Film Adaptations and Their Source Material, How Faithful Should They Be?

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised so many Harry Potter fans are banging down doors complaining about how Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince isn’t a page-by-page faithful adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s book. A couple of the comments registered on my review read as follows:

“Poor adaptation came across as a sickly romance/comedy rather than a suspense thriller. The only thing that saved this film is the acting.” ~ Kassey Colton

“It was nothing like the book and I don’t think there is a way for the seventh one to be saved.” ~ Carousel Girl

However, this snippet from “Anonymous’ Friend” went off on a four-paragraph diatribe saying, “This movie is a horrible depiction of the book as well as a very anti-climactic movie. Yates and Kloves made too many cuts as to the nature of the plot and added pointless scenes as described above. I was deeply disappointed and don’t expect much for the final installments of the series, which I have read at least 6 times.”

Six times? Well of course you aren’t going to be happy. At that point nothing will make you happy. Anonymous’ Friend then took it to the next level starting their next paragraph saying, “On another note, I do not believe that Dumbledore is gay.” Not sure what this has to do with anything related to Half-Blood Prince, but these are the details superfans concentrate on, and when someone messes with their franchise they take it personally — even if it means taking on the author. This is the nature of fandom, and it’s a fanbase that appears to be extremely hard to please. When it comes to the Harry Potter films I have a hard time believing someone like “Anonymous’ Friend” could be happy with any of the films released so far. None of them have stuck strictly to the narrative.

However, I use this merely as a recent example and a jumping off point. An endless number of books have been adapted into feature films and I can’t say there’s ever been one I have seen that was able to stick strictly to the book’s narrative. Whenever I ask people if there is a film adaptation of a book that managed to exceed the written word they most often point to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I have only read “The Hobbit” and never picked up “LOTR” so I can’t say, but it seems to be a popular answer.

The best example for myself concerning the subject would be Stephen King as I have long been a rabid fan of his works, but have rarely been impressed with the films adapted from his horror tomes. Of course we have seen the fantastic Shawshank Redemption and the decent adaptation of The Green Mile and The Running Man, but when it comes to horror films from the “Master of Horror” a lot is left to be desired. I’m not sure if people would say Carrie or The Shining are the best horrors based on a King novel, but I can tell you this, The Shining is not the book King wrote.

But I would say there is a difference between adaptations of Stephen King’s horror novels and something like Harry Potter, since most people tend to agree on the quality of the bad King adaptations, but when it comes to Potter the films enjoy massive success and critical favor. If it was more than just the die-hard Potter fans complaining about Half-Blood Prince it would make sense, but the film is one of the best reviewed of the franchise, but those reviews are looking at the movie as a movie, not as a filmed adaptation.

Most of the comments I see around the web seem to look at the film and say it’s a bad adaptation of the novel and begin citing things that are left out. Is it the filmmaker’s job to make sure every aspect of the novel is in the film or to simply make sure they are telling an entertaining story?

Earlier this year we saw an extremely faithful adaptation of “Watchmen” and it suffered for it, with many people (myself included) citing Snyder’s film as almost too faithful in such a way that it prevented him from realizing what was important and what was unnecessary. I have since watched the film again and found other factors that weigh more heavily on the film’s problems, but there’s no doubt the film lacks a satisfying narrative flow as a result of its dedication to the graphic novel.

Moving on, how about when we watch a movie and find things wrong with it that the book got right? One example for me would be last year’s award season contender Revolutionary Road, a film I felt forgot it needed to rely on its supporting characters for more than just moments of indiscretion and outbursts and paint them as actual characters. The novel by Richard Yates did this, the film did not and in my opinion suffered for it.

However, looking at a filmed adaptation this way is different than it appears the Potter fans are looking at Half-Blood Prince. I am not saying Revolutionary Road had to deal with the supporting characters the same way Yates did in his book. I am saying I wish it had dealt with them more… period. The supporting characters in that story gave the audience another way of connecting to the leads played by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio and without that connection a facet of the story was lost.

I am sure some will say my argument is no different than the one posted by Potter fans, and that’s fine, it’s a difference of opinion, but it’s a fascinating question nonetheless. How faithful should filmmakers be to their source material? Do they owe the legions of readers that made a story popular in the first place or do they simply owe the greater population to tell what they believe is the best adaptation of that story?

I’m not saying anything revelatory here when I say film is not the same as paper and to adapt a book exactly is virtually impossible. A scene in a book can be written to take up to five hours, but to show the same thing in a movie for more than five minutes could topple the entire picture. Subtleties written on the page can linger in a reader’s head for days while on screen they can come off as forced character traits that become laughable rather than necessary to a character’s personality. Adapting a book into a film is tricky work and a lot of the time changes must be made or you are going to lose your entire audience as opposed to just the fanatics.

What do you think? What are your favorite and least favorite film adaptations? Do you think a film owes the readers and should filmmakers stay as close to the source material as possible? Or do you go into a movie fresh, expecting a whole new experience each time only to be pleasantly satisfied when something you remember from the book is accurately represented on the big screen?