What Makes a Quality Film Adaptation?

Posted by Julia Adams on 7/13/22 4:47 PM

Great Literature in Film

**Note** Patrick Henry College does not officially endorse the following movie selections or the worldviews they represent.

When a film adaptation of a classic book arrives in theaters, people go to see it with their own idea of what the characters should look like, how they should behave, and what the setting should look like. However, many in the audience are disappointed.  While seeming to approve on the outside, your mind is racing with constant critiques of the stature of the protagonist, the visual representations of characters, the costuming, or even the reactions portrayed on the screen.

It can be difficult to balance the reality of your own imagination against the director’s creative license. Many struggle to keep the movie separate from the book, but it is important to do so to enjoy the cinematic experience. Dr. Cory Grewell, Professor of Literature, has some recommendations for good movie adaptations but also offers some principles to help you see the literary and creative value in those film adaptations.

What makes a quality adaptation? According to Grewell, a quality adaptation stands on its own. The film must depend on the book enough to claim the status of "adaptation,” while the director takes creative liberties to make his mark in the world of film.

For quality adaptations, Grewell recommends The Maltese Falcon, Lonesome DoveO Brother Where Art Thou?, Apocalypse Now, and The Lord of the Rings.

In Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, Grewell thinks that Jackson had “the story in his back pocket... [while he] made his own work of art.” The Maltese Falcon is an excellent example of how a movie can stand on its own. The audience does not need to read the book first to understand the movie. O Brother Where Art Thou is a good adaptation of The Odyssey because it follows the main plot points, even if it is in a different culture and millennia. Apocalypse Now is an R-rated movie based on the book Heart of Darkness, which every freshman reads in Western Literature II. The story, instead of taking place in Africa, is based in Vietnam. The fight against wild Africa continues to permeate throughout the plot, upholding the integrity of the book. 

There are cases where actions in a book would not make sense to a modern audience. Grewell used Love’s Labour’s Lost, a Shakespeare play brought to the big screen by Kenneth Branagh, as an example of this. In the play, the characters create bad sonnets when they find themselves falling in love. To an untuned ear or even a modern audience, the playwriter’s point is lost. Instead, Branagh made the characters sing show tunes, which are generally regarded as passe, sappy and silly, making the audience cringe, which was Shakespeare’s original point.

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While directors should maintain some accountability to the overall plot, it is possible for a film to create what Grewell calls “imaginative dissonance” which makes it difficult for viewers to see the film as even following the original book.

The film adaptation of the Jack Reacher novels, featuring Tom Cruise as the title character, is an example of such "imaginative dissonance." According to Grewell, many in the audience left the theaters unsatisfied with the movie version of Reacher. Reacher is a big Marine, and Tom Cruise is not. While they tried various angles to make a visual allusion, it was not enough.

Grewell's  “Hermeneutics of Generosity"

For those who find it difficult to enjoy a film when there is imaginative dissonance or when the adaptation does not follow the plot exactly, Grewell suggested employing the concept he calls "Hermeneutics of Generosity." 

To truly enjoy an adaptation of a film, you need to accept the film on its own terms. Try to avoid comparing it to the book. There is dynamic meaning (the perceived meaning from the reader’s perspective) and an imaginative reality (the reality the imagination constructs based on what the mind’s eye sees) that cannot be satisfied completely.

Grewell pointed out that each character has an existence that cannot be ignored. For example, when an author is writing a story and hits the backspace button saying, “No, that character wouldn’t do that,” he encounters such a reality. How does the author know what the character which he created, would or would not do? With the physical manifestation of the character on each page comes an assumption of the general path the character would take.

This concept in literature applies to film. Each person who plays a part in the production of a film has his own imaginative reality. It’s like having “more cooks involved in the soup,” said Grewell. Now, instead of having a writer, editor, publisher, and reader, there are actors, directors, screenplay writers, costume designers, and more, not including the viewer. In other words, it’s a transaction between parties, and sometimes the transaction on paper does not look the same in digital form.

Still, if it’s a quality adaptation, watching your favorite character come alive on the big screen is a wonderful experience.


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