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Why We Long for Movies to Match Their Books

From zombies to British nannies, film versions that depart their source material leave us hoping for more.
on Mar 25, 2021 · 17 comments

It’s tricky business for creators to translate a book to screen. Fans endlessly nitpick film versions of the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, and even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Good screenwriters know how to sacrifice fan-favorite moments to get good visual storytelling.

But sometimes you come across movies that bear no resemblance to their source materials, such as the film versions of Mary Poppins and World War Z.

World War Z: from war-horror to speed-zombies

World War Z is a brilliant book, and Max Brooks is one of my writing heroes. I thought zombies were stupid until I read World War Z. He took the flesh-eating undead and used them to illustrate the idea of pure war (or war for war’s sake) and the implications of an enemy that never stops. When I put the book down, I became an apologist for zombies.1

Then Brad Pitt made it into a movie.

I still don’t understand how they went from World War Z the book to World War Z the movie. What I expected was a documentary-style drama, following the narrator as he travels to interview the various heroes from the zombie wars, using flashback to show their stories and adding in a simple storyline to tie them together. What did we get? Fast zombies that turn you in ten seconds and Pitt as some kind of uber-enforcer for the UN. (Dude, the UN doesn’t have people that good.) No spoilers, but the ending made me want to throw things at the screen and demand an explanation for the theatrical atrocity I’d just witnessed.

Mary Poppins: from weird-British to whimsy-nanny

Meanwhile, we have Mary Poppins. I have read this book both to myself and aloud to my children. Mary Poppins the book is weird. Really weird. How weird? Well, Mary Poppins has a friend who breaks off her magical candy fingers to give to Jane and Michael and their twin baby siblings. And they eat them.

Tap, tap. Is this thing on? They eat the lady’s fingers.

Mary herself is haughty, snippy, and vain, and sometimes the reader wonders along with Jane and Michael if her intentions are good. The book is still fanciful and hilarious, but it’s a far cry from the whimsical movie so many of us grew up watching.

In Walt Disney’s 1964 film version, we get Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke dancing and singing the infamous “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” with infectious joy. The mix of animation and live action adds to the contrast between the stuffy Mr. Banks barely noticing his children and Mary’s sneaky playfulness. However, the movie bears almost no resemblance to the book beyond character names, the tea party on the ceiling, and the setting at Cherry Tree Lane.

My love for the darkly funny book and its sequels means I don’t feel that it’s sacrilegious for Hollywood to produce a sequel to movie. Mary Poppins Returns (2018) may not capture all the magic of the original movie, but it borrows a similar minimum of source material.2 Mary Poppins the book series and Mary Poppins the movies are related more like cousins than copies and are delightful in their own unique ways.

Why some films are better than the books

Then we find movies that are nothing like the books, whose authors should kiss the feet of the screenwriters who made their terrible tome watchable.

Example 1: Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1910). I don’t love musicals, but Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom adaptation (1986) takes what most consider unreadable drivel and makes it soapy but watchable drama.

Example 2: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). If you must, grab your torches and pitchforks, but I hated that book. I tried reminding myself that epistolary novels used to be a big thing. I tried reading it at night when it would supposedly scare me. After about five chapters, I gave up, and I do not apologize. But in almost every onscreen version, Frankenstein’s monster is beyond creepy.

Example 3: William Steig’s original book Shrek! (1990). Actually, pretend I didn’t tell you Dreamworks’ Shrek (2001) is based on a book. It’s better for everyone to forget that.

Why is it so hard to translate a book to screen?

Most book nerds can name over a dozen movies that didn’t accurately represent the books. Only rarely do we find films that match or surpass their source material, and I suspect this rarity may connect to our fundamental longing for something greater. It’s more than disappointing when a favorite book’s character doesn’t look quite right or say a beloved, quotable line. Nothing in the film version can quite live up to these expectations. They leave each of us a longing for things to be exactly as they should be.

C. S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”3 Lewis goes on to say, “Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy [this longing], but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings. . . .”4

When we wish a film included special scenes or cast characters differently, perhaps we are longing for those greater stories we’ll enjoy someday with Christ. Perhaps we can be thankful for imperfect adaptations as we await a perfected future.

But to whoever wrote the script for World War Z: please, for the love of all things putrescent and zombified, never do that again.

  1. Be warned: the book offers gory horror from cover to cover. You will need a strong stomach. I still recommend it, but not to everyone.
  2. No one can beat Julie Andrews as Mary either. Sorry, Emily Blunt!
  3. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, chapter 10: Hope.
  4. Ibid.
L. G. McCary is an old-school Whovian and a lifelong Trekkie. She has a bachelor's in psychology which means she knows enough to mess with readers' heads but not enough to diagnose their problems. She is the wife of an Army chaplain and the homeschooling mom of four rambunctious kids. She writes supernatural and dark science fiction on topics as diverse as artificial intelligence, ghosts, sentient snowmen, and space hotels. Her first novel, That Pale Host, released October 2021. Her short story, "Rendering," appears in Havok's Rebirth anthology.
  1. Gretchen EK Engel says:

    My favorite book movies are the ones that translate a story brilliantly to that medium or are serialized in TV series. Ready Player One as a movie and book is the perfect example. I listened to the audiobook. Wil Wheaton’s narration of the audiobook is amazing in a way that a woman who is his age and experienced the 80s can fully appreciate the nuances of his storytelling. I watched the movie and managed to not be spoiled even though I read the book! It’s just different enough that the movie was as immersive of an experience and yet refreshing. The Book Thief is another. Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter franchise are the way to capture books on film that remain faithful and are yet epic in their own right.

  2. L.G. McCary says:

    I still haven’t read Ready Player One but I really enjoyed the movie. I may have to look into the audiobook! I think the Lord of the Rings movies were solid adaptations, especially Andy Serkis’s Gollum. The Hobbit however… Let’s just pretend that mess didn’t happen even though I love Martin Freeman. I have no opinion on Harry Potter because I’ve neither read the books nor seen the movies.
    My personal favorite movie adaptation is the first Hunger Games film, even though I hate the ending of the series. Great casting, excellent script, and amazing directing. Part of the reason it was so well done was Suzanne Collins herself wrote the first script (she has a background in writing for television) and was heavily involved in casting and friends with the director.

  3. First time that happened to me was after my friend and I read Jurassic Park together (we were in Marching band, so it was something to do on trips). While Jurassic Park was still a good moving, there were certain scenes that would have been awesome, but were left out. Boo!
    And I felt the same about WWZ. I heard they were thinking about a second movie, but I think that was cancelled because Brad Pitt wasn’t available. Darn! Also, apparently China’s government policy doesn’t allow for zombie flicks. At least, that’s what I’ve read.

  4. L.G. McCary says:

    As a huge Michael Crichton fan, I loved Jurassic Park, both the movie and the book. I mostly wished they’d kept Hammond as a bad character and his poetic demise. I just want a full-on remake of WWZ. It needs to be done right.

  5. Marian Jacobs says:

    I think the Frankenstein thing is more a case of the movies ruining your expectations of the book. If our society didn’t push the idea of that book being “horror,” it may not have been so disappointing. The book is more philosophical sci fi than anything.

    • L.G. McCary says:

      I didn’t see a Frankenstein movie until after trying to read the book (unless you count an episode of Wishbone). I do agree the book is more philosophical sci-fi than horror, but it’s also really boring.??

  6. Carrie Harris says:

    I’m glad someone else thought eating candy fingers was horrifying and grotesque. When I read Mary Poppins (years after watching the movie) I kept wondering if it was a DIFFERENT book that the movie was based on because the similarities were basically nonexistent.

    I agree that Frankenstein is…not exactly riveting. I do see, though, why it’s often required reading since it delves into the question of what makes someone human. But it’s a slog to get there.

    I think Ella Enchanted was my first big book-to-movie disappointment, when they took a beautiful, creative, and witty book and turned it into buffoonery. There have been many since. 😛 But it is fun to see what others took away from a book, since every reader is affected differently.

  7. Dottie Corley says:

    My most hated movie adaptation was Lord of the Rings. Especially how they ruined Aragorn. He was my favorite book character but the movie characterization was horribly wrong. I almost walked out of the theater. The only way I can enjoy those movies is to totally separate them from the books.

    • L.G. McCary says:

      I’d have to reread LOTR to remember the differences. I know when I saw the movies in the theater that Aragorn didn’t bother me, but I’d forgotten some of the characterizations in general. I was mostly annoyed with how they ruined Eowyn. She was used for comic relief when her character deserved so much better.

  8. The idea of the longing for a good adaptation reflecting our longing for the perfection of Heaven… Interesting points. I think I’ll have to mull over them!

    As to “Frankenstein,” I managed to slog through the whole audiobook, and it was overly long, morose, dark, and sorta brilliant. It spoiled every Frankenstein adaptation for me from then on! Still needed a really good editor, though…

  9. Tony Breeden says:

    I must disagree with you here. As films go, World War Z dramatically affected the popular view of what zombies could be. It is a faithful adaptation of the concepts explored first in the Zombie Survival Guide (2003) and further in World War Z (2006). But neither of those books were a story.

    The guide was, well, a guide to the world of Max Brooks’ brand of zombies. His novel was a series of interviews, basically short documentary-styled stories with little connective tissue other than being set in Brooks’ zombie universe.

    WWZ did for Brooks’ works what I, Robot (2004) starring Will Smith similarly did for Isaac Asimov’s plodding 1950 work of the same name of vaguely related short stories involving the slow, gradual development of robosapience: it gave it a story with connective tissue that brought in all of the themes of of the author’s vision but in a format designed to appeal to a popular audience. (In Asimov’s case, it was also necessary to accelerate the speed at which AI was achieved because I, Robot was written before the advent of Moore’s Law in 1965.)

    A documentary-styled WWZ would’ve frankly bombed at the Box Office and only hardcore zombiephiles would be discussing it. The format works well with books (War of the World’s anyone?) but doesn’t translate well to popular film.

    Having said that, as an author I feel Max Brooks’ sense of betrayal when Pitt’s company abandoned the faithful adaptation for one with more popular appeal. But they did it for a reason, and that reason was audience appeal.

    That’s my take anyway.

    • L.G. McCary says:

      Sorry, I really hated WWZ the movie. The ending was the worst. You won’t convince me it was objectively good, even if it broke even financially.

      I can easily see a way they could have made a documentary-style film that would have still appealed to a popular audience. Found-footage horror is super popular, and adapting that style for several of the chapters in WWZ would have better reflected the novel while still appealing to wide audience. I will always be hoping for a faithful remake.

  10. I think we need to keep reminding ourselves that books and movies are two entirely different animals. As much as we book lovers would like the movies to be like what goes on in our heads as we read, it can never be. There are things that just don’t translate onto the moving screen.

    That and today’s population … they want bigger and faster and more, more, MORE! Sometimes I wonder if that mindset will bring back live gladiators. Which is a cool subject for a book, huh? haha!

    • L.G. McCary says:

      Amen, Pam, but I do think Americans have an especially gladiatorial taste in movies. Your comment reminded me of Eddie Izzard’s (quite profane) comedy bit contrasting British and American films. “You can’t eat popcorn to that!”

  11. Nelson F. Gonzalez says:

    I know we’re talking about film adaptations of books here, but how about the reverse: book adaptations of films.

    I for one enjoyed Matthew Stover’s book adaptation of George Lucas’ Star Wars – Revenge of the Sith. I didn’t like the movie, but I thought Stover did a great job redeeming the story for me.

    I think it takes great talent to do such a thing. What are your thoughts?

    • L.G. McCary says:

      I’ve honestly never read a novelization of a film. It’s just not something I would naturally pick up. It definitely takes a lot of talent to transfer film to page.

What say you?