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.