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The Sorts of Books I Want to See as Movies

A few months ago, the trailer for John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars was released, and Josh asked me if I wanted to see it.  I really loved the book, and I like the main actress in it, Shailene Woodley.  I have until June until the film is released to decide, but my initial reaction to seeing it is sort of… no.

It has nothing to do with the quality of the trailer or the acting or the casting.  It all looks fine.  But there are two types of book-to-movie situations in my brain.

Option One: Seeing it is the next best things to living it.

The best example is Harry Potter.  I wanted to see Hogwarts so badly.  I wanted to see the potions classroom and the Gryffindor common room.  I remember being in the theater when they first showed Diagon Alley, and I stood up and started sobbing.  And lots of other people stood up and cried too.  We wanted to be there so badly, and seeing it come to life on the screen was the next best thing.  There are plenty of books that fit into this category, and almost all of them involve some type of magical element.  I felt this way about the Ring trilogy and the Hobbit.  I was pretty excited to see the Hunger Games.  I wish they’d make a really good version of the Phantom Tollbooth (better than the one from 1970 with Eddie Munster) or bring The Age of Miracles to life.  I can’t live it, because it’s not real.  But seeing it on the movie screen is sort of like getting to peek through a peephole.  You get access to that magic, even though you can’t touch it.

Option Two: Reading it is so much better than seeing it.

This is where I’d place The Fault in Our Stars.  The pace of the book unfolded in such a way that the story didn’t overwhelm me until it took me right over the edge with the ending.  I bawled.  And while I think I’ll cry from seeing the film, it will feel more manipulative; more like a roller coaster ride that is clearly constructed to bring out certain emotions vs. the more creative thrill rides like Soarin’ where you’re deceptively lulled into that flying feeling.  I like the characters in TFIOS, but I never needed to meet them.  In fact, sometimes seeing book characters come to life on the screen sort of backfires and makes me dislike someone that I really enjoyed on the page.  Sort of like how meeting some bloggers makes you enjoy their blog more, and meeting some bloggers makes you want to stop reading what they write.

If I had to boil this all down to a formula, it would look like this:

  • People = No
  • Places and Situations = Yes

I like to keep it simple.

To me, relationships are so personal, even the ones you have with a character.  In the same way that two people can interact with a third person and walk away with two very different experiences, I think the same thing happens with characters.  But when you turn a book character into a movie character, you’re actually making them jump through that ring of fire twice.  They need to charm you on the page, and then they need to charm you on the screen.  And there’s just too much room for a character to go from wonderful to annoying due to casting or the chemistry we observe (or don’t observe) between two characters.  I do much better when I see a movie before I read the book as I did with About a Boy.  But if I had read the book first… I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the movie.

Whereas while we each have personal preferences when it comes to landscape, I think it is easier to find the common ground (no pun intended).  While we may be picky about the people we surround ourselves with and confide in, beach people — for example — tend to be okay with a wide range of beaches.  Sure, they have preferences and types of beaches that appeal more than others.  But in general, if it meets their expectation for a beach, they’re willing to spend time on it.  And that presents an easier job for filmmakers.  If they can create a world well, we’ll want to spend time in it.  All the better if the characters are pretty innocuous so they give us space to imagine ourselves in that world.  Movies like that transport the viewer.  It gives them two hours somewhere else.

I am much more likely to go to a movie that starts as a movie.  Meaning, that they didn’t take a story from a book which has its own pacing and try to squeeze it onto the screen.  I’m fine with movies based in fictionalized history such as American Hustle and Abscam, or King George VI and The King’s Speech.  But I like my books as books and my movies as movies.  Except for the times when someone happens to make magic: they take a book I love and they turn it into a movie I love.  But there is more room to disappoint me than amaze me.

So… I don’t think I’ll see The Fault in Our Stars.  Or if I do, it will be when it comes out on DVD, and it’s easy viewing for a Friday night.  Low stakes.

How do you feel about books being turned into movies?

14 comments

1 mrs green grass { 04.14.14 at 11:26 am }

I read The Fault in Our Stars on a plane…bad idea. I think the quality of the dialogue might allow it to be decent as a movie, but I agree that it’s probably better read. One book I think was nearly impossible to turn into a movie is The Book Thief. The movie took out everything truly special about the book and just left the plot. Totally different and lesser impact.

2 Kir { 04.14.14 at 11:55 am }

I feel the way you do, with Harry (OH my Harry) it was like you described, I wanted to see that Castle, be inside.
Sometimes with Romantic Comedies (like Something Borrowed) I want to see the women they choose as the protagonists only to be disappointed because the snarky, funny stuff gets lost in the script writing.

I agreed with the way you saw this. (although I’d really really love to see Life From Scratch and Measure of Love in the movies..#justsayin)

3 Mrs T (missohkay) { 04.14.14 at 12:13 pm }

I do better when I see the movie first too, and About a Boy is always my first example. For me, what makes a good book is not the same as what makes a good movie, and furthermore, I have different taste in books than I do in movies (with some overlap in the depraved indie category… that’s a real category, right?)

4 magpie { 04.14.14 at 2:06 pm }

i’m in the books as books/movies as movies camp. that said, there are a few books that made good movies: a room with a view is one, hugo is another.

5 fifi { 04.14.14 at 2:33 pm }

I like knowing that my favorite books are being made into films, because it means that more people will read the book. However I’m reluctant to see my favorite books as films, because I have such a clear picture in my head and if the film doesn’t gel with that picture, I’m disappointed.

6 a { 04.14.14 at 4:09 pm }

Meh – I like books. I like movies. Books are usually better than movies although I’ve read a couple books lately that I think would actually be better as movies (Serena, Labor Day – and I read them because they’re making them into movies). I’m almost always disappointed by the movie, but that doesn’t diminish my love for the book.

7 Katherine A { 04.14.14 at 9:02 pm }

I can identify with what you’re saying about places translating better than people to the screen. That actually makes a lot of sense. I was so disappointed when I watched “The Time Traveler’s Wife”, since I’d liked the book. But “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is one of those heavily character driven books and the movie lost a lot of what attracted me to Henry and Clare on the page. They’re complicated characters with a complicated story and don’t always do endearing things, but in the book, I still found myself able to like the characters (for the most part) because of some of those tiny details revealed about them or very subtle shades of emotion that can be expressed in a book. Very, very tricky to get right in a movie.

8 Mali { 04.15.14 at 2:37 am }

I don’t think it matters (to me) whether a book is character or place driven. My usual rule though is that if I loved a book, I will be disappointed by the movie, because (unless Peter Jackson takes a book and stretches it out to dozens of movies) so much detail is left out. Or Meryl Streep will take a character I liked (Bridges of Madison County) and ruin it for me.

Whether I read the book or saw the movie first may have something to do with it. I loved The English Patient movie, then read the book. I think it would have been better the other way round. (There wasn’t enough of Naveen Andrew’s character in the book to please me.) Yet, to contradict this, I also loved the movie Cloud Atlas, which I watched after I read (and loved) the book too. (Haven’t seen The Book Thief – I thought it would be a good movie, but reviews weren’t kind).

I guess I’m just happy that books I love are made into movies, so I can enjoy them again, and so they might encourage others to read the books. I go along with low expectations. They usually protect me from extreme disappointment.

9 fifi { 04.15.14 at 6:49 am }

To adapt a 300 page novel for a two-hour film (for example) requires that you leave out a lot of details. Short stories are often a better source. See for example The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Minority Report, Memento, The Birds, Don’t Look Now, Brokeback Mountain.

10 Persnickety { 04.15.14 at 7:40 am }

Sometimes when I read a book I can see how a movie can easily be made ( or even that the book is well structured for movie translation). Other books, no matter how much I love them, just no.

I think it is the level to which the books have made us privy to their inner thoughts- this can be quite hard to put on the screen, so those transitions don’t work

11 Carla { 04.15.14 at 9:20 am }

I am always nervous when I hear that they are making a movie from a book I love–I usually believe that there is no way that Hollywood can do it justice and I don’t want them messing with my vision of what a beloved character or place should look like or feel like. But after reading your post, I think I agree with you. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games were some of the best movie adaptations I’ve ever seen, and I can’t go to Hogwarts or Panem, so seeing them on the screen was the next best thing. But a story about someone who could live next door to me would be different.

12 Pepper { 04.15.14 at 11:50 am }

I don’t have a strong formula, I tend to decide on a case by case basis. I loved The Time Traveller’s Wife and was so irritated by the movie because it changed the ending which was my absolute favorite part. So although it did really well overall as an adaptation, the lost few moments ruined it for me. I’ll still stop and watch if I’m flipping channels and it’s on, but always move on before the end.

13 Jess { 04.15.14 at 1:37 pm }

I agree. I think some movies do well on screen, like Harry Potter, as sort of a “cliff notes” version of the book. It’s a quick review of something I enjoyed and while they didn’t cover everything, I know the rest of what’s there. Same with LOTR and the Hobbit.

But I think where movies fail is they become tone deaf to the characters. Even Hunger Games to an extent, because it’s very hard to capture an inner monologue.

I haven’t read TFIOS yet because I know it will make me cry and that’s not what I have needed in my life lately! :)

14 loribeth { 04.27.14 at 12:52 pm }

It depends. I usually find the movie doesn’t measure up to the book… although I can often find something to enjoy about the movie on its own terms. Someone above mentioned The Time Traveller’s Wife, and I would put that into that category (although I too was irritated by the movie ending). I usually tend to read the reviews & make my decision from there. I am hoping to get to see TFIOS, although it’s going to be a hard sell to dh, since it involves kids with cancer.

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