The Play’s the Thing…

The three books above all have something in common, aside from being some of the strongest books published in the last year. All three have seen an adaptation or will be seeing an adaptation in the near future.

If you have been living under a rock, you likely already know that The Hunger Games will be made into a movie. Although the book garnered huge success, there’s been quite a bit of buzz abut whether a movie could ever stack up. From comparisons to other dystopian films like Japan’s Battle Royale to discussions of how it forever impacts how readers envision this very descriptive setting and story.

Perhaps the most interesting and compelling discussion I’ve run across about the adaptation has come from here. If you don’t click, it boils down to this: how could a film ever capture Katniss’s internal struggles, which lie at the very heart of why this is such a strong book and strong character.

While thinking about that book, I ran across news that Gayle Foreman’s fantastic book If I Stay may also be made into a movie. Although many are excited, I’m very worried about it for the same reasons I’m a bit worried about the film adaption of The Hunger Games. So much of the story is cerebral and almost all of it takes place within Mia’s mind. Sure, much of the action happens outside it, but that’s because it’s happening inside of her via flashback. I’m just unsure how this can be captured well on film and, to be entirely frank, I don’t want it to be done that way. I had a powerful reaction to the book, and a film of the same storyline I doubt would have the same impact. The punch, for me, cannot be done the same way.

But let me propose another solution: the stage adaptation.

As you may or may not have heard, The Griffin Theater group in Chicago put on Cory Doctorow’s techno-thriller Little Brother for a short run. Like If I Stay and The Hunger Games, Little Brother is told through first person and much of the action takes place in the minds of the characters. While it is not to the extent of the other titles, Doctorow’s book has a lot of description and explanation that is hard to translate outside the written word.

I had the opportunity to go see it this weekend, and I was blown away. The minimal staging and the strong actors were able to translate a book that I’d never imagine in another medium to the stage. The live action of it allowed Marcus — the main character for those of you who haven’t read it yet — to narrate his thoughts and to take time to perform asides that built the back stories or explanations perfectly. The true test, though, was that I brought along 3 friends who had not read the book beforehand nor had any idea of the plot or story: they enjoyed it and understood it, AND they were compelled to pick up the book afterward.

Although I haven’t yet seen If I Stay or The Hunger Games, I wonder how much better they could translate in another medium. Both are strong stories, but because so much “happens” internally, it’ll be a challenge to capture the sentiments on the big screen. Were either adapted to stage, I wonder how much stronger it could be. Can you imagine a full-out battle on the big stage and the asides of Katniss? Epic. If I Stay, though, might face the same challenge on the big stage just because of the story itself. But you know what could be good? Reader’s theatre.

That also goes the other way. I just can’t foresee Little Brother packing quite the punch on the big screen. It’s a powerful story but how can it be if flattened or if over dependent on inter-character dialog, versus internal thoughts of Marcus?

Part of me thinks about this from a pessimistic viewpoint, of course — do these best sellers become movies because the film industry simply bets they’ll have a large audience? Obviously. Do best sellers become that way because they’re good stories? More often than not. It makes sense, then, but I also think there’s a quick leap to one medium over another, when with a little more time and audience input, the punches could be wider and deeper. Sure, we can always have a later remake, but we can never have the opportunity to have a first chance again. I think in Doctorow’s case, Little Brother was able to have a fantastic, memorable, enjoyable, and unique debut outside its print form.

What do you think of book adaptions? Do you have a favorite? Do you have one you dislike most? What expressions do you find make better fits? I’m a proponent of the fact that everyone takes their literacy in different ways, and I’m always thinking about or asking about how one can best delivery the message, the story, or the entertainment. We aren’t all born readers, but we can all be born learners in one form or another.

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  1. says

    I definitely agree that adapting a book for a film is very challenging and can be done very badly. There have been plenty of reasons out there to make a person skeptical. But since the mediums are so completely different–reading being mostly cerebral and movies almost entirely visual–I try (try being the key word here)not to even compare the two on a book to movie level. I try to see the book for what it is and the movie as something completely different. But I'll be the first to admit that it's very difficult to separate the two.

    That being said, I think the best movie adaptations come from books that are more descriptive than experiential, if that makes any sense. It kind of gives the director step by step instructions on how to create the books world.

  2. says

    I think there are some excellent adaptions out there, and I think you're right: the descriptive books really give the writers and directors a lot to work with.

    If you get a chance, read Gayle Forman's "If I Stay" (if you can ever get it from the library!). I don't want to tip off what it's about, but when you read it, you might struggle with how it could ever be adapted well.

    I compare books to movies, but, that's because I'm much more of a printed versus visual learner.

  3. says

    I'm going to disagree with both of you to a point. "Descriptive" books don't necessarily make the best film adaptations. You're both forgetting the importance of the screenwriter. Without the correct screenplay, even the most beautiful films lose their pacing, their dialogue, and eventually, the audience's interest. A good screenwriter can connect to the audience on a cerebral level AS WELL AS provide a good framework for the director and cinematographer to translate visually. I can't talk about the screenplay's importance enough.

    The example that pops to my head almost immediately is the adaptation of the Reader. Bernhard Schlink's book was almost entirely in the head of the main character. It was a complex story, unfolding over decades. The story didn't necessarily involve a whole lot of talking – it was much more about the inner struggles of the characters, and while there were some striking visual descriptions in Schlink's novel, I'd argue that that it was an "experiential" novel. Yet the screenwriter, David Hare, was able to convey all of the complexities of the novel, sculpting a well paced, well-plotted movie. I'm not alone in thinking that it was well done, as evidenced by the Oscar nod.

    However, I will agree that regardless of the source material, adapting is difficult work and much more likely to go awry than be genius. I look at the movie and book version as two different beasts, as expressions of different artists. The best movie adaptations find their own voice after being inspired by a source material.

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