A few months back, I came across the trailer for the then up-coming movie, Knock at the Cabin. The mystery and tension throughout the trailer grabbed me. I knew I found a story I wanted to hear told. As the video came to an end, I immediately Googled if the movie was based on a book. A few clicks later, I discovered the existence of Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World. Click, click, purchase.
This is not an uncommon phenomenon for me. So many times a trailer for a movie or series catches my interest, and I soon find myself adding a book to my shopping cart of wishlist. While I don’t remain 100% true to this rule, I do prefer to read a book before I see the adaptation of it. My wife, Confetti, accepts it, but she doesn’t always love it. There are many shows we still haven’t seen because the book is sitting in my to-be-read pile or saved in my head-list of I-want-to-reads. (Sorry, To All the Boys I’ve Ever Loved)
So, back to The Cabin at the End of the World/Knock at the Cabin. I read the book and loved it. Five stars on goodreads. Then, I watched the movie when it became available on Peacock shortly after my completion of the novel. That was a much less pleasurable experience. While there were glimmers of good and some of the actors delivered (looking at you Dave Bautista), the movie underwhelmed and fell flat.
Place Knock at the Cabin alongside Ready Player One, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and a host of other films that just didn’t live up to their literary counterparts. Score another one for “the book is always better than the movie!”
But is that true? Is the book actually always better than the movie? That’s going to a matter of opinion, but there is nothing that says the movie has to be bad.
The list of books adapted into movies and television shows is ever growing. Add in the adaptations of video games, comics, etc. and the number expands a crazy amount. Their quality can vary greatly.
So, I ask myself what makes a good adaptation from page to screen (or from any medium to another)?
There are a million factors to consider when putting together an adaptation, including casting, additions and cuts to the source material, length, relevance to today’s society, etc. All of these equal changes that can rub people the wrong way. I know it’s controversial, but I don’t think changes to the source material have to be viewed as bad.
I remember as a kid bemoaning how movies and shows didn’t match my books perfectly. The Goosebumps tv show did it wrong! Why would they cut that scene from the Harry Potter movies? That’s not how it happened!
The reality is that books and movies/series are entirely different beasts. While they’re both ways to tell stories, the mediums simply don’t work the same. Changes are going to happen and they need to happen. A book has the opportunity to go into much more detail and delve deeper into characters’ thoughts than a movie ever will. Movies have a visual aspect and sense of spectacle they can lean into. They work differently, so they need to be made differently.
Stephen King’s works have been adapted again and again. Some are great and some are bad, but I can’t help but think back to The Mist. Originally a short story, it was adapted into a 2007 film. I really liked the story and while watching the movie, I recognized dialogue that sounded word for word like what I just read. The problem was that in the book, the dialogue seemed fine. Actually being spoken, it came off as clunky and unnatural, just not how people actually talk. Adjustments needed to be made, and some were!
The ending to The Mist film and stories are different, and in my opinion, the movie did a much better job. It took an open ended finish and turned it into a gut punching tragedy. Score one for the movie (kinda, the dialogue still needed tweaking). Changes can be good or bad. Sometimes things need to be updated to fit modern storytelling and other times to fit modern sensibilities (It’s probably good that It took out the child orgy).
While it may not guarantee a great adaptations there are four questions that should be asked:
Was the Message Preserved?
One of the things that frustrates me the most is when an adaption misses the entire point of the original.
Knock at the Cabin changed the ending of the story and along the way lost the message. Instead of being about a family making a choice when faced with the unknown, it became about a family’s willingness to make a sacrifice against an obvious problem. The stakes and tension become completely different when the apocalypse is a known factor.
I’m also forced to think about movies like The Silver Lining Playbook or Paper Towns. Both are stories about main characters who need to get past their own issues to realize who they can be and to embrace the support system they failed to realize is around them. The Silver Lining Playbook movie changed the main character’s family into actual jerks, instead of perceived ones. Can’t escape your delusion of no one being on your side, when your family is actually against you. Meanwhile, in Paper Towns, the main character picks the girl he obsesses over his true friends. These might make for more “romantic” movies, but they miss the entire point of the novels.
Did You Hit the Right Tone?
Creativity is great and sometimes fantastic art comes out of subverting the expected. Sometimes though, you simply get the tone wrong and provide an unsatisfying experience.
I see this a lot with reboots. This was a great comedy or children’s show, but now it’s an edgy drama. Again, it can work, but sometimes you end up with something that’s just going to be a big turn off to those who came in wanting to love what was on offer.
Did the Story Remain In Tack?
I always find it strange when known names are used for movies or shows that have almost nothing to do with the source material. For example, He’s Just Not That Into You was a pretty good movie about a bunch of couples dealing with the ups and downs of relationships. When I looked into the book it was based on, it turns out it was based on a nonfiction self-help book. That’s not too bad because there wasn’t much story to mess up.
But what about the novels that are completely flipped on their heads? Let It Snow is a collection of three interconnected stories set in the same town. The movie version drops most of the important plot and characterization and just does whatever. Take the small town boy who can’t get over his ex and suddenly he’s an international music star whose tour is coming through town. Huh? Why?
Invincible on Amazon Prime does a good job of making some changes and altering the pacing of events, but still sticking close enough to the source material that watching the show feels like getting to relive the joy of reading the original comics.
If changes are going to be made to the story, creators should ask themselves again about message and tone. Deliver on those and hopefully audiences can be more forgiving.
The 2019 movie version of Pet Semetary is an excellent example of good changes. The movie opens with an aerial shot of the aftermath of the movie’s events before jumping back to the start of the story. As someone who just read the book, I recognized the scene and thought I knew how we’d get there. Nope, the movie played with my expectations and found new ways to hit familiar notes. I appreciated the acknowledgement of the source material but with a hint of originality to keep things fresh.
Was This Worthwhile?
The original Pyscho is a great movie. In the 1990s they made an almost shot-for-shot, line-for-line remake of the Hitchcock film, even using a lot of the same camera work. It didn’t do well. Why remake something if you’re not going to really remake it?
While the purpose can simply be to share a story with a new audience, we should hope an adaptation is more than just a money grab or a hollow retelling. It should provide something new for an audience to sink their teeth into.
The original High fidelity movie did a great job of capturing the magic of the book. The recent Hulu remake told the same story but flipped the gender of the main character. Same story, same messages, same tone but with something worthwhile and fresh for audiences.
Does this sound like it sort of clashes with some of my earlier points. Probably because it does. Turns out making a good adaptation is hard. Yay different mediums! Yay lots of different expectations!
Bonus Lightning Round! (for audiences of adaptations):
How much do I care?
Bear Town is one of my all-time favorite novels. Recently, I saw HBOMax had a series based on the book, and I got super excited, before immediately telling myself “no.” I probably like the book too much to ever truly enjoy an adaptation of it. Why force disappointment on myself?
That’s not to say people should avoid adaptations of things they like. I watch those all the time. We just need to set realistic expectations. If we already hold something near and dear to our hearts, a new version probably won’t hit quite the same (see sequels too).
How much should I care?
No specifics here. Don’t get caught up in the little details because if you do, you’ll drive yourself crazy.
Do I want to see that?
I really enjoyed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as a novel. However, when a movie came out, I knew I should skip it. Reading about torture, inhumane treatment, and rape of a woman can be hard enough, but seeing it visually depicted definitely felt like too much for me. That was a choice I had to make for myself and couldn’t hold the movie responsible for doing for me. (It’s the same reason Confetti purposely avoids horror movies and anything where she knows an animal will be hurt).
What came first?
I hate to admit it, but sometimes the “better” version simply comes down to what you saw first. It’s why I hold up the movie versions of I am Legend and Stardust over the books, or feel like inclined to check out the books of movies I’ve already seen. Sometimes what we know becomes what we like. There’s a reason so many younger people really like the Star Wars prequels, and why so many people’s favorite live action Spider-Man aligns with the one that came during their formative years.
THE WRAP UP:
Read books. Watch movies. Enjoy them both, but know I’ll probably be reading the book first.