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What are the best and worst literary adaptations to television or film?

One thing guaranteed to send a bookworm into either spasms of delight or furious apoplexy is a literary adaptation done well, or done badly. While most of the Write Yorkshire scribble are on tenterhooks about the new Dune film anyway, we thought we'd ask about their top best and worst literary adaptations.

I actually found it quite difficult to come up with what I consider to be the worst literary adaptations, which is surprising because we know they come in abundance. Perhaps my brain has blocked out the bad ones to protect me from reliving them. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for an adaptation and always enjoy seeing books come to life on-screen. Anyway, here are my picks for the worst (I’m going to keep my explanations brief here so I have time to discuss my favourites):

Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013). I just didn’t enjoy it. The characters and environments lost some of their charm in translation, for me. I think the best thing about Fitzgerald’s writing is the beauty of his words and we lose that when his work is put on the big screen.

Another adaptation that I didn’t enjoy is The Time Traveller’s Wife (2009). This is because of maybe two things. First, the film is not very good (at least when compared with the source material). It feels clumsy and I couldn’t make myself care about the characters, which means a lot when I didn’t have to force myself to care when reading the book. The other reason this particular film leaves a bad taste in my mouth is how I first viewed it. Myself and a friend went to the cinema on a double date. We were supposed to meet two girls from another school at the cinema. They never turned up. So me and my friend sat for just under two hours together watching Eric Bana appear naked on the floor in various settings.

Now, there are others, but I want to get to the good stuff. First some honourable mentions:

  • Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (I don’t need to expand on that, do I?)

  • Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy. (Specifically the first film)

  • Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. (He got it right that time. Young Leo, Hawaiian shirts, the fish tank scene!)

Now if you’ll allow me to be a tad more in depth, David Lean’s adaptation of the fantastic Dickens work, Great Expectations is, in my opinion, one of the best book-to-film adaptations of all time. The casting and characterisation is perfect. The cinematography and set design captures (if not accentuates) the mood and tone of the book. From the opening scene, with its brilliant narration as the wind blows us out to the blustering churchyard where we first meet young Pip, to Miss Havisham’s house or the stunning climax. The book is a classic and so is Lean’s adaptation in my eyes.

Next, I’d like to talk about everyone’s favourite Peruvian bear. The Paddington books don’t particularly stick in my mind in the same way Dickens has. I’m sure I read some of them when I was a child and I know my mam read them to me, however, I don’t remember them at all. One thing I am certain of is that I won’t forget the 2014 film adaptation (or the sequel) for a very long time. The films (dir. Paul King) are so full of joy and energy and humour and I love them dearly. Once a Pooh man, Paddington has since become my favourite bear and I look forward to sharing those films with children of my own someday.

My final mention is a tricky one to classify. Adaptation (2002), written by Charlie Kaufman is without a doubt the most interesting adaptation of literature that I’ve ever witnessed. Rather than faithfully adapting the source material (The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean), Kaufman’s screenplay depicts his own personal struggle with the process of adaptation itself. The film is hilarious and entertaining, plus it features Nicolas Cage at his very best (if you’re part of the “he can’t act” crowd, watch this film). Kaufman explores the very process of adaptation in a way that analyses how difficult it is to faithfully translate somebody else's work for the screen, while also giving audiences and studio executives what they want.

After all, you can’t please everybody - especially when it comes to literary adaptations.

Let’s get the worst adaptations out of the way first, so we can focus on the really good ones. Books provide layers of narrative and character depth that just isn’t really possible to achieve with film and television, so I think you do have to be a little bit forgiving when comparing one to the other - the key is that they are adaptations. That being said, there are definitely some bad ones out there. I personally didn’t particularly like the Harry Potter films; a lot of the magic and immersion was lost. I also thought the True Blood TV series was fairly terrible. And I love Anna Paquin and Alexander Skarsgård! The first season wasn’t too bad - when they remained reasonably close to the source material - but from season two onwards it went from verging on the ridiculous to full on WTF.

Happily, my list of good adaptations is far longer. Let’s begin with the honourable mentions: the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies (extended editions only please); the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice; The Hunger Games trilogy; The Witcher; The Martian; Jeeves and Wooster; She’s The Man; Ten Things I Hate About You; and a little known old animated film called Flight of Dragons adapted from an equally little known book: The Dragon and the George. Onwards to the top three:

When I was a pony mad teenage bookworm, I stumbled upon a series of books called Heartland in the library. The series was about a family who, after the death of their mother, have to step up and run the family ranch, rehabilitating problem horses. It must be over twenty years since I read them! I couldn’t even tell you whether they were well written because I just don’t remember. However, they stuck with me enough that when I saw the adaptation to television pop up on Netflix, I decided to give it a whirl, mostly out of curiosity. The show rapidly became a firm favourite of mine! What is really impressive about Heartland is that it’s managed to keep me pulled in and engaged throughout my entire life. It appealed to me as a young teen, it appealed to me as a young adult and now, at just about 35, I still love it. When you think about it, that’s an incredible thing for a set of characters and a base narrative to achieve. That’s staying power. You have to respect that.

Next is the BBC adaptation Sherlock. I’m a Holmes nerd and I also really like the work show writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat do - if you haven’t checked out their recent offering of Dracula on Netflix yet, make sure you make time for that! Sherlock is seamless; it’s clever, it plays on and honours the source materials, it’s brilliant. It’s packed with layers of joy; Conan Doyle virgins will get just as much enjoyment out of it as the Holmes scholars who pick up on the hidden references and in-jokes. Beautifully adapted, beautifully brought into the modern age.

Finally, Amazon’s Good Omens. Good Omens is the book we all thought couldn’t be adapted. It’s too complex, it’s too nuanced, and it’s too beloved. Not possible. I do believe that the only reason it worked is because Neil Gaiman did the adaptation himself - I don’t think anyone else could have done it. Terry Pratchett knew that too. But still, even with a fantastic script, it would have been easy to fail. The Good Omens book gave us incredibly strong characters that were easy to visualise and easy to love. The only possible way to succeed with source material like that is if the actors do a better job than your own imagination did when you first read it. David Tennent and Martin Sheen… what inspired choices.

I always get so excited when I see a book I like being adapted...until I remember that it could be absolutely ruined for me forever! I always find so many film and TV adaptations miss out the good bits, or the nuances, but on the other hand there are some absolutely stellar ones too.

The worst ones are probably the easiest to pick, they grate on me the most and then stick in my mind! We'll start with one of my favourite books as a teen: Vampire Academy. The film was absolutely awful, I loved the books so much but the film made me cringe, it just looked cheap and awkward. The Beautiful Creatures film had the same effect on me, I don't think I ever quite recovered from the terrible, fake southern accents. Also, what on earth happened with the TV adaption of A Series of Unfortunate Events? I honestly have no words for that one, it was just shocking. I was so excited for it and then it ended up being one of the most disappointing adaptations I've ever had the displeasure of watching. How does an adaptation end up so bad when the whole narrative is right there, already written? It's baffling!

It's hard to pick the best ones, because there are so many great screen adaptations that are so well done. The TV series of A Discovery of Witches had me on the edge of my seat and dying to know what happened, as if I didn't know exactly what was coming. The Handmaid's Tale, although beyond the written narrative, has me holding my breath every single episode, it's absolutely incredible and the cast is elite. However, I think my most recent, favourite adaption is probably Sally Rooney's Normal People. The book managed to rip my heart out and leave me with almost no idea how it had happened. And then the TV series put me through it all again. I don't think I've ever seen a TV or film version that made me react exactly the same way as the book did, but Normal People really achieved that (huge kudos to the directors and writers of the show). I experienced them pretty much back to back and, let me tell you, it was one hell of an emotional hangover afterwards!

I love an adaptation, but if it's done poorly? You're on my shit list forever, there's no redemption...

I’ll start by saying I quite often avoid literary adaptations of my favourite books, because I’ve been disappointed so often in the past. It’s discomfiting at best when your favourite characters are just plain wrong on screen - I find myself too distracted and huffy - especially when characters are cast as far more attractive than their ink-and-paper counterparts. For example, Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre), Ben Whishaw as Grenouille (Perfume), or Chloe-Grace Moretz as the titular Carrie. Give me a break. I wish Hollywood producers would trust their audiences enough to know we can cope with looking at non-symmetrical faces, especially if the script is good...

The worst adaptation I can think of is the recent BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. It managed to make Mitford’s sparkling prose as flat as milk; made caricatures of her finely-drawn and complex characters, and added sexual elements to the relationship between Linda and Fanny (behave yourself) that just weren’t there in the novel, adding nothing to the story except for a bit of nudge-wink. Not needed. And don’t get me started on the anachronistic music and staging. I lasted twenty five minutes, I think, and that was only because I was waiting for Andrew Scott to turn up. When he did, he looked like he thought he was in a Roxy Music video, and that was that. Awful.

There are some excellent examples out there, though. The 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery stays pretty faithful to the text, and Kathy Bates is a perfect Annie Wilkes, brilliantly foiled by James Caan as Paul Sheldon. The pair of them manage to translate King’s tension to the big screen, adding a touch of dark humour and, thankfully, toning down the violence. While I was able to watch the whole film, I had to look away from the book, especially during that scene. It’s unusual for film violence to be more restrained than what’s described in a book, but I think it actually worked better, as it avoided the splatter-movie approach and made the film more effective as a psychological horror.

Another one of my favourite adaptations is of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. I absolutely loved the film, and Jack Nicholson’s performance of McMurphy is rightly lauded as one of the best of all time. However, I did see the film before reading the book, and once I did read it, I realised that having the Chief as narrator added an extra poignancy, and yes, Nicholson was far more attractive than the McMurphy Kesey created. I could forgive it though, as McMurphy wasn’t already alive in my head.

Maybe that means the key to enjoying an adaptation is to watch the movie first; if it’s good enough, it will make you seek out the book, which is never a bad thing. Do it the wrong way round, and you may never get over the rage...


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Cover image by Jeremy Yap via Pixabay


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