There are few experiences more low-consequence, high-emotion, or controversy-laden than seeing a film adaptation of a popular novel. It’s naturally and essentially pregnant with anticipation. Seeing a beloved book translated into a feature film can feel like a triumph — an opportunity to experience the visual, dynamic aspects of the narrative and characters that had initially drawn love for the book out of us, and drawn us into the theater itself.
But the almost universal experience is disappointment — even anger or scorn almost directly proportional to our love for the original work. I want to suggest that we take this experience as an opportunity to reflect on the specific ways in which literature and film succeed and fail, and hold in greater appreciation precisely the things that can’t be translated.
Seeing Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen on the big screen can be thrilling, but the disappointment creeps in from the missing details and cut moments that are suddenly revealed to be inextricable from the whole. We’re catching a glimpse of the writer’s skill, and it’s precisely their skill as a writer — of this particular book — that has produced the attractive effects we enjoy. While we entered the theater expecting to see the events of “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Sound and the Fury” played out before us, we quickly encounter how small a role these “high-concept” elements of the book play in our impression and enjoyment of the whole when sundered from that whole.
This experience should point us to a deeper appreciation both for the true artistic skill which produces great, loveable books and for the real value that lies beyond the literal content of the plot. The story is only one element of any novel, and while it might be what ends up on the dust jacket, Wikipedia page, and silver screen, it’s not exchangeable with the experience of reading the original. Judge a film by how a skilled filmmaker would tell a story in film, not how it fails to recapture the book which we love. The natural disappointment literature fans experience in the theater shouldn’t be seen as something to overcome with better filmmaking or a more faithful adaptation. It should be taken as evidence of an author’s skill as a novelist and storyteller — they can inhabit their medium to such an extent that any film adaptation will fail to capture the original.
Literary classics offer countless examples of this dynamic. Many of the stories told by Sophocles or Chaucer are unoriginal — had the Internet existed when “Oedipus the King” was first performed, fans of Aeschylus and Pindar would have rioted if they expected the same experience previous versions of the story had offered.
An excellent adaptation will understand this, and know when to excel as a film, rather than as a filming of a novel.
Ross Douthat, reviewing the original “Hunger Games” movie, offers praise not for fidelity to the letter, but for virtues as a film: “‘The Hunger Games’ will inevitably be compared to the ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Twilight’ franchises, but it is better than any of those films. Even the later ‘Potter’ installments, for all their intermittent strengths, always felt more like accompaniments to the source material than complete adaptations.… ‘The Hunger Games’ is faithful to its literary source, but it stands as a complete and riveting work in its own right as well” (National Review April 16, 2012).
So don’t be disheartened when a film doesn’t live up to a beloved novel. Take it as a challenge to understand in a deeper way what inspired you to see the movie in the first place.