What Makes A Good Movie Adaptation?

What Makes A Good Movie Adaptation?

Film adaptations are a tricky business — make too many changes and you’re guaranteed to upset existing fans (see Watchmen). On the other hand, stay too faithful and your flick runs the risk of appearing slavish or even pointless (see, ironically, Watchmen). Sometimes though, a movie manages to strike all the right notes and goes on to please old and new fans alike.

[credit provider=”Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer” url=”http://www.mgmaustralia.com/”]

Last night, I caught a media screening of the latest Carrie remake which is based on Stephen King’s first published novel. In the past, we’ve looked at how movie remakes are mostly rubbish and we’re sad to report that Carrie does little to buck this trend.

As the titular Carrie White, Chloë Grace Moretz is far too pretty to convince as a friendless high school outcast (if anything, their attempts to “uglify” the actress have only rendered her more attractive). The climactic showdown at the prom is also problematic; it somehow manages to both underwhelm and be too over-the-top.

However, it was the unnecessary deviations from the book that I found the most jarring. While I understand the need to update certain aspects of the story to fit the modernised setting, most of the changes are clumsily handled and contribute nothing of importance. A subplot involving camera phones and YouTube videos really doesn’t go anywhere; it’s just sort of there. The filmmakers probably would’ve been better off keeping the tale in the 1970s. While we wouldn’t call the movie terrible, it mostly fails as both a remake and as an adaptation.

This got us thinking about what makes a great adaptation. Respect to the source material is obviously key, but it goes a lot deeper than that — you need to know what to adapt and what to leave on the page, how long to spend on certain scenes and whether to cram the whole book into one movie or go for a multi-part adaptation (Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy clearly got this aspect wrong).

Naturally, choosing the right actors also plays a huge role. While it’s impossible to match the imagination of each and every fan (we all picture characters differently after all), some actors are completely miscast; Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula being a standout example.

With all that in mind, what movie adaptations do you think got it right? As mentioned, they don’t necessarily have to be 100 per cent faithful so long as they capture the spirit of the original story and delight existing fans. Off the top of my head, I’d personally rate The Thin Red Line, The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, The Last Of The Mahicans (1992), Blade Runner, Stand By Me, Trainspotting and The Shawshank Redemption.

Meanwhile, some awful adaptations we can think of include The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, The Time Machine (2002), Bicentennial Man, The Scarlet Letter (1995) and Dreamcatcher.

We’re keen to hear your own thoughts on book-to-film adaptations. What are your personal favourites (or biggest disappointments)? Share your nominations in the comments section below.

Lifehacker’s weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.


  • I can’t really see that Blade Runner captured the spirit of the original book. It left out much of what was memorable and Dick-ian to create something almost wholly new. Your experience may differ if you saw the movie first of course as the movie vibe can transfer back to the book.

    I also don’t see that shooting The Hobbit as a multipart film as “clearly” wrong. The opportunity to use the same cast and production team as LOTR to tell the story expansively and introduce new material from the same author is not likely to be repeated in our lifetimes. The ability to cut down that material to a short “by the book” version will still exist. However since most successful movies are drawn from scripts of comparable length to a short story, anything book length of any merit deserves a chance at long form adaptation, whether that be by a set of movies of a TV series (as with the upcoming Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

    I do agree that the Carrie remake (which I saw at preview last week prior to seeing the musical remake) was a pointless exercise, with only Julianne Moore offering anything interesting). At least the musical remake of the Broadway flop I saw 25yrs ago was an improvement, even if its own camera phone angle was even less utilised than in the film version.

    The biggest disappointment of any adaptation that I can recall was Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow, with Julia Ormond terrifically miscast in much the same way that Chloë Grace Moretz was unconvincing as an unattractive loner.

    • When I said Jackson got it wrong with The Hobbit, I didn’t mean that it should have been a single film. Rather, I was referring to the decision to split it across three 2.5 hour movies. The pacing and excitement have definitely suffered. A pair of 100-odd minute movies would have been perfect in my opinion.

  • Fight Club the film is superior to Fight Club the novel. Chuck Palahniuk is the first to tell you.

  • I loved running man as a kid, and was shocked by the book. Silent hill was another fail that comes to mind.

    But the first resident evil was a good adaption.

    • “they don’t necessarily have to be 100 per cent faithful so long as they capture the spirit of the original story and delight existing fans”

      • And the Hitchhikers Guide movie doesn’t qualify under that criteria how ? Also most people forget that EVERY adaption of it was different to every other adaption before it.

      • I think the movie may have delighted fans of the book more for the production artistry than for faithfulness to DADOES’ plot or spirit, as the latter is definitely more Scott than Dick. The more I hear Scott talking* about his interpretations of famous SF works the more it seems clear that he hasn’t read anything longer than a plot summary of them.

        ( *see “Prophets of Science Fiction”)

      • I don’t think it did. The characters in the short story were obsessed with carrying about jars to catch insects and spiders and you didn’t see that in the movie.

        • In the book, animals were extremely rare. Most people had to settle for robotic imitations. Decker’s joy at finding a real frog is spoiled at the end, when his wife pokes it – and opens a diagnostic panel.
          Compare to a throwaway line in the movie. Q:”Is that a real snake?” A: “Do you think I could afford a REAL snake?”. Oh, and tracking said fake snake by the serial number on its scales.

          MASSIVELY different in tone, significance [to the characters].

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!