense, since he also wrote the screenplay).

    Freak the Mighty: read it!

  • Freak the Mighty: Book and movie were pretty dissimilar, but Peter Chelsom’s The Mighty (1998) was just as good as the 1993 YA novel by Rodman Philbrick.
  • Ghost World: Thora Birch was hilarious as Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel heroine Enid Coleslaw in the 2001 Terry Zwigoff movie.
  • Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak: Truth be told, I can’t remember much about book or movie, but I remember I enjoyed both. Jessica Sharzer’s 2004 film was totally carried by a pre-Twilight-era Kristen Stewart.


1) Girl With a Pearl Earring

I know what you’re thinking. Okay, Debs, get on with it. We know you love Tracy Chevalier, so tell us how the movie went wrong and get on with it. It’s as simple as this: some things can’t be caught on film. Peter Webber’s 2003 film version used a script that cut out some of the most important scenes from the novel, which meant that the motivations behind some of Griet’s actions went unexplained. It also leaned toward portraying a complicated relationship as an almost straight-up romance which, for me, watered down some of the mysticism found in the book. Or maybe the biggest problem was that Scarlett Johansson didn’t even read the book!

2) Never Let Me Go

Subtlety was also lost when Mark Romanek brought Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 dystopian romance to film five years later. Something was lost, and I can’t put my finger on whether it was the script’s fault, the actors’ fault, or the way it was all spliced together. I also thought the score would help a lot with the overall feel, but I don’t think it was really memorable. Maybe this was a doomed endeavor from the start – that spark of genius was lost in the retelling, and so the story itself became a little lacklustre. (Not to mention I had a lot of explaining to do for my family, who watched it with me but who hadn’t read the book.)

3) My Sister’s Keeper

Nick Cassavetes’ 2009 adaptation of Jodi Picoult’s 2004 novel was, in a word, dumb. The casting was strong. The sentiment of the book was there. And then they changed the ending so drastically that they removed all that was special about the original story. Yes, some people liked that the insane twist at the end of the novel was nixed. But I missed it! That insane twist ending is what made the book for me. When the movie was finished, I remember sitting in the dark theatre and looking over at my friend and saying something like, “what just happened?”

Honourable Mentions

  • Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides: Depressing, depressing. So much went on in the book that it got inevitably missed, written out, or glazed over in Sophia Coppola’s 1999 film. It was fine, but I’d recommend enjoying this one on paper before the big screen.

Upcoming Film Adaptations I’m Excited to See

It remains to be seen whether some of these actually get made, but the following are all either in the works, or are being muddled over for future:

  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, written, adapted, and directed by Stephen Chbosky, and due in theaters this September! (Watch the trailer.)

    Let’s see Emma Watson try an American accent on for size.

  • J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit: coming in two installments from director Peter Jackson, this year and next. On a personal note, the only problem I see with this endeavor is that production of the excellent BBC series Sherlock has been halted due to both actors’ involvement with The Hobbit. Boo-urns(Watch the trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.)
  • Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi. Don’t know if I’m looking forward to this, but I’m definitely curious as to how it’ll turn out. That is, if it actually gets made. Alfonso Cuarón and M. Night Shyamalan have both given up on an adaptation, but Ang Lee takes the reigns. Tobey Maguire will play Yann Martel…Whaaat? I suppose this could turn out to be such a weird and wonderful story-in-a-story as Adaptation (a 2002 film adaptation).
  • Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time: Disney took a stab at this classic in 2003, but I didn’t know about that till I read somewhere else that it’s now in talks for another remake… time will tell if that actually happens.
  • Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies: The film rights have been purchased, but it’s been listed as “in development” for ages on imdb . If it ever does get made, you can be sure the same rabid fans who clawed at the chance to be the first to watch The Hunger Games and Twilight will also make a big stink about this one. I might not fit the demographic, but I’ll likely be with them on this one.

*I’m sure there are so many more titles that belong on these lists, but I’m only including those I’ve both read and watched. If it doesn’t appear on this list, it’s because I either haven’t read the book, or watched the movie, or I’ve forgotten about it since! Here is Josh Winning’s list of 50 Best Book to Movie Adaptations, in case you want to look at more. And make sure to Have Your Say about this in the comments section – I’d love to know what some of your favourites are!


2 responses

  1. I know most of these didn’t make it cause you haven’t read them yet, but I have to mention:
    -The Lord of the Rings
    -Memoirs of a Geisha
    -Anne of Green Gables (really, Deb?)
    -The Help
    -The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)
    -Bridget Jones’ Diary (which I honestly haven’t read but it’s so good)
    -Pollyanna (Total guilty pleasure- I grew up with it)

    Also these were made-for-tv, but BBC’s Pride & Prejudice and HBO’s Game of Thrones should also get some recognition.

    I’m surprised you liked The Secret Life of Bees. Both book and movie were forgettable for me. Well that’s my two cents.

    • I know, there were so many I just felt I couldn’t include because I hadn’t read the books. Yes, Anne of Green Gables and The Help were definitely missed.
      And I have to say – The Secret Life of Bees is right up there for me! It so weird how we don’t agree on certain books….

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