Adaptations of books need to change the source material on the journey to the big screen. That should be a given, and a page by page carbon copy just isn’t likely to work. After all, cinema is an entirely different medium to literature, and an entirely different way to tell the story.
Yet sometimes, changes are made to the source material that seem, well, really quite wrong. Here are some significant examples…
SPOILERS LIE AHEAD FROM THIS POINT
Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince
In the sixth Harry Potter story, Harry starts to become more of Dumbledore’s equal rather than his student. After a terrifying and extremely dangerous outing, their relief at returning back to the school is short-lived. The dementors are coming for Dumbledore, and for the head of Hogwarts, it’s not going to end well.
JK Rowling, on the page, made the death of this superb character absolutely heartbreaking. We were all left watching events unfold with just as much shock as poor Harry. Harry had been bewitched to stay silent by a quick-thinking Dumbledore and hidden under his own invisibility cloak. He literally can do nothing as Dumbledore’s demise approaches, unable to move or speak. He can only watch.
For the film though, an absurd amendment was made.
Here, Dumbledore tells Harry to hide, Snape sees him and tells him to keep quiet. And that’s not a great start: when did Harry ever listen to Snape? But it means that Harry just stands there watching as they taunt and ultimately kill his mentor and friend.
After five films getting to know Harry Potter, it’s a ridiculous change of character. The Harry Potter we know would have run out to try and help, even knowing it was tantamount to a suicide mission.
Rowling knew this and gave him no option in her book. Why the filmmakers decided to alter it remains a mystery.
My Sister’s Keeper
Just the mention of this particular adaptation fills me with rage. To this day, it’s the only film I have been compelled to actually complain to the author about (before I discovered just how little influence the authors tend to have on their adaptations).
Some stories are defined by their ending. There may be a huge build-up, great pacing and intriguing characters, but whether or not the story is actually one you’ll remember in future is so often down to what the characters do in the end. Are they obvious and disappointing? Or do they surprise you?
Jodi Picoult’s novel threw a massive surprise at her readers who had spent the whole book dealing with the imminent loss of a very sick girl as her younger sister fought her parents in court for the rights to her own body. She wanted to choose whether or not she would help her sister with further treatment. She didn’t just want to be used for her parts.
So when Picoult killed the healthy sister and saved the sick one, her fans were sent into a spiral of shock and awe. It was so heartbreaking and poetic and not at all what we were expecting.
Then came the film.
Despite Picoult’s protestations, the sick kid died, the healthy one lived and they all came to terms with it. No surprises. A straightforward weepy about a terminally sick child and the struggles of her and her family. Basically, it was an afternoon special. Sad, of course, and full of emotion and drama but completely lacking the brilliance of the original, taking away the crucial ingredient that made the story so ultimately special in the first place.
The Book Thief
Much of what makes The Book Thief such an outstanding novel is the choice of a unique narrator: Death itself.
Death tells the story of Liesel, and hers is a beautiful and lovely, tragic and emotional one. Markus Zusak’s novel wasn’t scared to bring tragedy to her door, and it also tried to find the love and humour in amongst the carnage.
One of the most upsetting moments in the book comes near the end, when Liesel discovers she is the only survivor after a bomb destroys most of her street, killing her foster parents and best friend. She is entirely alone and it’s an incredibly moving moment for Liesel as she flutters there in the remnants of her street, trying to process what is happening and what she could possibly do next.
For the film, she gets to say goodbye to her friend – a courtesy she is never afforded in the book. In what appears to be a ploy to really pull at the heart strings of the audience, this notion that something more is needed seems really patronising, especially when you consider the story is riddled with heartache.
It’s set in World War II. The child starts the story by being shipped off to foster parents because her mother doesn’t want her. She befriends a Jewish person, who people are trying to hunt down and kill. She has to play along with the pretence that she is totally fine with the Nazi rule or else risk putting him in danger.
I mean really, how much sadness do we really need to add? Not even Geoffrey Rush could remove the bitter taste that amendment left in the mouth.
Tom Cruise may come in for a fair amount of stick, but he’s a consistent Hollywood leading man, and has headlined many an impressive action thriller.
Even after a couple of years though, a question still remains: why, Tom Cruise, did you have to play Jack Reacher? If you wanted to do another action film (something you’re clearly good at), I’m pretty sure there was a scriptwriter out there who could have written one for you.
If you wanted a new Jack Reacher franchise to be launched? Well, you’re not him. As good an actor as Cruise is, he never convinced as Reacher.
There was so much potential too, so many of Lee Child’s novels to develop into great films. Yet the casting of Cruise in the lead role changed the central character. It couldn’t not. Not just in terms of his physical stature, but the edges were knocked off Reacher, and he became indistinguishable from many other action thriller lead characters. He became, basically, not Jack Reacher. No matter what qualities the eventual film had, and it really wasn’t bad (Werner Herzog steals every scene he’s in, though), it just wasn’t the character that Lee Child had brought to the page.
Bridget Jones’s Diary
Not a very geeky film, certainly, but it’s an interesting example of how a mainstream adaptation manages to knock edges off an interesting character again. Bridget Jones’s group of friends are there to keep her sane. They are vital components in her madcap life. Yet the friend who, in the book, is smart, passionate and opinionated is reduced, in the film, to little more than the four-letter words she loves so much. The book version of her cares about the world and is working hard to make it better. In the film, her answer to everything seems to be ‘fuck it.’
The entire point for Bridget is that she is so very ‘real’. She is flawed, she makes numerous errors and she is constantly trying to improve herself, despite all the many setbacks. It does this beloved character such a disservice to reduce her friends to two-dimensional stereotypes.
Of course, it is possible that this decision was made in order to make more room for Hugh Grant’s Daniel Cleaver and Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy (characters who don’t appear nearly as often in the novel) – but surely they could have found room for everyone…?