Fighting film adaptations

Cait Findlay 1 May 2017

When it comes to film adaptations of your favourite books, it can be easy to take the purist (read: snobby) attitude that the film version can never be as good or as intelligent as the story in the book. While this attitude is not necessarily the most helpful one to take, it is undeniable that film adaptations do often fall short of their book counterparts. This is particularly true in the discussions which they provoke, which tend to centre around trivial matters rather than the issues at the heart of the text itself. Furthermore, it often seems that film adaptations exploit the fact that they reach a larger audience, financialising the story and making it more about box-office revenue than bringing together lovers of a story.

Every time a film like The Hunger Games seems to focus on the love triangle between the characters, and not the horrific depiction of a dystopian society in which children are literally forced to fight to the death for no reason other than to entertain the wealthy, I want to scream. The entire focus of the story shifts: where once the emphasis was on forcing people to question the ways in which violence can become a spectator sport, it now becomes a question of analysing every interaction between the characters to support ‘shipping’ either one pair of characters or another. I could exemplify this trope until it is thoroughly eviscerated, but suffice it to say that any film adaptation which trivialises a book’s key concerns for the sake of focusing on romantic relationships is a disappointment to the discerning reader – unless, of course, the focus of the book was upon the romance.

Discussion surrounding film adaptations often focuses more on the celebrities playing the roles than the actual characters themselves. For example, to use The Hunger Games once more, consider how many articles and tumblr posts are dedicated to Jennifer Lawrence’s oh-so-relatable awkwardness. Think, too, about how many celebrities are asked how they managed to lose weight for their roles. Undoubtedly, they are also asked about the roles which they play, but the complexities of their characters never make headlines. Instead, social media becomes filled with banal articles screaming about how one celebrity or other dieted to play such-and-such character. This does no justice to the storyline, and, for people who watched the film to extend the world of the book, is merely another reason to deride film adaptations as being an embarrassment to the books which inspired them.  

For the cynical amongst us, film adaptations are merely a way to make a lot of money. Take a market which is already invested in an idea, make a film of it, then create merchandise, and you’ve got yourself a winning formula for an excellent money-making scheme. The most obvious of these is the Harry Potter franchise – maybe owning a Ravenclaw jumper, replica wand, and pretend time-turner does make you feel more involved and invested in the story, but it also costs a lot of money. And no, that’s not strictly based upon the film itself, but a clever trick which film-makers have been doing a lot recently is splitting the final book of a series into two films. This means two tickets to the cinema, two DVDs, and two lots of promotion – an excellent marketing strategy indeed.

Perhaps the answer to this debate lies not in film adaptations themselves, but the audience which fuels them. After all, films are designed to cater to an audience – otherwise they will not make money, win awards, or gain notoriety. However, it is important to consider that a film adaptation may not be true to the book in terms of its emphasis on different themes, and there are certainly problematic elements in film culture which surface after the release of a new film. It might be the audience’s responsibility to make film adaptations better, simply by demanding that they be better.