For as long as there has been written language, there have been books. For as long as there has been cinema, there have been movie adaptations of books. While it can be great to see the characters and events from one’s favorite novel shown on screen, some elements just don’t translate well to cinema. This is probably why we often see certain scenes changed to make for a more compelling movie. However, Hollywood being Hollywood, the writers often go far beyond the minimal changes needed to make the movie watchable and instead change key plot points of the book. Or in extreme cases, don’t even seem to read the book at all. So where is the line between creatively adapting a good book to make a good movie, and ripping off the title of a popular book to sell more theater tickets?
To find out, let’s look at some of the following movies.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Stardust movie. I saw the movie first, and I loved it so much that I went out and bought the Neil Gaiman book, figuring that if I loved the movie I was sure to love the book too. Hoo boy, was I ever surprised. The movie is a great movie in its own right (in my humble opinion), but a completely faithful adaptation of the book it is not.
Let’s start at the beginning. The book opens, as the movie does, with Dunstan Thorn hopping over the wall and having some good old-fashioned unprotected sex with a princess there. This, shockingly, results in a baby. Now, this clearly makes Una Dunstan’s one true love, so of course he dutifully waits for…nope! He marries a girl from his village for practical reasons, and several months later they both adopt his illegitimate son.
Yes, in the book Tristan has a stepmother and a stepsister too, both of which are very nice too him. Presumably the studio executives thought that this complex, realistic, and terribly unromantic story of Dunstan’s life would not go over well with movie audiences. So, Tristan’s entire stepfamily was cut, and we got Dunstan raising Tristan as a single father and eventually marrying Una.
Anyway, shortly afterwards we cut to the Stormhold royal family meeting to discuss some royal business. There can only be one king, and the sons have been calmly settling the matter of succession my murdering each other in cold blood. Because that’s how these things are done! Now, there are still four sons left, so the father resolves things by taking the Stormhold ruby and…
Not in the book. The father basically just says: “You’re overdue on your traditional familicide. Get to it!” Then the brothers spend the rest of the book killing each other off. Now, in the book as in the movie, Septimus is the last one standing, and he does still have to stick around to do one more thing before he can become king…more murder! Since Lamia (the witch) killed Primus, he is honor-bound to kill her as vengeance. Because no one gets to pick on his brother but him! “Pick on”, in this case, meaning “kill”. Rather than getting an epic final battle, Septimus gets an undignified death by snakebite when the witch pulls some epic magic BS on him.
So anyway, Tristan and Evaine arrive back in Wall and decide to get married. They get Tristan’s mother’s blessing, have a big royal wedding, and rule together for many years. And then…well, as you might have guessed by this point, the book’s not really one for fairytale happy endings. Tristan dies and Yvaine lives on, Arwen-style, ruling the kingdom as an immortal ruler for millennia.
In Eragon by Christopher Paolini, wizard duels are serious business. They are dangerous to both participants no matter how skilled. Here’s Brom’s, the dragon rider’s, explanation of how they work:
“You see, in a wizards’ duel there are strict rules that each side must observe or else both contestants will die. To begin with, no one uses magic until one of the participants gains access to the other’s mind…Seldom can people survive such a duel for more than a few seconds. The enormous amount of effort and skill required condemns anyone without the proper training to a quick death. Once you’ve progressed, I’ll start teaching you the necessary methods. In the meantime, if you ever find yourself feeing a wizards’ duel, I suggest you run away as last as you can.”
Presumably one of the producers read this, said “Bo-ring!”, and decided that instead we’d get Eragon vanishing arrows. To be fair, this makes for much more interesting cinema. The book’s version of wizard duels, on the screen, would just look like a really, really intense staring competition. However, this has the side effect of reducing magic duels with enemy wizards from a terrifying last resort into a raid boss battle.
Outside of the fight scenes, the plot is just as different. The events of the story are set by what happened before. Brom fought and killed his archenemy, the dragon rider Morzan, and took his sword, Za’Roc.
As Brom and Saphira tell us in the movie: “A rider will live on if his dragon is killed. But if a rider dies, so does his dragon.” Seems a bit unequal, doesn’t it? You’d think the dragons would be at least a bit irritated at having to babysit a human or risk instant death, while the human is in no such danger. It doesn’t make much sense, which is probably why in the books that doesn’t happen. Dragons in the books can outlive their riders just like their riders can outlive them. But apparently the movie writers felt the need to add this arbitrary human-centric rule.
In the books, this doesn’t happen. The dragons can survive the death of their rider just like the rider can survive their death. None of this human-centric nonsense. So wait– if that’s true, how does Brom defeat both a fierce dragon the size of a house and his wizard rider? According to the books, sheer badass determination. Yes, he really does that all by himself. But apparently the screenwriters couldn’t believe that even a dragon could carry Brom’s massive balls, so we got that arbitrary rule about dragon’s dying when their riders do.
Then there’s the relationship between Eragon and Arya. In the book, this is a case of unrequited love. Eragon is smitten with Arya. Arya sees him as a friend but doesn’t feel the same way. As you might have noticed by now, Hollywood isn’t big on unrequited love. Or, really, big on platonic relationships between men and women in general. So, we get a generic romance between Eragon and Arya.
2) Wizard of Earthsea
The Earthsea trilogy of novels by Ursula Le Guin is the tale of a young wizard known as Sparrowhawk who undertakes a long journey of mastering magic over several years, and eventually goes on to befriend people and save the world. The Earthsea movie is the tale of a young wizard known as Ged who kicks ass, takes on an army, falls in love with a cute priestess, and saves the world, all within the space of maybe a month.
I’ll get back to that name thing in a moment, but first I’ll start at the beginning. We open on our protagonist, Ged, playing in a field with his girlfriend. He has a girlfriend in this version, because apparently, he needed a girlfriend. He is the son of a blacksmith who has been taught magic, as in the books. Though the movie makes him brash and eager to leave his island, and he blows up at his father over it. Ged’s father in the movie, by the way, is a stereotypical old codger who groans about how Ged should stay and become a blacksmith but never really does anything. Ged’s father in the books would have smacked Ged upside the head if he’d talked to him like that.
Ged’s chance comes when an army attacks his quiet village and he uses his wizard powers to save everyone. After this he is knocked out, and the wise old mentor Ogion comes to save him. He tells him that he has exceptional power and tells him his true name, Sparrowhawk. This is where that name thing I mentioned earlier comes into play. Let me explain.
Technically the main character’s name is both Ged and Sparrowhawk. In the books everyone and everything has a true name as well as a use-name. Saying someone’s true name gives the sayer-power over them, so true names are kept secret. The main character’s use-name is Sparrowhawk, and his true name is Ged. The movie keeps this concept but reverses the names. Oh, and also true names are now this special thing that only wizards know about. Normal people in this world don’t even know the thing that gives ultimate power over them, presumably needing one of the special chosen wizard class to tell them.
So anyway, the book adds a conquering warlord plot, which wasn’t in the book at all. It also adds a romance subplot between Ged and the priestess. Now, the romance subplot was not in the book at all. The priestess was in the book…except she was half Ged’s age, since she was a little over 15 and Ged was at least 30 at the time, their meeting occurring long after Ged had already graduated from his wizard school. But apparently this wasn’t an obstacle to the screenwriters, who completely changed their ages, and the order of the plot events, so that we could have a romance.
1) Hotel for Dogs
In the book Hotel for Dogs by Lois Duncan, Liz is a girl with a stable middle-class family that is moving to a new town so her family can live with Liz’s great aunt Alice. Her dog, Bebe, is a sweet small Daschund that they left behind. In the movie Hotel for Dogs, Andi is an orphan who bounces from foster home to foster home, and scams people to buy hamburgers and feed her dog, Friday the Jack Russel terrier who she takes along with her. Very different, so obviously the name of the movie is just a coincidence…oh wait, no, they’re apparently the same characters.
Yeah, sure. While we’re at it, why not just say that Bernie Wilkins, the black social worker for Friday and Bruce, is in the book as great aunt Alice.
I could go on and on to list the differences, but it would be easier to just list the similarities. Ahem.
There is…a hotel. (Well, in the book it was just an abandoned house that was used as a sort of hotel, but close enough.) And…dogs. There’s a hotel for dogs. Hmm, there’s gotta be more right? I’m racking my brains, but nope. Other than general elements of stories like “siblings” and “antagonists”, that’s it. The extent of the similarity is in the title.
It is like, oh, I don’t know, someone was told to make a movie adaptation while being told nothing but the name. I can only imagine the conversation going something like this: “Hey cousin, we’ve acquired the rights to this book title. Make a movie out of it.” “Sure thing! Should I at least skim through the book I’m supposed to be adapting?” “Nope, don’t bother!”
What’s even weirder is how the descriptions of book now all use what are the new “official” names. Even the Goodreads description of the original novel now refers to the characters as Andi and Friday. Liz and Bebe have been downright un-personed. The Wikipedia page notes that “Andi and Friday were originally called Liz and Bebe”. As though Andi and Friday have always been their names, even though those names weren’t even heard of until years later when the movie was made, and the original author certainly didn’t come up with them.
Other film adaptations don’t do this. 101 Dalmatians freely admitted they changed the names. It’s as though the movie bears so little resemblance to the book that the writers felt the need to cover up this fact. It’s like they’re saying: “Hey! Here is the book that our film is most definitely based on, and that we certainly did NOT just take the name of to get more viewers.”
But hey— no one lies on the internet, right?
Do you have any favorite books that became strange movies? Tell Nerdbot about it in the comments!