Whenever a new live-action adaptation drops, whether a Netflix series or a big box-office blockbuster, I find myself scrolling through social media, taking in all the scathing complaints, reading through the angry reviews, and laughing.
People have stopped giving live-action a chance: as soon as a new adaptation gets announced, people are ready and all too eager to tear apart everything, from the director, to the actors, to the dialogue. Nothing is safe from the vulturous eyes of whatever fanbase the filmmakers have decided to anger next.
The power of literature lies in the imagination of the reader; words set the framework, but the reader is responsible for creating their own vivid picture. Live-action adaptations take this power away. Everything is spelled out for us, from the way a character looks, to the more subtle nuances of how each line of dialogue is delivered. If reading a book is like giving a coloring page to a group of children, where everyone can use different colors to create their own unique picture, a movie is like a color-by-number: everyone’s given the same colors, and all the pictures turn out the same.
Our minds are far more capable of creating images tailored specifically for us: when the book tells us that something is supposed to be terrifying, we make it look like something that terrifies us. When we’re told that something is beautiful, we imagine something that we think is beautiful. Reading is subjective, and what the directors and artists deem beautiful or terrifying enough, might just lead to disappointment.
Even though CGI and other visual effects have dramatically improved over the past decade, there’s something about magic that just never looks good on screen. Fantasy, along with sci-fi and certain subsets of horror, are difficult to translate on screen. Whether it be eldritch horrors, aliens from another galaxy or flying lizards, filmmakers are tasked with bringing the impossible to life, and often times what they come up with tends to be far less believable than what we conjure up in our own minds.
Genres with supernatural elements depend of subjectivity far more than those that don’t. Naturally, over time, we’ve developed set caricatures for the more commonly seen species in fantasy: Elves are tall and beautiful, dwarves are short, stout, and bearded, and witches are either terrifyingly ugly or terrifyingly seductive women. But when writers go beyond these basic tropes and create new species of their own and new rules of their own, we find ourselves back at square one; conjuring up a new image, and being let down when the big screen doesn’t use it.
What sets apart adaptations from original fantasy and sci-fi is the lack of a preconceived image of what this new world, and the things in it, should look like. But for some reason, even when things are explicitly stated in the books, the adaptations don’t always stick to them. It’s all too common for blonde characters to end up brunette, and other insignificant details to change, but it quickly becomes a problem when entire characters are erased or replaced, and entire plotlines scraped for seemingly no reason other than to piss off the fans of the original work.
But directors continue to make the same mistakes, and leave their audiences more and more unhappy with every ungodly live-action announcement that passes through twitter. So, why don’t they change anything?
Live-action adaptations are the film industry’s cash cow. With an already established, zealous audience, live-action adaptations of fantasy novels are sure to make big bucks at the box office. In addition to the already loyal fans, fantasy is a popular genre, and new fans are lured in by that special breed of war, sex, and political unrest that has come to characterize the genre. But this also means it’s impossible to please everyone.
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been any successful live-action adaptations. The most obvious is probably Harry Potter, which built an empire on seven books and eight movies. But even the best still have their flaws, as apparent through the fandom’s inability to let go of that one scene in The Goblet of Fire. You know the one. Game of Thrones is another fantastic example of a successful adaptation (ignoring the tragedy that was season 8). But of course, as soon as things began to stray from the source, complaints began to arise. And how could we talk about successful film adaptations without mentioning The Lord of the Rings trilogy? But once again, you can’t please everyone. There are still many fans who dislike the film trilogy, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s son even spoke out against it.
This is not to say that the producers are completely at fault: adapting a book of any genre is an incredibly daunting task. How does one take a piece of media meant to be ingested over the course of many hours, days, or even weeks, and condense it into a three-hour movie? Of course, with the rise of tv-show adaptations instead of movies, this problem has begun to solve itself. By spreading the story across multiple seasons, it’s far easier to include more details from the book.
And in some cases, book fans are just elitist pricks. The ideology that “The book is always better than the movie,” is rampant in movie discourse and although it may or may not be true, it completely overlooks that a book-inspired movie can still be a really good movie, even when changes are made. Sometimes these changes that are made are made for the better, but fans don’t always want to acknowledge it. Fans are often guilty of taking the original work as gospel: it’s a perfected form that is tainted by any and all changes. Not to say I’m not guilty of this same negative attitude as well, but for new fans who aren’t familiar with the original work, movies serve as a fantastic gateway to the franchise, and bring in people who otherwise would have never picked up that first five-hundred paged book. After all, those who haven’t read the source won’t know what changes were made and can approach the visual retelling with a fair and honest eye.
So, what can be done about these unpleasant adaptions that we keep getting more and more of? Ignoring what is and isn’t possible to adapt visually, most of the worst adaptations could simply be fixed by giving the authors a little more involvement. Unless authors choose to adapt their own work, when the rights to the material are sold, producers have free reign to make whatever changes their black hearts’ desire. And if the producer doesn’t care to maintain the integrity of the work, then, well, you’re fucked. Authors such as Stephen King and Rick Riordan have explicitly mentioned hating movie adaptations of their works and if not even the greatest can escape a bad adaptation, what hope is there for the rest of us?
But other than giving authors more power behind the scenes, there’s honestly little that can be done the fix the flaws of live-action adaptations. Fans will always be fans and there will always be limits to what we can show in a “live” setting.
But animated adaptions, on the other hand…