Knowing and Wondering: On the Appeal of the Book-to-Film Adaptation


We’ve all said it. It’s a common refrain among the readerly set. And if we haven’t physically mouthed the words, we’ve most likely hoarded the thought in a small corner of our literary-oriented minds. At the very least heard it from any number of friends, family members, distant acquaintances, and loud-mouthed strangers in movie theatres.

The book was better.

Did you hear that, Hollywood? The book was better! You casting was way off, your set direction was spotty at best, and, worst of all, you deleted my favourite scene! You ought to be ashamed. I can’t believe I spent ten bucks on this lousy movie.

What’s up in Hollywood?

Summer is the time when the big studios attempt to release their “blockbusters”, often superhero movies and rah-rah-America style fare. But this year, I’ve noticed a fair number of book-to-movie adaptations hitting the big screen in recent weeks. We’ve got Roald Dahl’s children’s classic The BFG, JoJo Moyes’ drippy tearjerker, Me Before You, and let’s not forget yet another revamp of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan story. Even the seemingly random, one-off comedy Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is, I was surprised to find, based on a book.

So Hollywood has an originality issue. The increasingly risk-averse studio purse-string-holders are backing scripts with established followings (preferably trilogies that can be bled into four films), but my question is, why are these followings pretty much guaranteed to put butts in theatre seats? If the book is almost always better than the movie, why do we bother to spend our hard-earned cash on overpriced cinema tickets for a movie that, odds are, we’re going to find disappointing?

There has always been a market for terrible movies. I’ve often mentioned my penchant for revisiting particularly corny Christmas movies, and I know several people (who shall remain nameless) who enjoy watching the most laughably awful horror flicks ever made. There is pleasure to be had in bad cinema. But the attraction of book-to-movie adaptation is, I contend, a different brand. Of course, we are curious to see how others interpreted the characters that we helped build so lovingly in our heads. We get a tiny burst of pleasure at disagreeing with the decisions made by actors, casting directors and set designers, not to mention the unparalleled enjoyment of debating with friends what we would have done differently to stay true to the book. (Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher? Get real!)


Appeasing the inner child

But I contend that the real enjoyment of adaptations arise not just from the enjoyment of laughing at the absurd or arguing interpretation, but from the pleasure of the familiar. Like small children, we like hearing stories that have been told before. We like the anticipation that comes from knowing exactly what’s behind that ominous looking door. We like knowing that no matter the twists and turns, no matter the missing plot points or absent characters, the ending is virtually assured. It’s the perfect balance of knowing and wondering.

And here’s what I know—no matter how many times I stridently advocate for the superiority of the book, I’m still going to go see Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children come December. It’s inevitable. I know how it ends. But I want to see how it gets there.


portraitSo where do you fall on the adaptation spectrum? Love them? Hate them? Weigh in on the topic in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.sig

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.