Popular books and video games, especially franchises, are commonly adapted into movie versions. Books include Harry Potter, Twilight, and the new Jack Reacher film. Video games include Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, and Resident Evil. There are many, many more.
Sometimes the movies are considered good but more often the adaptations are not as popular as the book or game the movie is based on. Here’s why:
In the movie-making industry, there is a general belief that movies are the highest form of art. This belief is rarely stated out loud but many surely hold this view and that’s where I believe most movie adaptations fall flat.
Because this is no longer true. It probably was once, but this is no longer the case.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When consumers are given a choice of mediums only one will be considered canon.
Video games that provide the player with only 10 or 20 hours of entertainment are considered short. Role-playing games (RPGs) are expected to contain 40 to 60 hours of gameplay. Other genres vary, but all contain enough content for many hours of entertainment. In comparison, most movies come in at a paltry 2 hours of running time and thus simply can’t compete with other forms of a given story for dominance.
One of the reason popular books and movies get adapted in the first place is that they have a built-in fanbase. In short the fans become the first set of movie-goers but they always expect to see their beloved story dramatized on the big screen. In the case of video games, which are already in a visual format, there is simply so much more content, so much more depth, that any movie will always feel small or rushed in comparison. Additionally in the case of books, the reader’s imagination is employed to visualize the story which is inherently personal and subjective. More often than not, the high expectations of the fanbase (which grew up around the original format for the story) are not met. In some instances, they are dashed to pieces. Unfortunately for Hollywood, the highest form of art is a preference chosen by the consumer. Thus fans of the franchise having spent much more time with the original version of the material when faced with the choice of two competing interpretations of the same story will usually choose the first. Successful adaptations manage to sidestep this problem by keeping this a both-and scenario rather than letting it devolve into an either-or competition.
Lastly, while books are almost always linear (the Choose Your Own Adventure series is a notable exception), video games excel at creating custom stories tailored to the choices of the player which results in very non-linear stories. Movies too are purely linear (with the possible exception of 1985′s Clue which includes 3 different endings). Movies simply can’t compete with the detailed, multidimensionally-rich stories available to players of a game.
Avoiding these traps is simple. Make sure your movie isn’t trying to compete with the source material for dominance. This means the screenplay must either tell the same story (exactly matching the source material or be very, very close) or tell a side story (something that can stand alone but adds to the mythos or world of the franchise and is not required knowledge for engagement with the source material). Fans are usually not lenient of excessive creative license. And since a movie rises or falls based on the perceptions of its fanbase, it’s first viewers, it’s best to keep them happy. If they don’t like a movie, they will tell their friends to stay home.
Let’s apply this dynamic to two well-known franchises: Harry Potter and Twilight.
Which Harry Potter Movies get this Right?
The 1st through 4th Harry Potter movies get this dynamic right along with 7A. Watching these movies is essentially reading the books although book 4 is notable for being so long that a lot of details had to be left out and the plot simplified.
Movie 7B gets this dynamic wrong. Book 7 ends quite differently with all the loose ends nicely tied up. Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, decided to make changes to Rowling’s great ending in an attempt to give us something different (when what the fans wanted to see was the book’s ending). My viewing of 7B was very disappointing.
By the way, Harry Potter 5 is a special case and the primary exception to this dynamic in that the source material wasn’t conducive to the big screen. Book 5 contains a lot of introspection by Harry which is difficult to visualize so the movie strays a lot from the book. The beginning and ending are essentially the same but everything in between had to be completely restructured to be suitable for a movie. (This movie also breaks continuity when the walls to the Room of Requirement are destroyed, an event that does not happen in the books and is depicted as being impossible. That room remaining intact is in fact required for book 7 so lots of problems here.)
Harry Potter 6 was, in my opinion, another exception to this dynamic. I think the movie was an improvement over the book version which I felt wandered a bit. In the movie version of book 6, the sides and stakes are made much clearer than in the book.
Which Twilight Movies get this Right?
Twilight 1 is like Harry Potter 6. The existing content from the book was restructured to make a much stronger story.
Twilight movies 2, 3, and 4A essentially get the dynamic right and provide the movie version of the same story from the books without too much creative license.
Twilight movie 4B, however, pulls a fast one. The movie breaks continuity by putting us into the mind of the villain as he watches the future unfold from touching Alice. This is a neat visual trick but like Harry Potter 7B it is played for the shock value of offering something different. The chapters in the book corresponding to the final battle are highly introspective on the part of Bella (like Harry Potter 5) making this perhaps the best choice. I think they get away with it even though it breaks continuity regarding Alice’s gift.
Meet the expectations of your fans by telling them the story they already love. If this isn’t possible, craft a completely new story to supplement the source material. The fans will love you for expanding their story universe and your movie will be popular because it will be the only place they can get this new content.