On Dreading Movie Adaptations

So today, I came across this lovely article which features 10 YA novels that have been sold to movie production companies and are supposedly going to become films. I love movies, so some of these all look promising to me, but at the same time I’m terrified that the movies are going to muck up the original works.

This is what happened with the (sorry to even mention it, I know it’s painful for fans to think about) Avatar: The Last Airbender film. I enjoy the television series, and so do some of my friends, so naturally we decided to go see ATLA in theaters together. Our mistake.

Being a fan of something is risky. By allowing ourselves an emotional involvement with a story or its characters, we in some way make ourselves vulnerable. If the characters and the writing is good, like in the tv series of Avatar: the Last Airbender, then the idea of expanding the story to a new media is threatening. What you already have is enough – it’s more than enough! But we get caught in the hidden optimism of the situation; we hope that the film is as good or better than the original.

In the case of ATLA, we left the theater $9 poorer, having spent 2 hours viewing a film that made us extremely frustrated. I’m not sure what exactly we were mad about. There’s certainly a level of understandable anger that comes from spending money and time on a sub-par movie, but this experience was more than that.

atla movie comic

An adaptation gives new creators an opportunity to give their own take on a story and its characters. I don’t want to say that one person’s interpretation is more valid than another’s, but in the case of films, books, and television with a dedicated following, there is a general understanding of the characters that most people agree with. That’s one of the dangers of choosing to do an adaptation – an inherently critical and skeptical audience. The ATLA movie did not mesh with our mental expectations for the live-action storyworld and it was so disappointing. Even more than that – it just wasn’t a good film. In any way. I still get kinda irked when I think about that movie.

Which is why, when I found out that Shadow and Bone (Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo) was being made into a film series, my initial reaction was dread. I expressed in my review for this book a while ago that the story reminded me of Avatar: the Last Airbender. That was a cool connection that made Bardugo’s storyworld more appealing to me. In some ways, Shadow and Bone was the extension of ATLA that the film never offered.

And I don’t know if I can take another failed depiction of that world.

The producer, however, also famously worked on the Harry Potter series – one which in my overall opinion did justice to its mythology and universe, so there is some hope! I’ll be keeping an eye on the development of Shadow and Bone, but as I mentioned earlier, I’m naturally optimistic that any adaptation will be a good film.

Here’s the book trailer for Shadow and Bone, which leaves much to be desired, but also leaves infinite room for imagination:

Anyone else out there had a bad experience with an adaptation?

9 thoughts on “On Dreading Movie Adaptations

  1. Of course, we have all experienced Hollywood mucking up one of our favorite novels. Yet I think part of the problem is preconceptions of the character and storyline.

    When talking about movies vs. books, I always bring up Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Like many people, I adore the Holly Golightly Audrey Hepburn plays, and enjoy the way the story plays out. But Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly is not Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly… and Capote’s came first. Fans of his short stories had reason to be incensed that Hollywood had so vastly changed his party girl, as well as altered the narrator’s sexuality to play into something American audiences were more likely to deem acceptable and want to view. Yet Breakfast at Tiffany’s, despite its many flaws, is still a good movie. Maybe even a great movie.

    Or looking at your Capstone subject matter – Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The TV show is pretty awesome, right? Even though it gets really soap-opera for the last few seasons, you can see why people get hooked. But Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy is not Kristy Swanson’s Buffy. This difference can kind of be explained by the fact that Buffy has “changed” now, etc., but Gellar’s Buffy is tough and sarcastic and Swanson’s Buffy is very, very campy. Personally, I like both. But I also basically consider them two different people to reconcile this difference in my mind.

    So, while I agree that Hollywood is viewing the already-established fan base in its movie adaptations as an easier draw than a movie from scratch (if Hollywood even does the latter anymore), I also feel that different forms of media are different forms of media. In a way, you have to see if the essence of what you like about a story, etc., is still there. Or if each form of media is valid and well made and enjoyable in its own right. Often, it’s not. But sometimes, it is… You mentioned feeling the producer produced the Harry Potter franchise, and that being in his favor? When the Harry Potter movies first came out, many fans were incensed that the people who made the movies left out things they loved. These fans were so focused on the minutiae of the story that they couldn’t enjoy the movie, which has to be condensed if it’s still going to remain a movie.

    Having said that, I think it’s easier to enjoy both forms of media if the movie is seen before the book is read. Hope you’re not disappointed by Shadow and Bone!

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    1. I love your example of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s easy to get bogged down in fidelity criticism, and I agree with you on the Swanson vs Gellar Buffy point. But at least in Buffy’s case, the two are one in the same. They’re part of an ever evolving story world and each has its influence on the other. One of the things that really bugs me about Adaptation Theory is the emphasis on a finished product- which we haven’t seen with Buffy yet.
      Absolutely, adaptations in general should be seen as their own works. The tricky part is defining that “essence.”

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  2. I think it is generally that what you know and love first, you will love better than what you experience later (I’m a little scared to read Practical Magic for this reason). There are movies, though, which have done a fair job of adapting the sources they come from–The Princess Bride is my immediate example here–and even then, I think what literatemama above pointed out is also important: we have to be able to see the adaptation as at least partially separate. It’s like a baby deer; it comes from something else, but we have to see if it can stand on its shaky legs first, before we doom it (or don’t) for its merits or lack thereof.

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    1. I loooooove Princess Bride. Of course I do not think in any way that an adaptation – into any medium – needs to perfectly replicate its source text. That’s a surefire way to end up hating the end result.

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      1. Agreed–there are some things in books we just wouldn’t want to be adapted (some of my friends claim that Game of Thrones is such a good adaptation because it does diverge from A Song of Ice and Fire in some ways). We can still be frustrated with adaptors for doing it wrong, though–some things just don’t work, like what some people say about the Percy Jackson movies (I haven’t seen them myself and wouldn’t want to for precisely this reason).

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  3. Over the years, I’ve taught myself to see the book and its film adaptation as two separate beasts. It doesn’t work out everytime and some frustrates me more than I want to. But I’ve also learnt that a bad, even a terrible, adaptation never, never, hurts the work it was based upon for me. So I still worry sometimes. But not as much as before. Yes, it can turn off people who haven’t read the book from picking it up. But for every movie, there’s always going to be people who would want (and actually) read the book, and that’s a win.

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    1. Ooh thank you for your input! That’s true, there are quite a few sequels (which are not exactly the same as adaptations) that we like to pretend never happened.

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