Gone With the Wind. The Wizard of Oz. Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings. The Hunger Games. Game of Thrones.
Hollywood frequently goes to the world of literature and popular novels for inspiration. Who among us has read a book to tatters and longed to see it brought to life on screen? In the case of popular novels, the producers and directors have a daunting task. How does one recreate the imagination of millions of readers with one actor or actress?
I think it helps if the film-makers are fans of the book they want to adapt. For them, it’s a labor of love, not just a way to make a quick buck by cashing in on a successful book. A bad adaptation can leave a nasty taste in one’s mouth.
I loved Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer-Bradley and so did my sisters-in-law. We were excited to see it come to TNT, starring Julianna Marguiles and Angelica Houston. The book is a re-telling of the King Arthur legend from the women’s point of view. It was scheduled to air over two nights, and we had the evenings planned with caviar, crackers, wine, and fruit, a real girls’ night. This was back in the days of VCRs, so I planned to tape it and keep it for posterity. I had done the same thing with John Jakes’ North and South and Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds.
As Part II ended, my exact words were, “Well, shit,” and I got up from the sofa and rewound the tape. I wasn’t going to keep the recording. The adaptation was dumbed down and violenced up and so many of the political nuances and Druidic overtones were lost.
I actually prefer television adaptations, since they can spread the story out over several nights rather than trying to shoehorn everything into two hours. I remember my parents watching Roots on ABC in 1977. The finale still ranks as the third highest rated television program. The film-makers took their time to tell the story in a way the book readers were familiar with. The adaptation of Shogun by James Clavell starring Richard Chamberlain was a lavish and stellar production, covering five nights on NBC with the author as executive producer.
Peter Jackson broke JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings into three epic movies. He’s doing the same with The Hobbit. Compare that to Gone With the Wind, an excellent movie, but a much longer book, crammed into four hours. The adaptation left out many key characters from the book. One of my dreams is to see Gone With the Wind adapted for a network or premium channel, spread out over four or six nights.
The book adaptation I’m most excited about right now is Ron Moore’s production of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This genre-busting set of eight (so far) novels is best described as historical adventure, but there’s sexy sex, palace intrigue, pirates, battles, complicated enemies, and loyal friends. Ron was first turned onto the project by his wife, Terry Dresbach, who is a costume designer (they met on the set of Carnivale) and his producing partner, Maril Davis, who are both huge fans of the book. Since they are working on the show with him, we fans are sure they are keeping him straight. Ron has mentioned several times that his marching orders are to not screw up his wife’s favorite book.
Starz, which airs Outlander in the United States, is also cognizant of the passionate fan base. They have taken pains to engage the book readers and have encouraged Ron to make the show for the fans, knowing good word of mouth can spread much faster than a promo or billboard. According to one of Ron’s podcasts, it was a VP at Starz who pointed out that a scene included a potential tip-off to another character, and you could hear Ron smacking his head saying, “Crap, you’re right! Reshoot!”
Ron also consults with the author, Diana Gabaldon. She has said from the get-go it’s not her job to write scripts, but she has gently encouraged Ron to include favorite lines and scenes from the books, knowing fans are expecting them. And he listens, because he loves the books and wants to do right by them.
It can be tricky, taking a beloved novel or novels and adapting the story for film or television. Fans have strong opinions on who should be cast and how beloved scenes should be portrayed.. It helps if the film-maker at the helm is a passionate fan as well. It may not be a page by page adaptation (it is rarely possible to do that, since you’re talking two different mediums, print vs film, and they tell stories differently), but someone who is a skilled producer and director who also loves a book is the best person to bring that book to life for its fans.