The Art of the Adaptation

Although I love fantasy, I’m also one of the few muggles who has not read all of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I’ve read the first two. And just to prepare you, my intention is not to get into the shop-worn debate that still rages between Christians as to whether the books are dangerous or not. Honestly, I can see points on both sides of the argument, but after fourteen years—yes, it really has been fourteen years since the first novel’s release in 1997—of bickering, I’m turning an eye blinded by exasperation to that  particular discussion.

What I do want to talk about today is the series of films that have been spawned by the Potter brand. I decided to put the full line of Potter films available from Netflix on my queue, since I knew there would be a lot of chatter this summer about the concluding film, and I like to have some vocabulary to work with when I’m talking with my friends and contemporaries. (And my nephews, who are currently Potter maniacs.) So we lined them up, and one by one, into our mailbox they’ve been dropping.

It’s a vastly different experience for me to watch a Harry Potter movie whose corresponding novel I’ve read as compared to viewing a film whose plot I have no previous exposure to. (Now, I freely admit, there are likely inconsistencies in quality from one film to the next, so that may also factor into my experience.) But I found when I watched the first two movies, I had that happy sense of recognition of elements from the books as they were portrayed onscreen. Those moments of “Oooh, look at the way the train platform works,” or “Oh yeah, the staircases that shift continually,” among a hundred other things. I benefitted from a built-in understanding of the depth of character relationships.

But now that we’re watching the movies in the middle of the series, I’m finding the films to be a little holey. I know I would have a much better sense of the scope of Harry’s relationship to Dumbledore if I had read the books, for example. The fact remains, however, as a consumer of the films alone, I’m left with a fairly incomplete narrative meal, where there’s not quite enough entrée to go around, so my plate is loaded mostly with side dishes and dessert. (I’m now ducking behind the closest available cover to avoid hurled objects. Let me know when it’s safe…)

OK, so this has nothing to do with the books or the films, but I thought the line to get into the Harry Potter theme park on opening day was too staggering to pass up

Seriously…the point I’m making here is that when a filmmaker creates an adaptation, I think it’s slipshod craft to depend upon a viewer’s previous knowledge of the material he’s adapting to make the film work as a viewing experience. Of course, every book that is made into a screenplay has to leave nuances of the novel out. It’s not possible (or even advisable) to recreate every detail. But what the screenplay does include needs to give every viewer a complete sense of plot and character development. The viewer (like me) whose been living under a rock and has had zero exposure to how those items appear in the source novel deserves to gain as rich a viewing experience as the audience member who has memorized every word of the book.

It may be stating the obvious to say print fiction and film are separate mediums, but at least in the case of the Harry Potter movies, I’ve gotten the distinct sense that the films are counting too heavily on audience members’ rabid fandom—that if the movies offer up little glimpses of book elements that the readers are already crazy about, somehow that is enough. As much as part of me hates to say it, I’d rather see a movie that makes stark departures from the book that inspired it, but works well as its own piece of art, than one that sticks to what elements of the novel fit into two hours and leaves me with more of a sampling than a story.

All that being said, I’m looking forward to the next little red envelope that comes in my mailbox. Whatever deepening elements may be missing from the Harry Potter film saga, I do find myself caring what happens to Harry himself, and when the author, director, screenwriter get that right, I know I’m willing to overlook a lot of other perceived flaws in order to find out what happens in the end.

About Rebecca Minor

Rebecca P Minor draws perspective from her pursuit of various art forms, including writing, drawing, and music (singing mostly, though there was a time when a trombone figured in.) A 1997 graduate from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Becky earned a BFA in animation. Since then, she has worked as a character animator, a freelance artist, an art teacher, and most importantly, a wife to her husband Scott and mother of three boys. She is in the process of republishing her current body of work. The first installment of The Windrider Saga, Divine Summons, is available as an ebook novella on Amazon. She also has short stories available under the umbrella of The Windrider Canticles.

14 comments on “The Art of the Adaptation

  1. I agree. The only book to movie adaption that I thought improved the books was Lord of the Rings (*dodges oncoming objects*). Don’t get me wrong, I love Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. I’ve even read the Simarillion a couple times (yes, rabid Tolkien fan here). But I thought the movies brought out the characters in a way the books did not.

    Interesting to hear your perspective on the Harry Potter movies without reading the books. The books are better, especially the ones later on in the series.

    • Don’t worry, Morgan…I won’t throw anything, despite my being a rabid Tolkien fan as well. I believe the LotR movies are a perfect example of a good use of departures. After all, Tolkien was not a great character developer. It’s just simple fact. A master of mythologies, languages, worldbuilding, and archetypes? Yes. Character arcs? Not as much. It took me some time to accept Aragorn with uncertainty, but the added nuance to his character improved him for the screen.

      Thanks for visiting and weighing in. It’s always a pleasure to read your feedback. 🙂

  2. Er, incoming objects. I have not finished my morning coffee yet 🙂

  3. I agree about understanding how movies need to fit their media, and that can–and often should–mean deviating from the book. Sometimes significantly.

    I am the only one in my family who has read the HP books (three times through, btw) and I find myself having to explain things to my husband and kids with every movie.

    However–the books are so detailed and intense and well-woven, I think every movie would have had to be done in two or three parts, and the final movie in like sixteen :P, to get the “full” experience. So much detail depends on other details, that changing certain things to suit movie format would have ended up changing the story itself.

    I think there has to be a balance–enough “stand-alone” for the people who haven’t read the book is necessary or they become completely lost. But in this case, with the immense popularity of the books, I truly think it’s fair to have a certain level of presumption that the audience has read the books. In many ways, I think it’s a good thing. Rowling doesn’t seem intent on doing things just to make the next buck. She’s doing everything with intent to stay true to the original story.

    All that said, I feel for viewers who find themselves a bit overwhelmed–or underwhelmed–by the movies because they never read the books. But my response tends to be–you’ve had a taste by watching the movies. Now, go read the books–that’s where the real meat is, and it’s where it should be :).

    • It’s sort of a circular marketing plan, isn’t it? Read the books, go love the movies, go read the books again to see what was different. Don’t read the books, see the movies, wonder what some of the loose ends were all about…go read the books.

      It might just be genius. 😀

  4. My Dearest Becky,

    I have to agree with Kat,I think Rowling is actually quite the genius for not making the movie so extensive that it took away from the book. This way people do have to go read the book. After all isn’t that what she really does for a living?(BOOKS)

  5. How many of the Harry Potter movies have you watched already, Becky? I’m curious.

  6. Like Kat, I am a huge HP fan. They are the only books in my adult life (besides LotR) that I have ever re-read, which is saying A LOT. With the exception of one epic fail, I think the adaptations have been really good as far as adaptations go, BUT I realize how someone coming in without prior knowledge could be confounded by a plethora of information where maybe you are tying to grasp it all but its feels like its just skimming the surface of info or character relations you need/want.

    Like you, Jon has not read the books, but has seen the films, so I think I know what you are and aren’t walking away with. Jon has enjoyed the films, but always has to ask me multiple questions after viewing, especially in the last four films as the twists and turns begin to pick up and Rowling drops the old ‘foil-Voldemort-at-the-end-of-each-school year’ plot and brings the threat up into one long continuing story. Even I forgot some stuff between reading the books and watching the films. Heck, I forgot about the event that happens in the first 30 minutes of the eighth film entirely.

    I think the worst offender as far as adaptations go was Half Blood Prince. It was my favorite book and, strangely enough, despite the distaste left in my mouth at the total bungling of one of the characters stories, I liked the movie quite a lot. The issue was that the book and subsequently the film is called ‘the half blood Prince’, yet the film version completely and totally forgets about the half blood prince during the second half, so that when the reveal comes at the end abotu WHO the half blood prince is, it is literally meaningless. Which sucks. Because (avoiding spoilers here) the info given in HBP lays the groundwork for and knits together the scraps of other info given across the series and prepares the reader for the final piecing together and the emotional bang revealed in seven. And it isn’t just me as a rabid fan who thinks this. Both Jon and his sister (who also hasn’t read the books) turned to me after the film and went ‘What was the big deal with who the half blood prince was, I completely forgot about that part of the plot until the reveal.’ Epic. Fail.

    Anyway, I can talk HP all day. I hope you enjoy the films, but Read The Books! I’m currently trying to replace my first four paperbacks with hardbacks so my set can match so I can send along my paperback copies when I come if you like. 🙂 I’ll read the Book of Three and The Black Cauldron of you read HP 🙂 Not a fair trade I realize, especially when ‘Phoenix’ is just shy of 900 pages, but I purchased both books at a used book store last week and am looking forward to seeing what the love is about.

    • Great thoughts Ruth…but yeah, you would have to read the whole 5 book set of the Chronicles of Prydain in order to have an even match between Alexander and just a couple of Rowling’s books. 😀

      I remember hearing that the Half-Blood Prince plot did sort of wander off and not address the big question of the book until it suddenly came back in the end. Ah well–they can’t all be slam-dunks, right? I think that one is next in my rental queue, so we shall see if I’m scratching my head on that one.

      • Let me know if you are and what you think of the film. Jon was irritated at the fact that they focused heavily on the teen romantic situations but left out the half blood prince. I was too, but I liked that stuff because to me it was realistic for the ages they are suppose to be and made the characters more likeable somehow. BUT I think if they were goign to do that then they needed to add 10 or 12 minutes more of film time to satisfy what the title promised the film was going to be about. It isnt called ‘Snoggin with Ron’ after all. WHICH, btw, the eighth film suffers from a similar problem of needing just 10 more minutes spread here and there to have made it great. I’ll spare you from discussing my opinions on where those minutes are needed 🙂

  7. I do think the person that watches the Potter movies without reading the books is missing out on a lot. But there seems to be enough there in the movies to be enjoyable. My mother has not read any of the books, but has enjoyed the movies and is looking forward to seeing the final one.

    Books and movies are different mediums and it must be hard to turn such well-read books into movies. People complain when there are differences or when things are omitted, but some things that work well in print don’t directly translate to the screen.

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