When Bad Movies Happen to Great Books
It happens to all of us – at least, all of us who love books. One day you’re going about your business and then you hear it, the news you’ve been hoping and dreading: your favorite book is about to become a major motion picture.
At first, everything is great! Sure, you’re nervous. You love this book. You have an image in your mind about these characters and these places and these events. How could a studio possibly put all that on screen without destroying what you love? But at the same time YOUR FAVORITE BOOK IS GOING TO BE A MOVIE! People who aren’t you are going to see it and fall in love with it the same way you did when you were 12, and then maybe people will understand what you’ve been talking about for the last … forever.
Time goes on and more news comes out. They start casting these characters you’ve loved for years, and they’re actually not sucking at it. You see a trailer, and it’s just as magical as you remember it. You convince other people to read the book before the movie comes out, and they love it just like you did. You get a group of friends together and head out to see it opening weekend.
And then … it sucks.
That feeling? It’s book-trayal, and it cuts to the deepest literary bone. How could they do this to you (because of course it’s a personal affront)? You trusted them with this material and they butchered it. And the worst part? They probably won’t get the chance to try again for years and years … if ever.
This was my experience back in 2007, when Hollywood decided to adapt Phillip Pullman’s highly controversial The Golden Compass (Northern Lights for you Brits) into a feature film, with hopes of turning it into a trilogy. I fell in love with the entire His Dark Materials trilogy (but especially the first book) when I was 12, and it remains, to this day, my favorite of the hundreds of books I’ve read in my life. They’re books that don’t talk down to their young audience, that challenge them with big ideas, and don’t shy away from tough questions and realities (for those who are unaware, the books challenge the idea of religion, especially Christianity, and specifically as it pertains to government and scientific inquiry).
The movie, though it had a cast almost too perfect to be true (Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, etc.), fell so far short of my expectations that I had a hard time thinking about the book for a while afterwards. It left a bad taste in my mouth, removing everything about the book that made it special (and everything that would have made it controversial) essentially neutering an otherwise brilliant, layered, and challenging story. And what was worse was the fact that it was a bad movie, not just a bad adaptation, meaning it was not well received by critics or audiences, and was a box office flop, leaving them no chance to make up for their failings with sequels, and removing a lot of incentive to try again in the near future.
All of this is really too bad, because in today’s climate of dystopian YA fantasies in which the tough main female characters challenge authority and stand against an overbearing force (without realizing that’s what they’re doing at first), it would fit right in if done properly.
So, that’s the story of my greatest book-tryal, but it’s far from the only one. What’s yours?