Harry Potter and the case for enjoying film adaptations

How many times have you watched a film adaptation of a favourite book, only to find yourself screaming, “No - wrong, wrong, WRONG!” when the film omits an important passage from the source text or adds new material? For a long time, I found myself in that position. Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – all these movies make huge changes in their representation of the books.

Recently, however, I’ve adopted a new outlook on film adaptations. I’m now convinced that films can be based on books, but they shouldn’t be held in comparison to them – the two mediums are too different. Read on to find out why I’ve started to think this way, and why it’s helped me enjoy movies more...

Name a book, then Google the inevitable film version. Nine times out of ten, the predominant criticism will be, “Wasn’t enough like the book!” or “Changed way too much stuff.” I can understand why people get out of sorts about this: if you’re a fan of a book, you’ve spent a lot of time with the characters, the story, the universe of the book – and this is amplified if the book is part of a series like Potter or Steven King’s The Dark Tower (a series whose adaptations were recently put into jeopardy).

Then, you watch the resulting adaptation and what you see on the screen does not match up with the little “film” that was playing in your head while you read the book. For many people, this is tantamount to the filmmakers stomping over everything you love about the original text; “How dare they?!” you may exclaim.

I’m here to tell you that you may be overreacting. The way I look at it, films and books are too inherently different in form for adaptations to do full justice to the books they’re based on – so let’s accept it and move on. Sure, some adaptations can approach the overall feel of the book (some do come really close), but film is a visual medium. Movies consist of precisely-chosen shots arranged in sequences and scenes to tell a story.

Those shots were selected by the director and cinematographer based on how they envision the story, and on how they want to represent the book, not to mention the financial and organizational realities of the film production. Unless you’re the one picking the shots, the film will never completely match how you saw the story unfold. It’s difficult for a filmmaker to even convey the book as they pictured in their head, let alone the “mental movies” of the author and of the millions of readers.

Two of the biggest “faults” made by the filmmakers in the eyes of the fans are omissions and additions. By this I mean those elements of the book that were taken away, and those new bits the filmmakers inserted. An often-quoted excuse for leaving parts of the book out of the film is, “If you left it all in, the movie would be 5 hours long!” That’s true, but why? Well, the ratio of words in a book to movie runtime is an unbalanced one.

A couple of chapters can add thirty minutes to the length, due to the sheer amount of images that many authors can cram into one section of text, whether it’s environmental description, dialogue or action. If you’re making a movie, by the time each of those textual images gets a corresponding shot (generally 2-5 seconds but maybe longer), you have hours and hours of footage on your hands – something has to be cut.

Maybe you’re saying, “Okay, I can accept that certain bits won’t make it in. But why do they have to add stuff that was never in the book?” That one’s trickier to answer, because it depends on the source text and on the creative team responsible for the film. Many times, whole chapters need to be left out of an adapted screenplay for the sake of running time, but maybe there was one linking narrative action in those chapters that’s needed to keep the story together.  That link still needs to make it into the film. What's a screenwriter to do?

They're going to have to come up with plausible additions to make up for the excised pieces of the book, so the story of the film retains its narrative flow. Whether or not a viewer can accept those additions is dependent on whether the addition makes sense to the story and to the film as a whole, and (I think this is the most important thing) the attitude of the viewer.

I first started thinking this way after I read the three Jason Bourne books by Robert Ludlum (I haven’t started the ones by Eric Van Lustbader yet, but I will). I read those books after watching the recent film adaptations starring Matt Damon, and after becoming a fervent fan of those movies.  Granted, that timeline would make it easier for me to avoid obsessively comparing the two, but even after finishing The Bourne Ultimatum (the book), my appreciation for the film series didn’t diminish.

The Bourne films are fantastic for a bunch of reasons (maybe I’ll dedicate a future post to them to explain it further), and the books are fantastic for another set of reasons.  In fact, the events of the three films together only loosely correspond to the first book, The Bourne Identity. Nevertheless, what the screenwriters came up with for The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum films was just as thrilling and intelligent as Ludlum’s books, even though it had no direct basis in the text. UPDATE: Click here for that new article!

If this is the case, why erupt like a volcano when Harry flirts with a random coffee shop employee in The Half Blood Prince, because it wasn’t in the book? The film will be different. Accept it and try to enjoy what the director is offering you.  Why allow the obvious differences to ruin your experience? The director was not trying to ruin the story. Maybe they did some things right and some things wrong, but I believe viewers should judge films as films, instead of as moving versions of the book.

I challenge you to go back and watch the Harry Potter series and then determine if those movies make sense in and of themselves. In other words, imagine if there were no Harry Potter novel series (actually, maybe don’t do that, because the world might IMPLODE). In all seriousness, though, ask yourself: would I enjoy these movies if 2001’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was a completely original concept when it was shot? If so, try this out with other adaptations. You may find that you’re enjoying films more, and that’s always a good thing.

What do you think about my little rant? Agree/Disagree? Am I being too zen – should I be showing more respect for the books? Let me know in the comments! Tomorrow, I’ll be reviewing tonight’s episode of Doctor Who, “The Curse of the Black Spot”, so check back for that. Also, I will be starting a collaboration with fellow media blogger Sandra Mills in the coming days – check out tomorrow’s review for more details!