Friday, April 19, 2013

Tall Tales: Books and Movies Are Different or The Best and Worst of Movie Adaptations

The tension between book and movie lovers generally runs pretty high whenever a new adaptation releases. From the purists who simply desire  a respect for the authors original intent, to the fans who simply love seeing their stories come alive, how in the world is Hollywood to keep their patrons happy?

But this blog, after all, is Lady Bibliophile, which means the books win hands-down pretty much every time. So far in my life there has been one exception, which is coming below. After all, as Jordan says on Messy Mondays, "Hmm, let me see if this natural-flavored banana baby food tastes as good as real bananas." The same is true with movies and books. The real thing just wins out every time--if the movie was made first, and the novel was written after, it generally isn't as good. (Kendrick's brothers movies are best in their movie form.) And if the novel was written first, and the movie came after, generally the book holds the edge.

But hey, I don't want to come across as a movie kill-joy. I love a good movie, probably more than most people would think, and I watch most book-to-movie adaptations numerous times. So to make up for all my mutterings and mumblings about movie adaptations in general, I'm making a list of the best and worst book-to-movie adaptations below. Strictly in my opinion, of course. Worst does not necessarily mean un-watchable. I watch all but one of the movies below with varying degrees of enjoyment.  

The Best and Worst of Movie Adaptations

Let's start out with a good one, because good is always so much more fun.

Best: 2009 Emma
What a respectful and truly stunning adaptation of Jane Austen's witty satire. Because of it's accuracy, careful costuming and makeup, and attention to detail, as well as taking the time and money to add in the necessary plots, this one wins the award for Best Emma Ever.
Why: The directors took the time to make this more than a movie. It's a piece of art, with the carefully chosen sets and actors. They add bits of conversation, little looks, and even entire scenes here and there. But even the additions are in keeping with the general message of the story: a young woman ministering to her father and community, and learning that there is more to life than spit and polish. It is not wrong for directors and screenwriters to add scenes, or even characters to an adaptation. But the key to a successful film is a respect for the story's worldview and intentions.
Worst 2007 Mansfield Park
Second only to the infamous 1999 version, this movie fell far short as Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and it shouldn't even be considered a cute love story separate from the book.
Why: If they choose to take liberties with the book's themes of redemption, it's necessary that they have a solid reason for replacing them. The plot was rushed, and they changed Fanny's character from that of a young woman willing to humbly serve those around her to--well, I'm not sure what. A blond quirking her eyebrows at all the suspenseful spots? Like she's supposed to be observant? But the problem here is not merely the poor production quality. The producers took out Austen's worldview and morals, and replaced it with nothing of substance. Except for women with extremely low necklines trying to seduce eligible young clergymen into changing their careers. Much more--shall we say--simmering physical attraction to spice things up. As well as the fact the producers take out the redemption of Tom's character. He ends in the book a steadier and better man, but in the movie he's the same happy-go-lucky, swearing, horse-racing gambler as before. What does this teach? That sin gets off scott-free. I will say, to be just, that it had one good scene, when Sir Thomas Bertram asks Maria if she really, truly wants to marry Mr. Rushworth, and offers to help her out of the engagement if she finds it distasteful. But Fanny and Edmond are very immature.
Best: 2005 North and South
*You may sound a drum roll if you wish.*
This was better than the book.
Excellent pacing, brilliant sets and casting, the screenwriters and producers absolutely caught the conflict arch and character development of John Thornton and Margaret Hale. A delight to the eyes, a delight to the mind, a delight to the book-loving soul of me.
Why: Elizabeth Gaskell's book portrayed a certain period of thought in history. Fortunately the producers and actors were not only passionate about adapting a book; they realized that they were portraying a vital time of the cotton industry in England. Taking the time to do it right was important to them, and they cared enough about the effort the author had put forth in creating it to do a very good job. With the exception of some language.
Worst: BBC Cadfael's The Rose Rent/The Pilgrim of Hate
BBC filmed these extremely high-quality productions, and there are no complaints to make with the shooting of the film, the casting, or the characters. For instance, three different actors played Hugh Beringar, the sheriff, all of them completely different in looks and height. But they all looked exactly like Hugh.
Why: It's a worldview switch in these particular episodes. In The Rose Rent, they twist the plot so that Cadfael and the main character advocate euthanasia, something he never did in that particular novel, and a shameful addition that no Christian should overlook. In The Pilgrim of Hate we have the same issue. Ellis Peters' portrayal of miracles through the crippled boy in the original novel changes to a spoiled wretch who faked the healing for his own ends. Also, the absolutely genius theme of justice was subverted with the changing of the identity of the murderer--leaving Ellis's beautiful teachings about the power of God, and when to seek justice and when to love mercy, flat in the dust.
Best: 1983 Mansfield Park
(Please note that the character of Fanny's father, Mr. Price includes some language, which would be best edited out in episodes 5 and 6)
Why: This isn't a flashy movie. The camera angles aren't very advanced. There isn't a lot of music. The microphones could be a little better. But it is truly the best. The production crew kept the moral lessons and worldview beautifully intact. Characters behave with propriety and the manners of the times, not the wild romping and messy hair-dos found in the 2007 version. This is also the only version that "gets" Fanny. She's a meek servant, and her portrayal honors that. Tom's coming to a greater maturity, Maria's wrongdoing, Fanny's love for her brother, Edmond's staunch commitment to principles, and Sir Thomas Bertram's coming to realize the importance of his role as a father all find their place here. Flashy effects are not always necessary to produce an excellent and edifying film.
Worst: 2005 Pride and Prejudice
Why: Again, it's not the plot changes so much as a worldview switch. Granted, P&P suffers after the brilliant Colin Firth adaptation, but the actors and actresses were not so ill-chosen, with the exception of Lizzy, and I still maintain the Matthew MacFadyen could have rivaled Firth himself with a better script and supporting actress. But it's the worldview switch. Two people fall madly in love against the odds of society and the humiliating family members around them. Lizzy says in the end: "He was a fool. But then, I was too."
That's not what Jane Austen was trying to teach. That's a feminist saying, "Oh, I'm not above admitting that I'm wrong, so long as he's equally wrong."
She sasses and back-talks and gets the better of him and jabs at his personality. He's effeminate, and she's a power woman. And while we may choose to enjoy the redeemable portions of this film, we should not be excusing worldview shifts.
Best: 2010 Little Dorrit
(Please note that in spite of it's high production quality, this film contains some mature thematic elements and a couple of pieces of objectionable statuary. Review available, if you wish to know what to avoid and where.)
Why: Andrew Davies in his screenplay stayed very close to the moral of the tale. The worldview remained intact. There were a couple of shaky scenes where Amy said things that were not in character with her mindset, but on the whole they stayed the same. And as for adding that confrontation between Rigaud and Clennam? Well, that was never in the book, but I think it's top-notch. This production is excellent because it conforms to the biblical underpinnings of children honoring parents.  And it deserves high praise.
Two Reasons I Have a High Movie Bar

1. Worldview

"It's just a movie."

"Movies and books are two different things."

This has always disturbed me for a long time. Respectfully and good-naturedly, but very earnestly, I would disagree. It's a fundamental worldview switch begin excused in the name of entertainment. Somehow, when we walk into the theatre or pop the DVD into the player, we excuse any changes from the original because evaluating them takes too much work. When a movie removes the original edifying themes--maybe replacing them with something mindless, but not intentionally harmless--someone needs to call the bluff. We are thinking, reasoning, intelligent human beings, and we should ask why. Why does the director do it this way? Why do the screenwriters choose to use this plot form? Why does the movie shift this relationship, or add that one? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

And does it comply with God's standards for what is good and right and pure entertainment?

It is not my wish to be overly critical, or even dogmatic about book-to-movie adaptations. My problems stem when an author writes a solidly biblical story, and the movie shifts that. This is when I call it out for a poor adaptation.

2. Respect for the Author

When an author spends years of their life sweating and polishing and undergoing the trauma  of rejection, to have their work watered down to suit the standards of modern entertainment is more than an insult. It ought to be a crime. There are people who spent years of research to make sure that they were respecting history, and in the case of Christians, hours of prayer to make sure that they weren't transgressing the laws of morality. That doesn't mean that changes should never be made, for authors are fallible, and there are legitimate reasons to add or subtract from their work. But make a major worldview switch and you've only done them and their work a disservice. And we should be careful about disrespecting someone's work. Artists' work is respected. Decorators don't get questioned. movie directors are applauded. Why should faithfulness to a writer's original work be considered negotiable?

Two Questions to Ask any Movie

1. Does the change involve worldview?

2. Is it small enough to overlook?

3. Does the change compromise excellency in story-telling?

There are some cases where it's a minor character, and a minor change. But in the case of the 2007 Mansfield Park or Cadfael's The Rose Rent, the removal of the worldview takes away any redeeming qualities and introduces some very questionable and disturbing elements. However, in the case of Emma and Little Dorrit, the producers combined the original tale with tasteful effects and additions to enhance it. Like putting on makeup to enhance natural beauty.

So now I would love to hear from you. Do you agree? Disagree? What are your best and worst book-to-movie adaptations?

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Hello Lady B,
    I love your post. I agree with everything you said; a moviemaker should have respect for the worldview of the author and the work that they went into to making their book.
    When I think about book-to-movie adaptations, the Lord of the Rings pops to mind at once. It’s one of my favorite books, and a lot of the movie was well done, but many of the themes that Tolkien considered important to the story were completely thrown out at times. In the book, the heroes made decisions based on what was morally right, even though they were afraid; in the movie they were forced to make these decisions based on the circumstances, leaving the audience with the message that what’s right and wrong also changes based on the circumstances. There are many different examples of this in the film, such as Merry & Pippin, Aragorn, Th√©oden, Faramir, Treebeard, and even Gandalf; in my mind this makes them appear weak, and even ruins their characters. There are many other examples of when the filmmakers strayed from what the author thought important, and sometimes the characters in the story just plain weren’t right. These movies are very enjoyable at times, though, and there are a number of things that the filmmakers did very well, and that couldn’t have been better. There are other book-to-movie adaptations that are much more different from their book than this one, but Tolkien put much more work into writing his book than most authors do, and because Peter Jackson and the other writers totally disregard things that were so important to Tolkien, this movie comes to mind as one of the most changed book-to-movie adaptations.

    P.S. I love your story (so far) keep on writing! :)

    1. Dear S.H,
      Exactly! Precisely! You wouldn't know how close I came to putting "The Two Towers" under worst category, simply for the worldview switches. Not that it's all bad, mind, but some huge parts are. I originally had a list of ten movies, but I whittled it down. :)

      LOTR is a prime example of the worldview changes Peter Jackson chose to make. And I like how you pointed that out--"In the book, the heroes made decisions based on what was morally right, even though they were afraid; in the movie they were forced to make these decisions based on the circumstances, leaving the audience with the message that what’s right and wrong also changes based on the circumstances."

      There are some points where the good characters simply don't deserve credit for their good deeds (according to the movie) because the movie made it out as if they had no other option.

      Take also the whole mess with Eowyn's plot. In the movie she's a female power-hero, and we never learn that her actions were affected by Wormtongue's manipulation. She's "in a cage", and she finds freedom in a "deed of valor", rather than realizing that her thought patterns were full of error.

      But as you say, there were some things they couldn't have done better. :) And because they kept the core of the main plot pure, that saved the movies from disaster. :)


      P.S. So glad to hear you're enjoying it! I will keep going, I promise. Though I came *very* close to despairing entirely of it Wednesday. But I've gone too far to turn back now... ;)

  2. O__O I remember the 2007 Mansfield Park...Something about chasing around the garden in the proposal scene looking for lavender. Epic. :P
    I loved all the movie adaptions you chose. 2009 Emma was fabulous as well as the 1983 Mansfield Park. The new P&P is fun to watch when you're really tired and need something to laugh at. ;)
    Wonderful choices!

    1. Uh-huh. (tmi) That lavender garden was...laughable. And so was Edmond Bertram. He made a much better character as Mr. Elton. :D

      Love and cuddles,

      P.S. Is it just me, or do most modern adaptations have laughable proposals? :P

  3. Oohh! The first commenter beat me to it! *I* was going to say that The Two Towers should be on this list for violence to Tolkien's worldview!

    I loved the 2009 Emma too; it was wonderful. I think they updated the dialogue a bit, but I can't hold that against it.

    I amaze everyone I know by saying I prefer North and South the book about the adaptation. But I do.

    I'd add a couple of "bests" to this list:

    One of my very favourite Austen adaptations is the 1995 Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds: It is understated, even a little sombre in tone, but I adore it.

    And of course how can we not mention The Princess Bride, which I believe is better than the book--but only because the author of the book wrote the screenplay! The movie is less cynical than the book, which is why I like it--it's a positive worldview shift.

    While we're talking about positive worldview shifts, I love how My Fair Lady thoroughly subverts George Bernard Shaw's original play Pygmalion. It's not perfect, but it's pretty good!

    1. I love the 1995 "Persuasion", and it almost made my list. :) But due to time constraints, I hade to cut out several, including "The Two Towers" (definitely on the "Worst" list) and the 1980s "Great Expectations", which is absolutely stunning in its accuracy. Also, I neglected to mention the atrocity of all Jules Verne adaptations. Talk about a worldview shift; I really should have brought that up. The 1970s "Persuasion" is really good, but the 2007, though containing nothing objectionable, is a bit lacking. And "Wives and Daughters" did a very decent job as well as the 2008 "Sense and Sensibility". (With the same caveat as Little Dorrit.)

  4. I've got some to offer, but they're from quite a different genre!

    Walt Disney produced several movies probably around the same time--The North Avenue Irregulars is one I'm thinking of and also The Apple Dumpling Gang. I know I looked up the book that TNAI was based on, and it was not really a family-friendly story at all. I believe both were cases where Disney actually took something and made it family friendly and view-able. We are probably all familiar with what usually happens with Disney, especially the modern tales, but they seem to have hit the mark with these.

    Oh, I agree-the Jules Verne movies were a big disappointment. So much could be done with those stories!

    I really, really enjoyed the 2009 Emma version as well.

    I agree with Lady B on the '05 P & P--it has one thing going for it though, and that's the soundtrack.

    1. Oh yes! I was cudgeling my brains to try to remember more, and these two are perfect examples. Witty, as well as adding in some excellent caricatures. They may not be "bonnet dramas" but they are great fun and equally as deserving of praise in their genre. :)

      And you bring up another excellent point. Oftentimes the screenplay or production quality of a movie may be compromised, but rarely if ever is the soundtrack bad. I find it interesting that music composers often catch the spirit of the book or production much better than the screenwriters. Masterpiece Theatre productions are generally brought to infinitely greater heights by the music.


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