I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how difficult it can be to translate books onto the screen. These reflections have been sparked mostly because last week, one of my recent favorite young adult book series was released in theatres. You guessed it: The Hunger Games
. I know. By now, it’s a dead horse. But as I left the movie theater feeling dissatisfied, I tried to pinpoint why
I was having such a hard time going crazy about the adaptation they put on screen.
I read the Hunger Games for a few different reasons.
1) I love young adult books. This passion doesn’t even have anything to do with my job teaching young adults; I just have always loved young adult literature, and when a new series comes out that all my kids are reading, I try to check it out.** I could rattle a list of some of my favorite books ever written,*** and a number of them would be targeted at around the age of 12. I’m not going to worry too much about what this says about my intellect. That may be for another reflection.
1a) As an added bonus to part one, I have to admit: it allows me to connect with my students in a different way.I guess it’s cool or something when I can answer whether I’m Team Peeta or Team Gale (answer: at first, Team Gale, but eventually, Team Peeta won my heart).
Okay, I guess that’s only one-and-a-half reasons, but whatever. They’re good ones.
The thing that I really liked about Hunger Games was how political it was. There was a lot of exploration as to how and when a revolution starts, and what kind of message the people in power have to use to obtain their goals. Katniss is a BAMF, sure, but more than Katniss, I liked that she was part of something bigger than herself. I loved the symbolism, especially. The Games symbolize something. The mockingjay symbolizes something. But so much of that symbolism, and the protagonist’s feelings about what’s going on around her, are all internally written in the book (for those of you who haven’t read it, it’s written in a first person narrative). So when it came down to watching the movie, I felt that the adaptation neglected a lot of weighty themes that the book was much more clear about. (For a really hilarious read about someone else reading Hunger Games, I highly recommend going to this blog post. I laughed out loud so many times, and wished I were as clever.)
Considering my complaints, though, I realize that it must be so difficult to adapt a book to screen, especially books with such a following. It always helps to have the author on hand to consult, as many successful adaptations do, but sometimes that doesn’t matter, either. And to be fair, I did enjoy the Hunger Games movie mostly. I really liked the Gamemakers’ depictions, and Seneca Crane had some sweet facial hair. Also, Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman was GENIUS. Love that man.
So, below you’ll find my short list of well-adapted movies from heartily beloved books in no particular order.
Pride & Prejudice. I think for a feature length film, the recent version of P&P did a pretty good job. Not necessarily as brilliant or comprehensive as the BBC version, but hey, they only had 2 hours and had to deal with Kiera Knightley and her dumb fish mouth that she can’t manage to fully close 98% of the time.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 & 2. I’m a huge HP fan. Sirius Black’s wanted poster is hanging in my classroom. I frequently refer to the Latin in HP when I teach. The first few HP movies were pretty painful. As much as I loved Chris Columbus’ direction of Home Alone, it didn’t seem suited for Hogwarts, and the first Harry Potter film I enjoyed was Prisoner of Azkaban. But I can definitely get on board with the 2-part finale thing, so that that directors and screenwriters can cover more ground and stay truer to the books. Also, by the time they were in their early 20’s, Rupert, Emma and Daniel (yes, we’re on a first-name basis) had grown into their element. So had Neville Longbottom, but we won’t expand on that…
The Phantom Tollbooth. Amazing book. Wonderful cartoon. The end.
The Witches. Another young adult book, originally written by Roald Dahl. I saw this movie as a kid and was slightly traumatized by the fact that Anjelica Huston apparently had no toes, but eventually got over it.
Fight Club. In my Literature & Film class, Chuck Palahniuk’s frenetic and violent book was on our syllabus. The movie was already on my list of greats, despite my general avoidance of overly violent films. So this was a scenario of having seen the movie long before reading the book, and loving the movie all the same. Reading the book lent a better lens to a lot of the film, but David Fincher did an amazing job capturing the rawness of the book, as well as the little details about the characters. The casting was spot on, too. It was nice to see Helena Bonham Carter not act in a Tim Burton film for once.
To Kill A Mockingbird. This has got to be a no-brainer. Not only is this one of the greatest books ever written by an American author, who has somehow managed to remain a recluse for the past forty or so years, it is also one of the absolute greatest American films ever. In fact, in 2003, Atticus Finch was voted #1 movie hero by the American Film Institute. That restores my faith in humanity a bit. I teach parts of this book in my class, and I am always so moved by the truths the film and book both exhibit so flawlessly.
My favorite movie adaptation of all time, hands down, is A Room With A View. Anyone who knows me well knows that this is one of my top five favorite books probably ever. The fact that I was a young woman changed by experiences in Italy, just like Lucy Honeychurch was, has little bearing on this (false). The script’s dialogue stays sharp and the writing is clean. It sticks to the story. Helena Bonham Carter here is a delicate, naive young woman, and this is possibly one of Daniel Day Lewis’ best roles, as the horribly annoying and pretentious Cecil. Dame Judy Dench plays the outrageous novelist, Eleanor Lavish, who flaunts lines like, “A young girl, transfigured by Italy! And why shouldn’t she be transfigured? It happened to the Goths!” And Maggie Smith, doing her best prudish chaperone impressions. So. Good.
**For the record, I highly recommend the Percy Jackson series.
***The Phantom Tollbooth and The Westing Game will forever be two of the greatest books ever written. Period.