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.