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Great expectations: Vox looks at film adaptations in pop culture

Good adaptations make fans smile

Illustration by Felicia Greiff

February 21, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Comparing a novel to its movie can feel like comparing beer and wine. Both can lead to the same ending even if the experience varies. A film adaptation doesn’t have to replicate word-for-word the original text, MU film and literature instructor Laura Nelson says. Instead, what makes a good adaptation is one that makes the fans of the literature happy.

Translating stories from book pages to theater screens is a pattern audiences like. When The Hunger Games premiered in cinemas last year, it had the third-best box office weekend of all time, following the final Harry Potter film and The Dark Knight, both of which are adapted screenplays.

What to Read Before You See

Carrie by Stephen King

  • What do you do when bullies push you a little too far? In Carrie’s case, seek revenge in the form of
    lighting your town on fire.
    Release: March 15
  • Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

  • An admissions officer from Princeton faces a dilemma when a promising student doesn’t make the cut for the Ivy League.
    Release: March 13
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  • The prosperity of 1920s America is eclipsed only by the perplexingstory of Jay Gatsby.
    Release: May 10
  • The Host by Stephanie Meyer

  • Bella and Edward are so 2012. This Stephanie Meyer novel follows an alien race called Souls that takes over the Earth, but one earthling is stubborn and doesn’t let her body become a host.
    Release: March 29
  • The Company You Keep by Neil Gordon

  • The thriller follows an ex-Weather Underground militant who is wanted for murder as he abandons his daughter to evade his manhunt.
  • Release: April 5

    Film adaptations have become a mainstay in pop culture. Since 1930, 43 winners of the Best Picture award at the Oscars have been films based on novels; this year, five of the movies nominated in the category started as books. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also reserves an award category for adapted screenplays, which ensures book adaptations will vie for a gold statue every year.

    However, the journey between the two mediums isn’t always easy; some characteristics of the book can be lost in translation. Character details can become scant, which causes the story to lose depth. If there are numerous characters in the book, it can be hard to transplant all their traits to the screen, Nelson says.

    This plot confusion can come from the three-step process of writing a book into a film. With adaptations, the work travels from the original manuscript to a screenplay and finally into the director’s vision. Key plot points can be lost in this interpretation, which can lead to confusion in the film’s presentation. It’s like playing a game of telephone; it’s easy for the end result to be a scrambled message of what the original author intended.

    Sometimes, however, less is more. Omitting certain plot points can elevate the film and streamline the story. Take, for instance, the film Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. The movie omitted the character Tom Bombadil from the trilogy but did so without altering the integrity of the plot.

    “Tom Bombadil has no bearing on anything else that happens in the film,” Nelson says. “That was something that could be just completely lifted out without any destruction to later plot points.”

    Luckily, this translation from book to film doesn’t necessarily mean audiences need to be fluent in one medium to understand the other. Even if audiences haven’t read a book, they don’t always need to avoid the theater when its film adaptation hits the silver screen.

    “I think that sometimes the film stands on its own,” Nelson says, “but I also think looking at a marketing standpoint, if you can get the fans of a book to watch the film, you have an automatic audience base.”

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