Book to movie adaptations can be a point of contention for fans. We’ve all heard the lukewarm take, “The movie was fine, but the book was better.” When a book or story is re-imagined for the screen, one of the biggest complaints is that the filmmakers took too many liberties and left out too much information or changed it too much from the source material.
While a book can take days or weeks to read, a film usually runs less than two hours, so things are bound to be altered for the sake of continuity within the run-time. The medium of a film also has its limits, and honoring the imaginations of each reader and shaping the movies to match up with every interpretation is also impossible for a filmmaker.
Interestingly, though, as the Chicago School of Media Theory explains, modern adaptation theory has “moved beyond the unidirectional movement of literature to film.” Instead, “a text can not only survive the shift from one form to another, but it can also thrive in ways not previously possible in the original form.”
Based on the different approaches to adaptation used in the film industry, we’ve put together some of the best book to movie adaptations of the 21st-century. We spotlight films that re-imagine the source material in ways that keep the story at the forefront while also exploring the potential of the silver screen.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (2020)
Released in 2020, Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation was met with head-scratching as well as praise. The book it’s based on, written by Iain Reid, was published in 2016 and had similarly received much of the same reactions.
The story is about a young woman named Lucy meeting her boyfriend’s parents while also considering ending their relationship. The premise of this story is a simple one that quickly spins out of control. In the book, each chapter is followed by a scene of dialogue between two unknown people about a third unknown dead person. Everything comes to a head during the final chapter, wherein the disorienting coincidences of the preceding chapters and dialogical vignettes assemble into a disturbing finale – most of which occurs inside Lucy’s head.
Adapting such a story, wherein many of the plot elements are internal to the protagonist’s mind, is understandably a daunting task on film. Kaufman solved this issue by replacing the book’s dialogue breaks with scenes of a janitor working at a school; these scenes are still seemingly unrelated to the main story but eventually serve the same effect toward the finale.
And what a finale! Rather than spelling things out for the audience the way the book does, Kaufman does the opposite. He places all of the clues in front of the viewers and then invites them to do the work of connecting them with a final scene that is surreal above all else.
Kaufman explained to IndieWire, “I’ve found that I’m most successful with adaptations when I allow myself to take it and do with it whatever makes sense to me. […] If I don’t allow that to happen, then I end up with something that feels dead to me.”
If you read and enjoyed the book “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” then you’re still likely to find something worth appreciating in the film, and vice versa for those who loved watching the movie.
Based on the Haruki Murakami story “Barn Burning,” which takes its own title from a William Faulkner story, this South Korean film shows how to build on a smaller story to form a feature screenplay. When making book to movie adaptations, filmmakers usually have to pare down the source material they use. However, “Barn Burning” is just not long enough to pare down and requires some additions to be fit for a major motion picture.
Both the short story and the movie follow a young man who, through a friend, meets someone with an unusual hobby. This hobby involves burning down old barns, which seems to be a pathological need for the arsonist at hand.
While Murakami’s story gives just enough detail to keep the reader’s interest alongside many diverse turns of interpretation, the movie leans strongly into some of the darker implications of the text. The film’s plot also presents as slightly more straightforward.
The ending of the short story was ambiguous. The film’s ending is equally mysterious; however, its disorientation comes more from stylistic choices than a lack of content. Famed critic Roger Ebert even gave the movie four stars, which is a feat in and of itself.
“Look Who’s Back” (2015)
Not for the faint of heart, “Look Who’s Back” is a dark comedy about what would happen if Adolf Hitler woke up in contemporary Germany.
The book is pretty straightforward. It explores the question of whether or not the world has progressed all that much sociopolitically or whether people are still susceptible to the rhetoric of dangerous demagogues. But, in a funny way.
The movie plays with the same idea, even lifting the initial premise and some of the dialogue directly from the book’s pages. However, the film also uses two unique techniques to drive home what the novel couldn’t. The film features some real-life interactions between Germans and “Hitler,” and the original book itself also becomes a part of the film’s plot. It’s all a little bit meta.
The movie that gave kids nightmares – LAIKA Studios’ first movie, “Coraline” – is also the first-ever feature length movie made using replacement faces printed on a 3D printer. Its stop-motion elements add to its creep factor.
“Coraline” is adapted from the book of the same name by Neil Gaiman. The story is about an adventurous girl who feels ignored by those around her. Then, she discovers a door in her new apartment that leads to a world just like hers, only better. And this Other World is complete with Other Parents. Soon, however, it becomes clear that not everything is as it seems in this Other World, and Coraline’s real life begins to suffer under the desires of her Other Mother.
Through stop-motion, the filmmakers were able to make the Other World a carnival-like illusory setting dark in its magic. The aesthetics of the film are also iconic, especially their signature button-eyes and the Other Mother’s startling physical transformation.
In the book, certain plot elements happen in a different order. For instance, Coraline finds the stone she uses to “see through” the Other World earlier in the book than the character does in the film. Moreover, Wybie is a character entirely invented by the adaptation’s screenwriters and does not appear in the book.
Another short story to movie adaptation, “Arrival” is about aliens who visit earth. On the surface, this is a simple story based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” However, an interesting part of both the story and the film is the chronology; the order of events is influenced by the alien visitors’ way of life.
Both film and book also feature essentially the same plot: the military recruits a linguist to communicate with the aliens who have “arrived” on earth. However, the movie is more invested in the linguist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), than the book seems to be.
Compellingly, though, they each feature the same loose beginning and ending and use Louise’s voice and mindset to center the plot. However, depicting the film’s visual alien language makes for a stunning piece of cinema.
With an impressive 97% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, the bear in the British children’s film “Paddington” has stolen the hearts of many. And its sequel, aptly named “Paddington 2,” performed even better among audiences.
Adapting a children’s picture book into a feature-length film presents its own issues as far as translating the illustrations into animation. Moreover, children’s books are usually relatively short. And the “Paddington” books have continued to be published since the 1950s, with new books still coming out. The source material has been loved across multiple generations.
In the film, Paddington’s back story as a bear from Darkest, Peru, who finds himself in London is taken right from the first book. So are his mannerisms, signature outfit and penchant for marmalade sandwiches. The film’s Brown family, too, adopt Paddington from Paddington Station.
However, many of the movie’s other elements are invented to complicate the plot enough for a feature-length movie. Either way, this beloved character continues to win hearts on the page and on screen.
Whether you consider yourself a bookworm or not, these book to movie adaptations from the 2000s are worth a watch or two. They are good films in their own right, and book-lovers likely won’t be upset with how well-rendered they are despite any changes or shifts made from the source material. And hey, if you like the movie, maybe try giving the book a whirl if you haven’t already.
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