Few things are as polarizing as an adaptation. When readers hear that a beloved story which they’ve devoted their time and heart to is set to become a movie or television show, a mixture of excitement and anxiety is bound to arise. The idea of seeing what we love come to life in such a different medium is certainly interesting, getting to relive what made you care about the novels in the first place and see it play out with more visual realism, and I personally would be so glad to see my own writing some day become televised or put to film. (That day would be a long way off. Like… a long way.) Still, seeing how tone and themes are carried from page to screen can be quite divine, proving once again why these classic tales are important and intriguing. Sadly, we all know that plenty of books have been adapted and come out worse for wear. Either due to creative choices which simply don’t mesh with the world they are depicting, or because of design tactics which don’t meet expectations, turning written fantasy into cinema is complicated. Countless times we, the fans, have been disappointed by what producers end up delivering, and often that leads to outrage and complaining to no end. Much of those complaints are honestly fair. When adapting established stories there are certain elements and things which simply CANNOT be changed without destroying what came before. With all of that said, I am here to take time and look at several different tv and movie adaptations of fantasy (and sci-fi) stories which I think can provide insight into what does and does not work when the powers that be decide to mess around with the literary world.
Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy (Excellent)
Filmed all at one time, Peter Jackson’s live-action adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic astounded audiences at the time of its release, and continues to remain a fantastic trilogy today. Over three films Jackson covers most the material which Tolkien created, telling the story of Frodo and the Fellowship incredibly accurately. These films are not perfect adaptations of the source material, leaving some characters out (such as the peculiar Tom Bombadil) and changing some moments (elves being at Helm’s Deep), but the alterations which were made feel natural and make sense for a story which already may seem bloated to many viewers. I actually saw the movies prior to reading the books with this series, and honestly prefer them still. Though there are certainly storylines or character beats which I found stronger in Tolkien’s novels, I truly believe that Jackson’s trilogy could not be a much better adaptation. Perhaps this is due to his choice to film all three books at once, giving a more cohesive and connected feel to the story, or maybe I just don’t care to read about Frodo and Sam walking through Mordor for hundreds of pages, but Jackson’s trilogy remains easily one of my personal favorites when it comes to adaptations.
Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” Trilogy (Poor)
Sadly, the prequel series to The Lord of the Rings never meets the same level of quality which Jackson managed with his first dive into Tolkien’s world. Admittedly, I enjoyed these films. I know they may not really be the best, but I went to all three and left pleased. That being said, they are not even remotely close to an accurate adaptation of their source material. Characters were added for the sake of pleasing audiences (Legolas) or just to increase the drama (Tauriel), and the whole thing came out very unlike the book which it was meant to be based on. I blame this largely on the fact that they took one novel, and a relatively shorter one, and split it into three different films. I suppose the goal was just to make it a trilogy like its predecessor, and perhaps one movie alone could not have covered the tale, but three became purely excessive. Not all the changes which were made negatively affected the movie to me, as I am a fan of the she-elf who hogged plenty of screen time over three movies, but a lot of it seems purely unnecessary. An overabundance of CGI likewise does not do the movies any favors, and Azog and his army of orcs never become the menacing threat which they should be. Another key issue with this adaptation was the need for allusions to the Lord of the Rings, such as Legolas’ inclusion, the worst offender to me being the Necromancer’s storyline, which ultimately had little impact on the central plot.
J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” Series (Good)
Eight movies covering seven novels about a fantasy school for wizards and witches is quite a lot, but by and large the franchise has been an undeniable success for everyone involved. Much like the previous two entries on this list, the Harry Potter films leave out and alter a significant number of details from their sources, but mostly these changes work well or do not greatly detract from the narrative being woven. One aspect of the books which was limited within the films was Quidditch, Rowling’s nonsense fantasy sport which Harry and his friends spend a significant period of time focused on. Considering the limited run time of a film, and the general lack of necessity in showing quidditch, I for one am glad this was reduced. (I actually have never really liked Quidditch. It’s fun, and entertaining, but when you think about it not very fair. I mean come on, one ball is worth like all of the points. That’s just sloppy sport design.) Another storyline completely removed from the film series was Hermione Granger’s quest for elven rights. This story was not essential in any way to Harry’s grand battle against Voldemort, but did add to the character arcs of Hermione and Ron, even bringing them closer together and toward a romantic pairing. Likely this story would’ve been incredibly boring on the big screen, but it does highlight just how much was left out of this fantasy series when translated to film, even if most of the changes were entirely forgivable. Arguably the biggest flaw with Rowling’s movie adaptations comes in the addition of several pointless action scenes included to keep audiences entertained. This includes things such as Harry and Hermione doing battle with the Whomping Willow, and the Death Eaters laying siege to the Weasley Burrow in movie six (Honestly, the Weasleys’ are kind of shafted in general in the films. They simply don’t come across as important compared to their book counterparts). Neither of these exist for any reason beyond action entertainment, and as far as adaptation flaws go, are not too bad.
HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (Good)
This show. There are so many things I could say about the adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire”, and only about sixty percent of those things would end up being positive. That’s not to say I dislike it, though that would depend upon which seasons of the long running series you mean, but it certainly has issues. No adaptation is perfect. By this point in my article it should be clear that no matter how hard you try, you simply will not find a flawless rendition of fantasy come to the silver screen. When it comes to HBO’s most successful franchise, I absolutely adore the first four seasons. Still not entirely perfect adaptations, they encapsulate the essence of Martin’s work and display the storylines as they occurred on the page. Details are edited, some of which I prefer and some I dislike (I love Arya serving as cupbearer to Tywin Lannister for example, but do not like the change in Daenerys’ trip to Qarth), characters are altered (like Shae who I hate in both mediums, and Robb who’s story unfolds differently in regards to Talisa/Jeyne), and some elements are tragically given less importance. The key element which I was sad to see fade away was the importance of the Stark’s direwolves, yet all and all I understand it to be a logistical and financial issue. For four seasons, I considered all these things minor trivialities, mainly just making the experience slightly different from what I read in refreshing and intriguing ways. Then I watched season five and everything has continued to go down hill. In season five, the creator’s seemingly decided that they were done following the plots which Martin wove together, likely because his books began to become increasingly complex, and the show took new turns and altered characters to the point of irresponsibility. Admittedly, some of these changes still work. Jon Snow’s trip to Hardhome in the fifth season is one of the most gripping and well done sequences on any show which I have ever seen, and the decision to not introduce Arriane Martell and friends makes practical sense. However, for every positive change there were now at least several negatives, and to me it can be traced to the creator’s deciding not to follow along with Martin’s story any longer. The subsequent sixth and seventh season are no better to me, with season six being a slight improvement in some ways and the most recent episodes being unbearably silly, losing any grip on past character motivations and development, and becoming a hollow shell filled with spectacle and no heart. As this is an article discussing adaptation, season seven cannot be judged nor can the later half of season six, but from the perfect ending of season four to the moment Jon Snow comes back to life simply falls off the rails, taking this series from an excellent adaptation, to one which I can merely call good.
Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers” (Poor)
Time for a heel turn into the world of sci-fi. (I am currently working on a sci-fi novella entitled “Dearest Astra”. More on that another time.) Regarding Starship Troopers, all I can say is watch the movie. I know, I know, I labeled this as “poor”, but please do yourself a favor and just watch it with a few friends. As far as adaptations go, I cannot claim to have ever read the novel, but I know a decent bit about it. Events in the movie are drastically altered from what it is based upon, with certain characters outliving their book counterparts, and some main people not even having existed. This movie is a human versus giant bug monster satire riffing old war campaign videos as it literally encourages you to enlist into the infantry. Is it silly? Yes. Is it poorly acted? Sometimes. Is it a bad movie? Debatably yeah, totally true. Despite all of this, I have now seen Starship Troopers like three times, and it honestly gets better with each viewing. The sheer absurdity which you witness will make you and your buddies laugh together about the stupidest things, and once you realize it is meant to partially serve as satire, then it only gets better. Full disclosure, I am ending on this movie because I spent the past four paragraphs praising and bashing works which, in their own right, are all incredibly entertaining, and it seems better to close out on a movie which is less beloved than Game of Thrones or the Lord of the Rings. When it comes to adaptations, it’s simply foolish to expect perfection, but certain things should remain respected. Characters shouldn’t be assassinated for the sake of shock or a new creative twist, an entire plot shouldn’t be thrown away because writers are too lazy to figure out how to adapt it to screen, and themes should remain the same as the author originally intended. I cannot say whether or not anything I write will ever be adapted, but, if that does ever happen, I know I’ll want it to be a faithful rendition of what I took so much care into crafting.
Upcoming Adaptations of Interest
HBO is adapting the graphic novel “Watchmen” into a television series, Amazon is developing a Lord of the Rings based original story, Robert Jordan’s “The Wheel of Time” may be getting a series (which is a book series I still need to finish), and Raymond E. Feist’s “Riftwar Saga” could be adapted as well in the near future.
Here I am including a link to both my author website, as well as to the previous article which I wrote for the site you’re currently on: