What Makes A Successful Book Adaptation

I am sure many of you will agree that it feels good when you read and finish an amazing book. I equate that to Rocky Balboa reaching the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It feels even better the book gets a faithful onscreen adaptation.

My continued love for books didn’t come from enjoying The Chronicles of Narnia or Holes but from watching the adaptations of Inkheart, Eragon, and Alex Rider. I was immersed in these adventures and environments and then found out they were a series of books. These books’ film adaptations don’t fully portray each respective book to its full potential and lacked the same emotional core. However, it is a great marketing tool to get those who are invested to dive further into a literary format.

Divergent movie poster.

A Series of Unfortunate Events released in 2004 and starred Jim Carrey, is an example of this, and I think it’s a great film overall. It was a bit rushed trying to stuff three books into one film, but I think they managed to keep the series’ main events intact. The ending alone was emotional for me as it set the tone of the books: family through hardships.

Some film adaptations of books do not do well because filmmakers try to cram hundreds of pages into a 2 hours-ish movie, and some key characters, moments, and events are left on the cutting room floor or are just never mentioned. You can certainly look at I am Number Four, Percy Jackson, Ella Enchanted, and Artemis Fowl. There are some book films where it seems like some are just trying to copy other films’ tone and feel because it looks like a sure thing to be successful.

We have seen the success of The Hunger Games, the early Divergent films, and Maze Runner as key examples of the dystopian era. They were groundbreaking. A bleak world and a young hero named Katniss rises up in Hunger Games. In Divergent, along came Tris Prior, but it worked thanks to Veronica Roth’s worldbuilding. In Maze Runner, Thomas survives the maze and a global virus. These three franchises made waves from 2012 and ended around 2018.

The Mockingjay pin from the Hunger Games.

Now during that time, The Darkest Minds and The 5th Wave were released. Those films did not fare well at the box office. My own take was that while the books are successful, I think it was a “been-there-done-that” for the masses. Then you have the tumultuous 2016 election and the social climate afterward, and it was starting to look like some book fiction was starting to leak into book fact.

I have not read the Divergent books. As films, I enjoy them, but I have heard, and you can sound off in the comments or @ me, that the first movie was faithful enough to the book, and the rest of the movies just strayed away. Even Ansel Elgort hinted at the lack of creative integrity during a Peter Travers interview for Baby Driver. Recently, Zoe Kravtiz said the same during a Josh Horowitz podcast. I fully believe the final two Divergent films should have been filmed back to back, so there would have been enough time to make some creative choices to end the franchise on a decent high.

While Maze Runner: Scorch Trials felt short with some fans, I think Wes Ball took some valid creative liberties thanks to his audio commentary on the second film. Wes Ball cares about this world and making the story the best it can be, and when fans like me showed up, we got quite the amazing and heart-wrenching finale.

The Maze Runner poster.

Of course, it goes without saying why books like Twilight and The Mortal Instruments, do really well (let’s throw in The Host and Warm Bodies). There are years of a devoted fanbase, so when the movie comes along, it blends in seamlessly, and many who are unfamiliar with this world are pulled in. The key is to make sure you can appeal to fans of the source material and those who might not know of these realms of wonder. The Martian is a perfect storm. Cast Away in Space. Boom. Let’s also get Matt Damon and Ridley Scott. SHAZAM.

This isn’t a book, but Cobra Kai is a perfect example of taking something that has an existing fan base and continuing the story while honoring the characters many have come to know and love while making it accessible to newcomers. With a television or streaming format, it allows you to take the time to delve into all the characters and make them shine. I liked Artemis Fowl as a film, but the scathing reviews suggested it should have been a Disney+ series. There was so much I found curious about this world, but it all happened so fast. I am glad Percy Jackson is getting a second chance. Netflix managed to garner critical acclaim for all three seasons of a Series of Unfortunate Events. They adapt the crap out of that show to perfection.

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I believe depending on the book like Ready Player One is fit for the screen as long as you can get the author involved in the creative process, or make it for the smaller screen like Shadow Hunters, The 100, and Vampire Diaries, allowing more time to dive into these worlds and getting to see each character fulfilled. I think The 100 is a great swan song to that era, and 2020 was crazy enough already.

I like to think the key to successful book adaptations is authenticity. The show-runners, producers, and writers of the 2022 Netflix phenomenon Heartstopper seem to have this ideology down to a science. This British coming-of-age romantic comedy series revolves around an openly gay schoolboy Charlie Spring who falls for his classmate Nick Nelson. The premise seems to have a similar vibe akin to Love, Simon.

Love, Simon was well received and earned praise by Becky Albertalli, who wrote the 2018 novel. The movie then went on to have a sequel series. I enjoyed the film. I was quite impressed to find out that Greg Berlanti directed the film. Berlanti is known for helping guide the Arrowverse onward and upward to greater glory. He just happens to be gay as well. It shows how he was willing to highlight authentic stories such as these.

Heartstopper Netflix series.

Heartstopper is based on the popular webcomic and graphic novel by Alice Oseman. She just happens to be the writer of the show as well. A smart move to allow the author of this story to be involved in its rebirth to the small screen. It has received critical acclaim as well as represents the LGBT community.

It is among the top 10 English series on Netflix in just two days upon its release.

It also prompted the popularity of the graphic novels as well as songs from the show. The show climbed to number 5 with 23.94 million hours viewed.

Variety reported the series reached Netflix’s Top Ten list in 54 countries as of May 2022. The series also topped the publication’s Trending TV chart for over five weeks

Following the release of the series, volume one of Oseman’s Heartstopper graphic novel became the top-selling children’s bestseller in the UK

Songs featured in the series received large increases in chart sales and streams.

I also can’t forget that the show has been renewed for two additional seasons. It is amazing to hear about success stories like this. It shows that these types of stories have a place in pop culture. People from all walks of life deserve to have their stories told. When they are told the right way, people who relate to them feel seen and heard and something magical happens.

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I was overcome with joy when I found out after the fact, that The Mitchells Vs The Machines, Adventure Time, and Steven Universe were lauded into the next galaxy. But there was also a very strong LGBTQ representation in these stories. These are having a profound effect on fans of all ages and orientations. Why stop now?

The best thing is that book movies are great for the classrooms. Kids and teens can dive into these books, and it can help them get invested in these books and engage in lively discussions. It’s a nice thing to have next to audiobooks. It’s the next stage of investing in your imagination by interacting with tools to keep one engaged. I think Levar Burton’s acclaimed TV show on PBS said it best:

Butterfly in the sky
I can go twice as high
Take a look
It’s in a book
A reading rainbow
I can go anywhere
Friends to know
A reading rainbow.

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