Same Song, Second Verse: Hollywood Never Learns

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Last week, A.D. was canceled due to low ratings by NBC. The show’s producers hope to revive it for their digital channel, whose launch is two years away, but I suspect most will have moved on by then, particularly if half the cast has also gone on to other projects. In short, for all intensive purposes, the series is dead.

I am not happy about this, but I would have been shocked by a renewal, because the series made all the same mistakes that former “Bible-based” productions made before it, and then some, which led to a lot of its core audience ceasing to tune in every week. Hollywood seems to make these mistakes again and again, because they have no idea what Christian audiences really want. Mostly, though, they keep shooting their cash chow in general. They don’t understand why we don’t support their efforts. Allow me to enlighten you:  when you adapt a book for the screen, your primary audience are fans of the book. So when you change the book, rewrite characters, leave out entire sections, or interpret the story as how you see it, rather than as it is written, this core base tends to get angry and not watch your stuff.

I am not just talking about Bible movies, either. So far you have managed to botch just about every major book franchise except Harry Potter and Twilight, because you knew those fans would rip you limb from limb if you butchered their beloved sacred cow. If you knew it then, why don’t you know it now? Why do you disrespect the source material? Why do you insist on altering it? Some condensing for the big screen is understandable, but not rewriting entire stories. You think that by changing it up, you will get wider audiences and appeal to those who have not read the book, but again, the book fans are your biggest base. Lose them and you have no core audience, just the few stragglers who happened to wander in one day.

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Look at what happened to Narnia on the big screen. The first movie was excellent. It stuck primarily to Lewis’ original story and it was an enormous success worldwide. The most it did was fill in a bit of characterization with the children in order to give them more distinct personalities. That did well, so they went on to make more films, each one deviating more and more from the source material, and in some instances, directly contradicting Lewis’ personal belief system and vision for his tales in an attempt to make the story more modern. (Example: Susan fighting in battle, when Lewis did not intend her to fight – “Wars are ugly things when women fight”.) Hollywood expected a big turn out and did not get it, because book fans got upset, and no one except book fans really cared all that much. There were simply too many changes. Caspain was turned into a romantic lead, instead of a brave child; the Pevensies stormed the castle. The next movie was less dramatically different from the source material but still added subplots that never existed in the original, and the original has been beloved by multiple generations for decades.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell just aired in Britain, to abysmal ratings. It is a masterpiece but not exactly like the book, and not all of its inventions, deviations, substitutions, and changing around of characters are appreciated by the book fans. Some of them fundamentally alter characters and deviate from the source material in ways that undermine its powerful themes. These changes are ultimately meaningless in the scope of the narrative, which means they were unnecessary. Adapting a book does not mean you need to put your own spin on it, or reinvent it. That is not what book fans want.

The Hobbit made this mistake. Lord of the Rings deviated a lot, but in some instances it tightened Tolkien’s story and streamlined it (even if it was too long), so it was a huge success. Great! Let’s do it again, but have 90% Peter Jackson and 10% Tolkien this time! And, although The Hobbit did make money, it didn’t make as much as they anticipated, because it… upset the book fans. Book fans went in expecting the fun, somewhat lighthearted little book that Tolkien wrote about a chubby middle-aged hobbit going on an adventure, and got LotR: The Preque. The hobbit actually got kind of lost, because the story was too busy making up stupid subplots involving star-crossed elf and dwarf lovers to remember that it is a children’s story. And that’s really where the flaw in some of these adaptations lies; they forget that these stories are children’s stories. Narnia is children’s stories. Children’s stories do not need made into adult stories, because their power lies in their effectiveness as children’s stories. Let them BE children’s stories. Do not add battle scenes. Do not add romantic subplots. Leave them as the author wrote them.

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If you want to talk less palatable adaptations, Hannibal just got axed by NBC due to abysmal ratings. The show is immensely clever and ingenious, a masterpiece of symbolism and nuance, but again, its primary core is book fans who bailed long ago when they realized that these characters are not those of the books; that the books would be torn apart and remade in order to frame new narratives, that Will Graham would be pulled through the mud and become demented, and that the show-runner would largely miss the point. Some book fans are still around, others are long gone. Gore aside, had the series managed to retain all of the book fans, it would probably still be on air in a niche market. On a similar note, Game of Thrones is still popular, but also losing viewers, because HBO has reached the end of the book series (so far) and is making it up as they go along, which means book characters are no longer acting like themselves, with the result that … book fans get mad and quit watching.

What about the recent Romeo & Juliet, where Julian Fellowes added on to Shakespeare’s language, changed some of the words, modernized it a bit, and made Romeo’s killing of his adversary premeditated instead of based in impulse? He turned Romeo into a premeditated murderer, and then the studio was shocked when Shakespeare fans threw a tantrum. Why wouldn’t they?

So, let’s consider the Bible adaptations that have so far failed to generate a Christian audience. Noah turned the title character into a depressive lunatic hell-bent on murdering his grandkids. Exodus turned God into a petulant child and assigned all the plagues to natural disasters. A.D. had its strengths but also its weaknesses — it changed Bible stories around, slandered Cornelius, introduced ethnic actors among the disciples an attempt to be politically correct, invented subplots to frame around scriptural events, threw in tons of brutality and violence for shock effect, and then was perplexed when it hemorrhaged its core audience.  All the studios and producers involved in these respective projects expressed confusion when their productions failed to generate an outpouring of support. Tragically, in my opinion A.D. had the most potential and the most powerful writing (truly, some of it is inspired), which makes its missteps all the more heartbreaking, since it was the greatest missed opportunity.

Historical films are no different. Their primary audience is going to be fans of the period, so when you play fast and loose with history, you can’t expect the amateur historians to stick around. Adding flavor is fine, but when you change established facts for no reason at all, people get annoyed. When you deviate from the source material, fans of the source material get annoyed. When will Hollywood figure this out? How many times must they make the exact same mistake, with the exact same result, before they realize what they are doing wrong?

20 Replies to “Same Song, Second Verse: Hollywood Never Learns”

  1. Agreed. Except on one thing, but I have a feeling you agree with me here: they changed too much in Harry Potter. I get you can’t have a movie with every. little. thing, but c’mon, they changed so much in some of the movies! I still love them, though. 🙂

    1. I think my main beef with HP changes were leaving out the Marauders completely. Since they were one of the primary things I loved about book three, that irked me big time. And, Lupin did not get nearly enough screen time, either. But in terms of broadly adapting enormous books for the screen, I think overall they did a good job, and none of the characters were fundamentally altered, either.

  2. I’ve pretty much given up on a lot of popular series because of the reasons you stated. The only ones I still watch are Bones, Castle, and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

    Given that we live in the 21st century both readers and viewers have a lot more options and there are a lot of books, movies, and TV shows to pick from both the past and present. There is no shortage of entertainment. Still I think it’s a shame that the Narnia series didn’t continue on the big screen but then what do they expect when they tamper with the legacy of one of the greatest writers in history?

    1. They are still planning to do “The Silver Chair” for the Narnia series, as far as I know. (Apparently they had to wait a specific amount of time for the current studio contract to lapse.) Hopefully the new studio will learn from the previous one’s mistakes and not change Lewis too much this time around.

  3. I get that. I’d probably be like that too, or take the opinion of the movie being better just because I saw it first when in reality, the book (almost always) comes first. Like you, I try to read the book first. I suppose it all depends on everyone’s personal preference. My aunt will read some of the book, then want to see the adaptation. Or she’s cool reading it post-movie. Me, I’d rather read first or after, no in-between. Or that has been my pattern.

    I agree. I didn’t care for Katniss much at all in the book. Just didn’t “get” why those books were as big as they are/were. But I think Jennifer gives her a bit more personality or the script does. Either way, she’s more likable in the adaptation.

    1. If a book is tedious and long, I’ll often choose to watch the movie. If I like the film, I’ll then decide to read the book — but only if my interest is peaked. Sometimes, the movie is simply better than the book, in my opinion.

      I think THG speaks to our society’s anger and civil unrest just now; but beyond that I’m not sure why they are so popular.

      1. One of the reasons l like the newer “Pride and Prejudice” is its shortened length. Looking at it strictly in comparison to A&E’s adaptation, I think they told the story well in limited time. And I like your strategy. Tedious and long book means the movie adaptation is a better bet. 🙂

        THG: sad, but true.

  4. This post is spot-on Charity. It’s so rare that I enjoy a book adaptation rather than being irritated by it. Though I do love the Narnia films — possibly because I saw them before I read the books, and the changes bothered me less.

    Lord of the Rings is my favorite book-to-film adaptation. As you said, many of the changes actually tightened the story. As for the Hobbit, I haven’t even seen the third film and I’m not sure I will. It just got way too far off course.

    I think the changes that bother me most are when the screenwriters do something that alters the characters. Some plot changes to adapt from novel to film form are perfectly understandable, but there’s no excuse for changing characters that much. The only thing that really bothers me about Lord of the Rings, for example, is the changes to Faramir’s character (particularly in Two Towers).

    1. I am generally fairly forgiving of adaptations because I realize not everything is feasible on-screen and in some instances a tightening of the plot actually strengthens it. I actually enjoy “The Hobbit” movies a lot, although I do find fault in their length. But part of that enjoyment is my delight in seeing more of Middle-earth and spending time with the Elves.

      Like you, it bothers me the most when characters are fundamentally altered — given different motivations or personalities, for example. That changes the entire dynamic and is not respectful to the original author’s work. I am actually more “okay” with Pride & Prejudice & Zombies if the characters are the same personalities than I am with something like Lost in Austen, where Bingley is a scoundrel and Wickham is a nice chap.

  5. While you know that the changes in A.D. didn’t really bother me, a lot of changes made to most literature does bother me.

    It’s a lack of respect on the part of Hollywood. There is no deference to the author’s original intent anymore. Like when I watched The Tenant of Wildfell Hall miniseries and loved it and then read the book. That miniseries maligned Anne Bronte’s work and I’m still mad about it. Narnia is another good example. Prince Caspian had me fuming because it just wasn’t right, mostly because, like you said, it went contrary to Lewis’ own core values! The Hobbit is just another one such circumstance where changes were unnecessarily made, characters invented, plots altered, simply in an attempt to rake in the big bucks. I was never so disappointed in a film series in all my life as I am with The Hobbit. It’s just not right.

    As for Hannibal, it is what they have done to Will Graham that grieves me the most. This isn’t our Will Graham . . . not Thomas Harris’s Will Graham. He is something else entirely and I can see why the show has been canceled because we simply no longer want to be a part of it. The changes made to the original story are too great.

    Sadly, I doubt Hollywood will ever realize the error of its ways. It hasn’t so far and nothing will really push it to see itself in a new light. Only a few book to film franchises can honestly be said to have done a decent job. At least with The Maze Runner the film made a poorly written book interesting. And The Hunger Games, even with its changes, is brilliant, probably because we’re not solely lurking in Katniss’ head all the time. Book to film can be done right and it can be done well. It just doesn’t happen often enough to give me any faith in Hollywood’s ability to get it right more times than it gets it wrong. Which is a shame considering how many brilliant books there are that I would love to see made into films, but also dread hearing of a film contract because I know it will be different in all the wrong ways.

    1. Most of the changes did not bother me, either, except for the slandering of Cornelius. I do not like that.

      Something else this reveals, particularly when Christians are involved in the process, is that Hollywood believers are radically out of touch with mainstream Christianity and what it wants. Not only is there a lack of true believers writing movies and television shows (in part because Protestantism in this country pushes believers away from the arts to some degree; up until thirty years ago Protestants did not even really think attending movies was non-sinful; which means most of the writing is coming from cultural Catholics), but the ones there are desensitized from working in the industry, so… they add in violence and brutality and cultural views of God, rather than being respectful of their audience and the source material. And much as I enjoyed “A.D.,” it really was not respectful to the source material. It tried, but it made too many mistakes — mistakes that could have easily been avoided with greater wisdom. But they saw “The Bible” make it big, assumed the formula would work again (focusing on violence), and got careless.

      Butchering books for the big screen is not new; I seem to remember catching a television film of my favorite childhood book back when I was about 12 and being furious at it, because it added dark and depressing elements that were not in the book, as well as brutality and violence. DISRESPECT, as you said.

      The murder of Will Graham’s character is part of the reason book fans are tuning out; altering Hannibal’s intentions and perceptions is another reason they quit (he’s a different personality type!). I was never in awe of the originals so it bothers me less than it would a true fan, but I can see why a lot of the original Fannibals are offended by it. I’m perplexed at how they seem to be jumbling up the books, and using elements from Lecter and Clarice for Hannibal and Bedelia.

      Sometimes the script gets it right, and then they cast the actors wrong. But that’s another kettle of fish for another day.

  6. Great insights, friend. How right you are in saying Hollywood makes the same mistakes over and over again. Makes one think maybe we’d know how to adapt these better. 😉 I still remember being enchanted by the first Narnia movie. I’d just read the book prior to seeing the movie and watching it all unfold on that glorious big screen was amazing. So much beauty, power and awe in that one story.

    I think the first two movies were from the same studio and the third shifted to a different distributer (which of course meant new writers and director), but that doesn’t explain any changes the sequel encountered. I think one of the original screenplay writer’s didn’t return for the sequel. So perhaps, that was PART of its problem.

    Sorry A.D. didn’t return. I know lots of fans were rooting for that.

    1. The first Narnia was powerful, because it held to Lewis’ vision. Then the writers got careless and started thinking they could ‘improve on’ Lewis and… you do not do that with a world-renowned writer whose fans span generations. That kind of blatant arrogance makes people angry.

      A.D. had its flaws, but it was profound at times. I’m sorry it’s gone.

      1. Narnia definitely was powerful and impressive as an adaptation. I agree. When you’re making something like Narnia into a film, leave it as is. I mean, yes, there will have to be some changes or “filling in” things the books may have skimmed, but Lewis’ work is so profound and beautiful, it’s sad they strayed.

        I’m usually okay with the changes of book-to-movie examples because most of the time both versions have their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, I don’t usually care if Nicholas Sparks (with exception to changing who dies!) books change in the script nor would I care what kind of differences (or to a point) something like “The Duff” went through. Those are “lighter” stories that, for me, don’t matter as much. But I know some book fans would be bothered.

        I’ll have to rent A.D. when it releases. The cast looks insanely impressive and I would like to at least give it a shot because with my changing cinematic tastes, who knows, perhaps I’ll like it. 🙂 Thanks for the fabulous post.

        1. Have you heard the Focus on the Family Radio Theatre adaptations of the Narnia books? They are exquisite. They perfectly capture the children and their adventures, and listening to them allows for the imagination to soar instead of having the images shown to the mind.

          My biggest gripe is, as I said to Marissa above, when an adaptation fundamentally alters a character and changes them to something they were not in the original material — that includes novels or historical figures. Leave them true to themselves, and I can accept just about any alterations to history or the source material, but if you change them, you earn my wrath. Sometimes, this is done intentionally — and sometimes it is done out of ignorance, because the writer does not understand the source material.

          The acting in A.D. is incredible. It is really very well done. It releases in early November, so I’ll have some time to decide whether to buy it outright or ask my parents to get it for me for Christmas.

          1. I have not heard of those adaptations. But given the fact that I loved listening to David Copperfield as a radio drama (WAY – way – back when), I might need to look into these. Plus, anything Focus on the Family does seems to be amazing. Thanks for sharing.

            I see your points and agree. You gripe has great merit. See, my being “ho-hum” about so many changes in adaptations could stem from NOT having read the books, which is my own choice. Or simply the fact that much as I adore reading (and you know I do :D), I am also a visual person. Seeing something come alive on screen is often the last “piece” to complete the story. I am trying to read modern adaptations (i.e., Sparks or YA novel-to-book adaptations) before seeing the films, but I’ve failed with classics. And don’t even try right now. Even talking about YA with movies like THG, with exception to the first book, I fail. It’s tough when a beloved character is so altered. When looking at something like THG, I feel like Jennifer Lawrence has done Katniss a favor. Movie Katniss has more depth or something, in my opinion.

            Yay for Christmas gifts. Maybe I’ll get this for my DVD come Christmas since he expressed an interest in it. We can all watch it once it comes out and see what comes of it. 🙂

          2. Sometimes if I see the movie first, I continue to like the adaptation even if it deviates from the book, because the book was not firmly fixed in my mind. But on occasion I’ll watch a movie and love it and then read the book and think WOW, THEY BUTCHERED THAT BOOK. I do like to read the book first, though — partly so I know the plot, and partly for comparison’s sake.

            Katniss is a very cold character. I don’t like her in the books. I can tolerate her better in the movies, where she seems less … something. Isolated? Emo?

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