The Best times An On-Screen Adaptation Strayed From The Book

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The disappointing changes made in the on-screen adaptations from some of our favorite books have been well catalogued. But what about the times when the on-screen adaptation diverted from its source material, for the best?


In response to this post on the reasons not to worry over adaptations switching up plot points from the books, a discussion began about some of the changes that have worked well in the past, and why it was that they worked:


My favorite example of positive change in adaptation would probably be Cronenberg's version of The Fly. I really enjoy the original novella, but it is, ultimately, a slight work. The '86 film takes the basic premise, and completely reinvents the story and characters in a way that provides more depth, more engagement, and more grandeur.


As someone more or less familiar with the source material this draws from, I have been enjoying this series immensely. From new characters to gender-swapped book characters to slightly out-of-order events and teasers, it has emerged as a very strong story both adjacent and overlapping with the Hannibal Lecter written canon. This adaptation is deliberately playing with those who think they can anticipate what is coming from the books - sometimes yes, it's line-for-line, and then sometimes it uses that familiarity as a deliberate fake-out. The result is a very well-maintained sense of tension that is leading into a third season with gusto. No one has any idea where it will go next, and we still don't know if we will ever see Clarice Starling.


But often they are necessary. It is called an "adaptation" for a reason, after all. You can't just stick a book, word for word, onto screen and expect magic to happen. One great LOTR example is that I agree completely with the filmmaker's explanation behind the changes to Denethor. It may work on the page to have him say, "I wouldn't pick the ring up if I just found it on the side of the road." But after spending a film and a half so far building it up as this powerful, difficult to resist threat, to have that happen in the film would have completely neutered the power of the ring. Having Denethor be tempted, and then go on a journey where he finds a reason to resist, lets the ring keep its power in the minds of the audience, and visually dramatizes why Denethor is able to in the end not take the ring for himself. This was a good change.


The best adaption changes are the ones that elevate the areas where the source material is weak. Jaws took unlikeable, horrible book characters and made them fun. Game of Thrones doesn't introduce a new character when an existing one can fill the role, and doesn't focus a third of its running time on food porn (just, normal porn, I guess). Adaptations fail when they ignore the strengths of the book... Ender's Game failed to sell the interesting bits of the world, and the internal struggles of the main character, and blazed through Battle School to focus in on the actual war.

It's not just readers and watchers that have occasionally preferred to see an unforeseen twist emerge on-screen, sometimes even the authors themselves prefer it.

Stephen King famously liked the new ending of the on-screen version of his short story The Mist so much that he said that he wished that he'd thought of it. And he's not the only author to express similar sentiments.

Do you have any favorite on-screen plot twists that diverted from the books? What made them work? Tell us all about it in the comments.



Michael Munro


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