Slate’s ‘Great Book, Bad Movie: How Hollywood Ruins Novels’ (Has Hollywood Ruined Harry?)

A quick break from the ten part series! I’ll be speaking tomorrow, Saturday, 21 February, to the Potterdelphians at 11 am; please join us at “Shops At Liberty Place, 1625 Chestnut St, Philadelphia PA 19103” (food court area at the top of the escalators) if you’re anywhere near Center City! I’ll be talking about the bag of eyeball marbles in Deathly Hallows — and the discussion with this group of very serious readers promises to be a lot of fun.

I saw the article on ‘Great Book, Bad Movie’ online and thought of the Potter film franchise. The author of this piece says that novels can be successfully translated into movies, especially “the kiddie franchises (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia)’ and “the airport bangers (Da Vinci Code, the Bourne etceteras)” because of their “ready-built brand appeal” and because “good plots and an epic dimension translate well from page to screen.”

The problem comes, according to Willing Davidson, when producers try to transform “literary novels” into “mid-size movies,” which effort, s/he says, “has been an ugly disaster.”

“This is what the movies do to literature, typically: There’s so much plot to get in that there’s no time to tell the story. Perhaps it’s the insecurity of Hollywood: Inflated by the borrowed prestige of books, producers and directors won’t stray too far from the guide-ropes of the story. Revolutionary Road, for instance, feels less directed than curated. But in this bargain, Hollywood makes an unnecessary concession, in effect admitting that movies are dumber than books. How could we think otherwise when smart books are continually turned into witless movies? It’s the ultimate head-to-head competition, and movies are the Washington Generals.”

Clearly, in this author’s opinion, Harry, Frodo, and Aslan’s stories aren’t literary so the failings of the film translations of these stories’ moral, allegorical, and mythic meanings is no big deal compared to the “disaster” of The Strange Case of Benjamin Button. De gustibus? Probably. I think that I agree with Davidson’s point, though, if we have very different ideas about what makes a book “literary” or “great.” Movies, if they are to communicate the dimensions of a well written book and simulate for the movie-goer something of the experience of reading the book, they have to do much more than render the plot faithfully. Otherwise, as with the Potter movies, all you get is an enjoyable trailer for the books.

I doubt very much, however, if readers of the books would enjoy that kind of remade and re-imagined story, and, I imagine, films are best made from stories conceived as films rather than adapted from foreign media like the printed page. I expect you think differently. Thank you in advance for your comments and correction.


  1. Agree completely that readers of the books (and by this I mean the HP books) would not be pleased by any attempt to “re-imagine” the book for film. Fans of the books want faithful depiction; even short-cuts and omissions are reviled.

    I don’t quite agree that films are best made from original screenplays. Some of the most moving movies I’ve seen have been adapations: Brokeback Mountain, Pride and Prejudice, English Patient. And there are lots of movies I’ve enjoyed which were adapted from novels (and graphic novels, if you include films like Sin City and Dark Knight.

    I do agree that movies made from adapted screenplays have to cut loose from the original. This involves taking risks – which some projects won’t accept. For example, I don’t think the producers of the HP books were ready to support any kind of departure from the novels. And they were right. The movie which diverged the furthest from the book – PoA had the lowest box office. And to my mind, was artistically the most successful.

  2. John wrote: “Movies, if they are to communicate the dimensions of a well written book and simulate for the movie-goer something of the experience of reading the book, they have to do much more than render the plot faithfully. Otherwise, as with the Potter movies, all you get is an enjoyable trailer for the books.

    I doubt very much, however, if readers of the books would enjoy that kind of remade and re-imagined story, and, I imagine, films are best made from stories conceived as films rather than adapted from foreign media like the printed page.”

    Well, I think part of the problem is with heightened expectations. That is, expecting to get a very similar experience out of the book & out of the movie. I don’t. I have different expectations between a book & a movie.

    Now, I’ll admit I’m a bit of a purist, though, especially when it comes to Tolkien, Lewis, & Rowling, but I still expect adaptations between a book & a film. What irks me is not leaving stuff out but in changing the spirit of the book or the characterization of the, well, characters.

    I’ll agree that POA is the most artistically successful, although I don’t think it diverged from the book too much. I think rather Cuaron had a nice driving plot that kept things going. There were only two things wrong with POA in my opinion. Too much talking shrunken heads & one major miscasting of a pivotal character. Of the two, I’ll take a movie full of shrunken heads any day. 🙂

  3. Perhaps the more poorly written the book, the better the movie! One example is The Godfather — crappy novel, wonderful movie. The Bourne movies are great action movies, but you just have to accept that they bear no relation whatsoever to the novels except for the borrowing of a few names. And frankly, the movies are a lot better.

  4. John, I’ll have to give this a bit more thought, but I just wanted to say: Boo! I’m a little sad I didn’t see this until just now, since I could’ve been in Center City today, easy–instead I went further west on the Mainline. *shrug* I hope it went well, though!

  5. Oh, revgeorge, I’d forgotten about that piece of miscasting. When I think of PoA certain images come to mind: Hagrid’s hut on the side of the hill; the pumpkin patch, Buckbeak, the guy with the axe (McNair?), Emma Watson running, always running, Harry watching himself and Sirius Black from across the water, certain that “his father” would show up to save the day, Harry and Lupin standing on the bridge, Lupin extinguishing the candles in his study, the invisible Harry throwing a snowball at Ron, the pendulum of the clock. My God, but that was such a beautifully and vividly filmed movie. The only thing I remember about he-whom-I’d-rather-not-name are the flimsy robes, and how totally incongrous and anachronistic they looked on him.

  6. I don’t disagree that it’s better to do a movie from a script written to be a movie than trying to adapt a book. Harry Potter has proven that to me. I love the books, and I enjoy the movies. But with every movie, I find some detail that has been changed or left out entirely that really spoils the experience. And I think that what they are trying to do is change something to make it “theirs”. And that’s the problem – the story doesn’t belong to the screen writer or the director, it belongs to Rowling. So quit leaving out the details or the characters that are pivotal to the end of the story (which they never manage to get right) or to the later books.

    But after Cuaron messed up the whole Marauder’s Map thing and the ending (which I still think is awful), I realized that I just have to change my expectation for the movies of Harry Potter. Artistically, POA was great, but every time I watch it now, I get even more annoyed with the shrunken heads and the Knight Bus that I can hardly watch it. It’s the only one that I fast forward through parts of it. The Shrieking Shack was close, but missed. He did add one scene that I liked better than the book and that was Lupin talking to Harry about his parents. I always felt like that was something that Lupin would have done and it seemed odd in the book that he didn’t. Well, and there’s the scene with Snape protecting the trio that’s a nice bit of foreshadowing for the final book that wasn’t in the book at all. And it worked.

    However, just this last week I finished reading Inkheart and then saw the movie. I enjoyed both, and they made a lot of changes from book to movie. What they managed to do was to keep the characters intact. But they combined events, or completely changed the sequence, and as far as I’m concerned, it worked well. The ending was even quite diffferent and I wondered why they changed it the way they did, but I’ve starting reading the second book in the series and it almost looks like they took some of the things from that one and put it in the first movie. It’ll be interesting, if they make the second movie.

    So far, the only book to movie that I think really worked well, because they didn’t change very much, was Gone with the Wind. It’s been a while since I read it, but I don’t remember feeling irritated by anything they did with the movie. Nor did my mom. It was her favorite book and her favorite movie.

    So the whole book to movie thing can be done, but I don’t think it’s as easy as it sounds. And sometimes they should just not do it at all. Given a choice, I would take a book over a movie any day – and I love watching movies. But reading what the author actually wrote instead of seeing someone else’s interpretation of it, is much better.


  7. If the book (and by “book” I’m specifically referring to Rowling’s HP works) is good enough to adapt to the big screen, why, then, does the story take such a beating?

    I know I’ve mentioned this on another thread, yet I still can’t wrap my head around the many artistic liberties resulting in the loss of descriptive text that would have translated into marvelous visual support of the whole (I’m thinking of the cleansing of Black House and the introduction of Slitherin’s necklace)…or the addition of events not part of the original work (i.e. the battle scene at The Burrow in HPB the director felt was “necessary” to the storyline! DUH!!???). Makes me wish Rowling had held out for more faithful translations of the books; but no use crying over altered texts now. The best we can hope for is a magical, amazing rendering of Deathly Hallows to the big screen.

  8. IstariErangua says

    I think the adaptation from book to screen is a delicate balance, and a lot of things that aren’t as much of a problem in books are huge problems in film. It’s been mentioned here before that books like POA are very much internal, and a great amount happens in Harry’s head that would be difficult to translate into film successfully, and for an example I’ll reference Orson Scott Card. In his audio book for Ender’s Game he talks at the end, since it was a 10th anniversary edition or something, and he talks about multiple attempts to turn Ender’s Game into a film, and the problems he’s faced as an author in keeping the story and characters true. Most film screenwriters were pushing him to allow them to make Ender much older than he was, to try to appeal to the “teenage date” crowd, and he flatly refused, since he can see that the story wouldn’t work unless Ender was a small, malleable child. He also mentioned, similarly, that so much happened in Ender’s head that would be impossible to put on the screen in a fitting way, even should they decide to do something like voice over. There are only so many things film can do to remain faithful to the books, and sometimes they step over the line for a laugh, or change things to make it easier to interpret on screen, or even to save money. Just like the books, film is an industry that’s dependent on money, but it takes a lot more money to put together a film than it does to publish a book, so the considerations are altered.

    PJ brought up Inkheart as an example of an adaptation that was more successful, and I agree completely. I also read the book and saw the film, and how they changed it, and while I was a bit surprised, I was pleased, because they kept the characters and the world within the correct confines, rather than changing it to suit themselves, as I feel some of the HP films have done. In general I never have as high expectations for a film as for a book, and I’ve rarely seen a movie that I preferred to the original book. As far as faithful adaptations, I can only say that the best hope is to have a cast and crew who are fans of the book, as Peter Jackson and his writers were for LOTR. They had their changes, and I had my complaints, but they labored to keep the world as real and believable as it was on the page, and it truly was a labor of love. Not perfect, but acceptable, even with the changes. I’m waiting at this point to see how HBP and DH are handled, since they’re heavier and full of more important details.

  9. One of the things that seems most difficult in translation from page to screen is the transitions that occur sometimes between scenes. I recall watching one of the LOTR movies and being a bit lost when the scene changed and we were watching an entirely different time/place. Of course, LOTR is difficult to read in places so these transitions on film were similar to the book.

    I hate the HP movies in comparison to the books. As stand alones, I agree with the comment someone else made that they are good trailers for the books. So many characters and details have been left out that only half the story has been told on film.

  10. juliababyjen says

    I completely agree in regards to the HP movies and the majority of other movies as well. Generally, I never enjoy the movie like I do the book, but I really don’t expect to. Two exceptions: Gone With the Wind, as mentioned above, and To Kill a Mockingbird. What is interesting is that Gone With the Wind the movie has taken major liberties and cut out many, many scenes and characters from the book. Wade and Ella (Scarlett’s first 2 children) aren’t even in the movie! But the essence of the book was the love quadrangle between Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley, and Melanie. And the movie remained very true to these characters and their scenes and plot points. To Kill A Mockingbird is the only movie I have ever loved more than the book. Of course, this movie was almost word for word from the book! It’s also my favorite movie of all time.

  11. I am posting just because I get so upset when LOTR is lumped in with Narnia and Potter as kidlit. They actually are; LOTR is NOT!

    But, aside from that, I do think it is possible to do a faithful adaptation of a good book and come up with a good movie. Someone mentioned “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which is wonderful – but it’s also the type of book that’s relatively easy to film; sraightforward realism, character-driven and with a good deal of dialogue. “The Yearling” was also very successful, and, in both cases, the trick seemed to be casting the right child or children to carry the story.

    But has anyone here seen “Whale Rider”? or read the book? It is a good book, and a splendid movie, and there are actually a few radical changes between book and film. The filmmaker managed to convey the essence of the story and characters in spite of those changes. I thought it should have gotten a prize for best adaptation.

    Then, of course, there’s “The Wizard of Oz”! That was a fine adaptation, too, in spite of simplifying the story a good deal and making Dorothy older than she actually was. And “National Velvet” is a terrific book –

    But you get the idea. I do think the “Potter” movies are mediocre, at best, as movies. My favorite is POA, and that may be because Cuaron took some risks with the material. (Also, before HBP and DH were published, POA was my least favorite of the books, so I didn’t mind the changes!)

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