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Adaptation Angst: My Love/Hate Relationship with Book Adaptations

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

With the news that a Showtime adaptation of Outlander has been greenlit, this article from 2011 came to mind.  Thankfully, Jennifer Lawrence kicked butt as Katniss, but let’s hope Katherine Heigl doesn’t get her hands on Outlander.


Sometimes, I really wish the powers that be would stop adapting my favorite books for the big—or small—screen.

I can’t turn around lately without hearing speculation about the casting for the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games.  Chloe Moretz for Katniss?  At 13, she’s way too young to even be in consideration for the 16-year-old (and extraordinarily self-possessed, at that) Katniss.  Robert Downey, Jr., or Hugh Laurie as Katniss’s drunken mentor, Haymitch?  They’re both fine actors (and I’m certain that both can pull off drunkeness), but I always pictured Haymitch as balding, chubby, and slovenly—none of which applies to Downey or Laurie.

I learned through a conversation with our TV Editor, Phoebe Raven, that Grey’s Anatomy star Kevin McKidd was being discussed as a contender for the part of Jamie Fraser in the adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s 1991 novel, Outlander—another favorite of mine.  Not that I have anything against Kevin McKidd…but he’s just not Jamie Fraser to me.  He’s about 15 years too old to play Jamie, and he’s just…not right.  But he is, at least, blue eyed, red haired, and Scottish—all points in his favor.  Former Grey’s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl has been discussed for the role of the female lead, Claire Randall.  Claire is dark-haired, voluptuous, and English.  Heigl is blond, American, and has the body of a supermodel.  Now that is an adaptation I would not want to see.

Yes, I know, I’m really not giving them a chance.  Hopefully filmmakers will be smart enough to cast someone a little bit older as Katniss, and I’m sure either Downey or Laurie would do a fantastic job as Haymitch.  And Kevin McKidd would be in a better position to continue playing Jamie if Outlander’s sequels are also adapted.  (Twenty years pass in Voyager, the third book.)  As for Katherine Heigl…it’s not like she’d be the first actress to dye her hair or feign an accent for a role.

But I love these books.  And I just have such clear pictures of these characters in my head, and it’s difficult to envision someone playing these parts other than the exact images I have in my head.

And the fact is, the adaptation doesn’t usually hold a candle to the source material.  The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was one of my favorite books of all time, sweet and sad and romantic and beautiful.  Yet the big-screen adaptation, starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana, is lackluster at best.  Somehow, in distilling this beautiful romance into a 107-minute feature film, it lost its essence.  When I heard this book was being made into a movie, I worried that the non-linear nature of the story would make it impossible to translate into film.  Those particular concerns were unfounded.  The movie made sense; it just lacked something that the book had in abundance.  Maybe it was the ability to experience falling in love from both Henry and Clare’s perspectives.  Maybe it’s because the characters are so complexly and beautifully woven in the book.  Maybe it’s the inevitability of the book, the way the past and the future are inexorably linked.  Maybe it’s just because McAdams looks goofy in the scenes where she’s trying to pass herself off as a teenager.  I don’t know, exactly.  But where the book soars, the movie falls flat.

Coincidentally, the same thing happened with the film adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook, also starring McAdams.  It’s not that the film is bad; actually, it’s quite good, and certainly much better than most of the drivel that passes as a Nicholas Sparks adaptation.  But after having read the book, the movie just didn’t resonate in the same way.

But that’s not always the case.  Once upon a time I declared that sometimes, the movie really is better.  And it’s true.  I liked the big-screen adaptation of The Cider House Rules infinitely better than the book, which painted Homer Wells in a much less flattering light.

Also, there’s the other side of the book adaptation cycle: when a big- or small-screen adaptation of a book is released, it often propels the source material into instant bestseller status.  The disadvantage of “book trailers”—videos authors and publishers have begun using in recent years to promote upcoming books—is that, with only stock photos and cover images to work with, they’re often quite dull.  Movie trailers, on the other hand, have evolved into an art form in and of themselves: flashy, exciting, and entertaining.  Movie trailers have to sell a movie in 2 ½ minutes, and in many cases they do it quite well.  Is it any wonder, then, that I only picked up Atonement by Ian McIlwan and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro because I saw fascinating movie trailers that pulled me in first?

I hadn’t read any of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books until I watched True Blood on HBO.  Although here, again, is another case in which I feel the adaptation is superior to the source material.  The HBO series certainly has its faults (last season’s lackluster finale, for one), but overall it’s given its characters more depth and complexity than I’ve seen in the book series and fleshed out the supporting characters much more.  (Also, Alexander Skarsgård totally, utterly kicks ass as Eric.  Just saying.)  The point is, Harris’s books languished in mid-list obscurity until Alan Ball decided to make them into a TV show.  Sales-wise, the best thing that can happen for a book is that it gets adapted.  Even for books that are already bestsellers.  I can’t honestly say that I believe the Twilight and Harry Potter series would have maintained this much popularity, years after the release of their final books, if the movies hadn’t been maintaining the momentum.

Television and film adaptations bring attention to the books.  And anything that brings attention to the books is good to me.  But as the girl who has often, in many cases, already read the books, I can’t help but mourn the loss of my imaginative purity.  Kevin McKidd is not my Jamie Fraser, and Katherine Heigl is definitely, unequivocally not my Claire Randall.  Still, regardless of who is cast, I will inevitably see the film trailers—even if I choose not to see the film—and some small part of the book will be taken from me forever.

Author: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

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