The great late Sir Terry Pratchett wrote “Knowledge = power = energy = matter = mass. A good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read.”
There is no doubting the power of books. As children we are encouraged to read as much as possible and the stories that survive the test of time are indelibly imprinted on our subconscious when we are young. Film and television studios recognise this and there is barely a month that goes by without some award-winning book getting the silver screen treatment.
I am very excited to jump into LVP’s new podcast that will be looking at the latest adaptation of His Dark Materials (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass, the Book of Dust) but I wanted to explore the question, “What makes a good book adaptation?”
First let’s get the big one out of the way. The Lord of the Rings is maybe the quintessential work of fantasy in literature. It has a what once we could call a cult following that surely by now we can discount as being cult and more aptly refer to as mainstream. The influence it has had on the fantasy genre cannot be understated. Its film adaptations were well received by critics and public alike but there was still some push-back from fans.
The Tom Bombadil brigade came out in force at the time the films were being released and spent a great deal of time lamenting his absence from the films. I can’t help but wonder if these fans ever considered whether it was BENEFICIAL or even POSSIBLE to adapt a book to screen without leaving characters, settings and plot points out. (Additionally, let’s not forget that we are also getting a Lord of the Rings adaptation on Amazon Prime in the near future, so here’s hoping old Tom gets his chance to shine).
With the success of The Handmaids Tale we are also seeing the big and small screen dive further into dark and mature subject matter. In reality, this is hardly new, see Roots or American Psycho for a dose of heavy mature subject matter, but there definitely seems to be a trend towards exploring the murky corners of literature as well, whether that be a deep and concerning look at the cruelty we inflict on each other over eight episodes or an intense and visceral portrait of the evil that hides in plain sight over a 104 minute film.
The point is that book adaptations are here to stay but what separates the good ones from the not so great ones? Without a doubt, one avenue that can lead to success is to have fans of the source material charge of the project. I think Good Omens, a collaboration between Amazon and the BBC, was an excellent example of this. Although Neil Gaiman was one of the co-writers along with the aforementioned Sir Terry Pratchett, he comes across as a fan of the late author. Although short and sweet, Good Omens seemed to me like a love letter to one of the great fantasy authors of all time and that in turn cannot be anything other than great for the end product.
In contrast, I read once that Steven Spielberg wanted to direct the first Harry Potter film. Now, I do not know if he was a fan of the source material or not, but he wanted to transplant Hogwarts to the United States so American audiences could relate better to the film. Needless to say I don’t know if we would have had the kind of longevity that the series endured had the great and mighty Hogwarts become something like Gryffindor High School tucked away in the quiet American Midwest. Who knows?
It clearly isn’t quite as simple as putting a fan at the helm and all will be well. The team behind Game of Thrones was accused of letting fans run the latter half of the show's seven series run and, by most accounts, that did not end well. The final journey of the surviving members of the cast seemed almost contradictory to the epic battles, quests and conquests that had led them there. (Has no one learned anything since the collective sigh audiences let out when the writers decided to martyr Neo at the end of The Matrix trilogy!?)
In the end, looking at the reception offered to most film or TV adaptations of books points to the same issue. This is issue is best embodied by Peter Jackson's comments surrounding the production of The Hobbit trilogy - mainly that you can’t please everyone!
Edward "Enano" Burgos - 17 November 2019