It's rare to see a good film adaptation of a book. But what makes an adaptation good or bad? In order to look at possible reasons why film adaptations, in particular of geek books, either work or stink, I'll focus on three areas of the moviemaking process — story, visuals, and production — and use these popular sci-fi/fantasy book cum movies as examples: Frankenstein (the novel was written by Mary Shelley), The Lord of the Rings (the series was written by J.R.R. Tolkien), the Harry Potter series (the novels were written by J.K. Rowling), Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (the novel was written by Rick Riordan), and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the novel was written by Douglas Adams).
A story can make or break a book, whereas a movie can have very little story and still be entertaining (a number of action and horror films come to mind). In the titles I picked as examples, all of the books are good stories. When you watch the movie versions of these books, you see a much wider range of story. The Lord of the Rings film retained much of the story and removed sections that were too slow for moviemaking or were easily trimmed without damaging the flow. Other movies, such as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, rewrote major parts of the books, and some movies are complete 180's from the book. When the movie's storyline is so different than the book, ardent fans of the book are often displeased and sometimes even offended; and yet, sometimes the result is an equally good story.
In early science-fiction and fantasy movies, visual effects often severely limited the quality of a film adaptation. However, we can't simply state the fewer visual effects make for a bad adaptation. Frankenstein from 1931 still holds up today, even though Frankenstein's monster was simply a larger person (Boris Karloff) with a weird wig and makeup.
Since the advent of digital effects, moviemakers have had the choice to create a movie with more or less visual effects based on financial reasons. We see orcs, dwarves, and Gollum created using various levels of visual effects in The Lord of the Rings, and there were myriad magical beings and objects in the Harry Potter series and the Percy Jackson movie.
In my opinion, I think that moviemakers sometimes go overboard with the visual effects, and it actually takes away from the story.
The people involved in the production of a movie have a great impact on how the movie turns out; this includes the screenwriters, the directors, the producers, the editors, the music directors, the art directors, the costumers, and many others.
When the authors can be and are involved in the process, it often greatly benefits the film. For the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling was involved in the screenwriting process, and author Rick Riordan was present and on set for much of the shooting of the Percy Jackson series. Rowling was keenly interested in retaining the fine details of her books, while Riordan was interested mostly in keeping the grand arcs of the story. These preferences show in the final versions of the films; Harry Potter movies stick fairly closely to the books, while the Percy Jackson movie was vastly different to the book in several parts. (I watched the special features on the DVD and Blu-ray versions of these movies.)
Some movies are unable to have the authors of the books involved in the process; for instance, in the case of The Lord of the Rings and Hitchhiker's Guide, the authors are deceased. It's well known that Lord of the Rings screenwriter/director Peter Jackson is a fan of the series, and he obviously put his heart into making the movie as true to the book as possible. I don't know much about the production staff on Hitchhiker's Guide, but from the finished product, it seems they were mostly interested in the grand arcs and not the fine details.
What are the best and worst film adaptations of geek books?
Based on my Internet research, some of the best film adaptations of geek books include: 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Jurassic Park, Blade Runner, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Coraline. The worst film adaptations of geek books include: The Golden Compass, Bicentennial Man, Animal Farm, The Time Machine, The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), and Eragon. Also read our Geekend post about the best and worst comic book movies (American Splendor is listed as the best, and Virus is listed as the worst).
In my opinion, the good adaptations among the films included as my examples are Frankenstein, The Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter series because they were meticulously well-written and featured sufficient visuals to tell a proper story. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy missed what felt like were essential parts of the stories and, in the case of Percy Jackson, potentially damaged the possibility of making the sequels into successful movies by removing key characters.
List your picks for best and worst adaptations
Post in the discussion your picks for the best and worst film adaptations of geek books. What do you think makes a film a good or a dreadful adaptation? Are there any film adaptations that you liked more than the book? What upcoming film adaptations from books are you most excited about? I can't wait to see The Hobbit. Share your thoughts.