The Good, The Bad, And The Weird of Adaptations

This week’s Broke and the Bookish meme is all about one of my favorite subjects–adaptations. I have a love/hate relationship with adaptations; they’re either excellent or terrible. Part of that intense emotional reaction to an adaptation comes from my love books. I love films too, but when a film is taking material from print, I feel that what’s on-screen should accurately represent what’s on the page. The only way I deal with the potential rage inducing power of a (poor) adaptation is by deliberately reading the book after seeing the movie. Generally, that little trick helps me compartmentalize the book from the film as separate, enjoyable entities. This post is dedicated to the five best adaptations and the five worst that I have seen thus far.


The Best of the Best

  1. Atonement by Ian McEwan (directed by Joe Wright): Is it absolutely perfect? No. But it’s one of the most beautiful, dreamy, and accurate adaptations I’ve seen. Keira Knightly and James McAvoy are Cecelia and Robbie for me. Both book and movie made me cry because the story is so tenderly rendered in each medium.
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (directed by Robert Mulligan): I’m incredibly biased about this adaptation because of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Peck in this role is essentially the gold standard of fatherhood, honor, and charm. The movie itself is as worth the watch as the book is the read. Somehow the black and white film suits the printed word in a way that color would not; I simply can’t imagine a better adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel.
  3. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (directed by David Fincher and Niels Arden Oplev): It doesn’t matter whether you watch the American adaptation or the Swedish one, because they’re both great. Rooney Mara and Noomi Rapace both bring extraordinary life into the Lisbeth Salander character, though their interpretations are slightly different. Fans of the series absolutely should see the films.
  4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (directed by Milos Foreman): The film deviates a tad from the book, but the overall feeling is exactly what Kesey intended. The book has a stronger sense of a narrator that the film doesn’t need because the characters speak for themselves. Plus, Jack Nicholson is an excellent Mac. Both film and book are also notable because they called attention to the mistreatment of mental illness in the U.S..
  5. Fight Club by Chuck Palahuniuk (directed by David Fincher): Spoiler alert, the endings are totally different from book to movie. Yet the adaptation still makes it on to the list because it is a great film of a great book. Edward Norton and Brad Pitt are unforgettable in their respective roles. It’s a rare case where I may actually prefer the film to the book, but if you enjoyed the film you should read the book.


The Worst of the Worst

  1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (directed by Mike Newell): All of the film adaptations for this series have their flaws, yet I like most of them. I am a self-proclaimed HP fan, so my standards were incredibly high, particularly for the early films when the book series was incomplete. Goblet of Fire is one of my favorite books in the series, and there were so many terrible changes made to the narrative. The films as a general rule are decent but this one just irks me something fierce.
  2. Beowulf by Anonymous (directed by Robert Zemeckis): Neil Gaiman has a writing credit on this thing and it’s still one of the worst adaptations ever. First of all, the film is in this CGI monstrosity. Second of all, there are so many deviations from story that it’s mind-boggling. Angelina Jolie plays Grendel’s mother, the gilded literal “man-eating” sensual monster. Not at all like the original epic and its maddening. On top of everything else it’s a terrible movie.
  3. The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory (directed by Justin Chadwick): I wanted to like this movie, really, I did. It’s based on one of my favorite books and it stars Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson. While both of those lovely ladies are solid actresses, they did not bring their A game. Or perhaps it was the writing. Either way the film did not do the book justice. Somebody please remake this properly!
  4. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (directed by Robert Schwentke): Again, another favorite novel trashed by its adaptation. The book made me fall in love along with the characters and made me cry with its ending. I wanted to fall in love all over again but the film lacked the book’s spark. Rachel McAdams’ charming presence aside, this movie was not worthwhile.
  5. The Iliad by Homer aka Troy (directed by Wolfgang Peterson): I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of my worst adaptations are based in epic poetry. It seems to be an even more challenging medium to transfer to the screen than a straight novel. I’d also like to point out that three of my worst films star Eric Bana. He may be an attractive fellow, but that’s almost too much of a fluke for me to ignore. Epics in general are hard to convey in a short time span, which is why things like LOTR are done over several films. Brad Pitt’s butt may be the only reason to see this film.

In the future, I think I’ll have to stick to my rule of watching the movie first, because every last book on my worst list was read before seeing the film–another coincidence I don’t believe in. Separating the book and the movie in my mind helps me to sit back and enjoy each for what they are. The minute I start making comparisons, I start to disengage from the film. Good movies should reconnect you with the source material; that’s when you know it’s a powerful adaptation.

8 thoughts on “The Good, The Bad, And The Weird of Adaptations

  1. I agree with you about Beowulf, It was a truly awful film, but I do think that what Gaiman was trying to do with the story was, if not good, then interesting. By making Beowulf an unreliable narrator, I felt he was trying to make it more character driven than the original story. It didn’t really work, as though Beowulf looked like he was supposed to be a Tragic hero, he just came off as an ass. Still, it was a good idea, and at least he was attempting to do some innovative with the story, unlike Troy…


    • I can see your point about Gaiman’s intentions, but I think they completely lost me once they put it into that style of animation and tried to make Grendel’s mother sexy. I couldn’t get past those two things in particular. Unreliable narrators in general are truly interesting because they force you to think and invest more in a film or book. But you’re also right in that Beowulf came off more like a bro than a traditional tragic hero. I wanted that film to better than it was, which is why it irks me so much.


    • Agreed. In most cases, all I want is a spark of the book to show up on screen. I realize it’s very difficult to transfer the medium of words to a medium of images, but when I love a book I can’t help my high expectations.

      Thanks for sharing your list as well!


  2. I 100% agree with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Wonderful! And I am a hold out that is just now reading Harry Potter. I finished the first four books so this weekend I watched the first four movies. I was so disappointed with The Goblet of Fire. Ugh.


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