Thoughts

What Makes a Book-to-Movie Adaptation Unsuccessful?

Chocolat and Mortal Instruments

In a creative writing class about three months ago, we briefly talked about what makes an adaptation good or bad. I had to put into words what I hate about bad adaptations. Where do they generally go wrong? Just as there is no one formula for a great movie, there is no one formula for making a good book-to-movie or book-to-TV-series adaptation. I thought I would list certain problems that stick out to me.

General Inaccuracies

I want to see the world on screen, so I do not want to see anything that fundamentally goes against the world-building or the magic system. Changing relationships of characters can be a problem if it is not done well. Removing key events (I think they are key) bothers me. All of these aspects made me fall in love with the book(s)/story.

Stopping Character Death

I hate when characters stay alive well past their expiration date. I saw this first in True Blood when Lafayette managed to remain alive through and after Season 2 when he was dead at the start of Living Dead in Dallas (book 2) by Charlaine Harris. He was not turned into a vampire. He was dead.

This is not solely an accuracy issue. Leaving certain characters alive when they should be dead creates new character arcs which can drastically change the outcome of the story. If that character is supposed to be dead at the end of the story but is not, then a future is created that they can act on.

Changing the Ending

On the subject of changing the story, I hate it when the ending is drastically changed. This has happened in True Blood (because of other character arcs and changed circumstances) and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Plot lines are thought out carefully by the authors, and it disrespects the story, which is represented on screen, to entirely change that.

Changing the Villain

The problem with The Wizard of Oz and The Young Messiah is that they aggrandize the villains. In The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West appears shortly after Dorothy drops in to Munchkinland. In the book, the Wicked Witch of the West becomes a villain only when the Wizard tasks Dorothy and her friends with killing the witch.

The Young Messiah goes further by adding Satan as a prominent villain when he is not a character in Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. This character changed the feel of the movie, and it changed some characters’ motives. Throwing in a villain who did not exist in the book changed the plot, themes and the messages the book presents.

Changing the villain changes the plot and themes of the story. It can also change the characters. It changes the magic that I fell in love with in the book.


These problems are problems because they emphasize different aspects or themes. For me, I want to see the book represented on screen. Deviating too much from that book makes it a terrible representation.

I think the problems I listed were created because the filmmakers or the producers believed that the target audience would like these elements more than what the book offered. Maybe some changes are necessary because they cannot be produced on screen well, but I try to account for that when I compare the adaptation to its source. Even knowing that may not change my opinion of movie.

What makes a book-to-movie adaptation unsuccessful to you? What makes it a terrible representation of the book?

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7 thoughts on “What Makes a Book-to-Movie Adaptation Unsuccessful?

  1. This is interesting! I get annoyed when the movie’s plot strays too far from the book. The actors are also important. Sometimes an actor just doesn’t match the character in my mind. For me, the characters in the movie need to be very similar to the characters in the book.

    1. I agree totally on the plot. That’s why I stopped watching True Blood.

      I’ve never thought about how an actor contributes to the portrayal of a character, yet I’ve been upset when the actors for a character changed. I know people complain about the actors not looking like the characters, like Annabeth from Percy Jackson and Tonks from Harry Potter. Now that I think about he actor not fitting the character, that is one of my major complaints about the Shadowhunters on Freeform. I don’t care for how the actors play the main characters because they made the characters very different from what I read in the books.

  2. For me it’s the characters and the plot – when the characters don’t look or act as I always imagined them to, when the storyline has changed so much it’s unrecognisable from the book I love. I love it when the story is true. I accept there are things that cannot be filmed but there are certain aspects of a story, of a character that are the building blocks, the dna of who and what they are and when that gets changed… ruin!

    1. Most stories are about the characters, so changing them ultimately changes the story. Besides that, we’re attached to the characters as they are. When movie makers change that – heartbreaking!

  3. I think a lot of times TV adaptations stray more from the books than movies do. TV shows usually start out mapping to the books well, but things like keeping around major characters happen because an actor really clicks with the audience. I can understand why this happens, but I can also see why it frustrates some diehard fans of the books.

    1. For TV adaptations, I’ve heard both that they show more of the book and that they are inaccurate. I tend to pick out more errors in a TV adaptation because there’s more room to change the story line and add more elements. If it’s based on a book series and I only managed to read one book, I can end up loving the TV series beyond season one. Maybe it’s only about how much of a fan you are to make someone find more fault with a show.

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