Should Books Be Adapted?


This is going to be a post you'll either whole-heartedly agree with or completely disagree with because that's how movie/TV adaptions of books work. You either love them or you wish they were never even imagined. We love the idea of them most of all. We all want to see the books we love on the screen, and, from what I've seen, we regret wishing for it in the end a lot of the time.
Movie and book adaptions are so tedious because some stories aren't made to be relayed through a screen. Books are so full of emotional subtext that's hidden in tiny details and in the voice and precise words spelled out on the page. There's so much more to a book than what you can portray on a running film of actual video even with voice overs. There are deep internal ramblings that make characters who they are that are hard to put on a screen because there are only so many tools to get internal during a movie.
Also, there are books that play out like movies in your head or make you feel like you're living in the world. Books hold power for different reasons, some of which lend better to movies than others. But no book is created to eventually become a movie, or it shouldn't be. If it was meant to be a movie, it would come out as a screenplay.
And, yet, adaptions are one of the biggest segments of movies that exist. Whether a book lends itself to adaption or not, if it sells well, it will probably be a movie. It's usually a rushed movie that's made to capitalize on the audience that has fallen in love with the book. They know that we'll all show up at the theater to watch it because we're all in book hangover world, and we just want more of that content we fell for. We want another chance to revisit the characters and places and emotions in a new way. Some of these adaptions are well thought through, involve the author, and are meticulously crafted. I'm glad that some of them exist, but so many of them are rushed, awkwardly spliced, and divorced from some of the subtext that makes the books soar. Book adaptions are an extremely delicate, and they're so rarely treated with that sense of care.
But here's the thing. No matter how much detail and movie magic you throw at a project, you can never touch book magic. The thing about a book is that it's intensely personal in the sense that you're forced to bring yourself, your emotions, and your life experience to fill it out. All you're given to work with is a packet of dead trees with black ink and 26 letters, and, somehow, we all have a collective experience with these created people and worlds. Yet, it's still highly individual. Nobody sees the same thing when they read a book. Nobody experiences it exactly the same way. It's why books evoke such strong opinions of love and hate. It's also always supposed to be completely your own. Only you have the nuances of your characters and the smell of this room or that person in your head, so, of course, even the best adaption isn't going to be exactly what you want. They aren't going to lift the world out of your head and throw it on a screen.
And that's probably my biggest problem with adaptions. Not the disappointment of them not being what you wanted, but how they shatter the book magic. Whether you watch them before or after you read the book, the book magic doesn't work anymore. I think I most starkly noticed this with Divergent. I walked into the living room while my dad was watching the movie right before I finished reading the last book, and the second I saw the actors, it was over for me. My version of the characters and my world was shattered, and I barely cared about the end of the book (though I did cry) because I felt robbed of the genuine, unique connection I had to the series. Maybe that sounds dramatic, but it's flavored my opinions on every adaption since. And then there's examples like the Hunger Games where I read the book after the movies came out, and, even though I'd never seen the movies, they were always Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawerence in my mind. I'd seen the movie posters and the commercials, and I never got the chance to create my own world. I never cared much about those books, and a lot less than with Divergent, and I have to wonder if all the expectations have something to do with it. Like I've never read Harry Potter cause I don't get what the point is. It's so saturated in our culture, I already know all the big twists and turns and what it means to be a Hufflepuff or a Ravenclaw, so why would I read, or for that matter, watch, a story I already know in a world that already fully exists.
This isn't to say that movies are a bad medium or that books are superior. I'm just saying that they are two very different experiences and formats that have different strengths. And books' strengths are movie's weaknesses and vice versa. I believe that movies should be used for stories told from a strong prospective where you see it in one direction. You're experiencing it as an observer, and you need a story that derives power from the degree of separations and the use of different angles and the intensity of a performance. Movies serve a different purpose, and, when you shoehorn a book into that role, you often end up with a flattened version of the original book because you're getting one person's interpretation of a story you've already made your own, and it doesn't come with the emotional attachment you've grown with in the story.
For me, most of them range from inoffensive to "I can't even look at the book I used to love anymore", so, more often than not, my heart sinks when I hear a book I love is getting adapted. I'd rather watch an original story if I'm watching a movie or a show. I think, given time and a sincere attachment, they can be good, but it's still nerve-racking.
Thinking about positives, the only adaption I found that truly shown and stood on its own was Looking For Alaska, because I think that series hit at the right time with the right consideration of what the book is at its core. It obviously had an insane budget. Someone combed every detail from the set to the costumes to the incredible soundtrack. But, here's the thing, that book is well over ten years old. It's had a long lifetime as a book, and the only thing they were actively capitalizing on was John Green's, at this point, well established, name. It was spearheaded by two people who had been working to get it made forever. They'd taken on the story as their own and sat with it in a similar way John had done originally. They took it to a place where they'd have space not only to keep everything but add to it and make it their own. That adaption worked because they made it its own thing. You didn't have to have any love for the book to get a ton out of the show. They used a lot of the book's existing dialogue. They understood that they were doing a deeply internal story at a limited distance. It carried an awareness most lack because so many YA adaptions are considered decently cheap rom-coms for teen girls who are generally viewed as uncritical. The way Looking For Alaska was approached felt like a Euphoria. It felt designed and marketed to be sold as its own thing.
That's the framing I would like to see as we adapt going forward. If you're going to use an existing property, writers and directors need to let go of the fear of truly telling their own story within that world. More than anything, I want a piece of art where I can feel every bit of pain and emotion and joy that the creators either brought to it or felt in the process.
And that's what so many adaptions are missing.

More on This...
Looking For Alaska on Hulu

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