Should Have Walked Away

Should Have Walked Away

Lately, more and more movies derive their inspiration from the pages of books. Agents and publishers were quick to praise award winning movies based on books during last year’s award ceremonies. It’s always exciting to sit in front of the big screen prepared to see the words you’ve read jump to life, to witness the characters and worlds you’ve imagined in their deserved high definition glory. But I always step into those theaters with a weary preparedness. It’s not that I expect disappointment, it’s that I’ve been disappointed so many times and I don’t like to be surprised by the let-down.

It goes without saying, the book tends to be better than the movie in almost every regard. Still, there are plenty of movies that pull off screen translations of excellent books and, though the book still holds the higher place in my heart, I come to love them. But not every book can make it to the big screen, or at least not every attempt at book to movie translation is successful. Everyone disagrees on which are good and which are bad, but for me, the following are definitive failures.

5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
With seven books turned into eight movies, one of the Harry Potter series was bound to fail. I could argue the sixth movie (Half Blood Prince) suffered a worse translation to the big screen, since my husband completely gave up on the movies after watching it, but the book series had lost me by then and I didn’t really care that it was bad.

Prisoner of Azkaban was the first book I read before seeing the movie (I read each of the first two after having seen the movies mostly because I was late to the Harry Potter party). Incidentally, Prisoner of Azkaban is my second favorite of the entire series (Goblet of Fire was, in my opinion, the best, and I actually liked its translation to the big screen). The movie itself isn’t bad, as long as you haven’t read the book.

Why it failed:
The introduction of Sirius Black begins an in-depth sup-plot involving Harry’s parents, which adds a new level to the book series. It becomes a multi-generational story, with actions taken by the previous generation shaping current events. It isn’t just that Harry comes to know his parents via Sirius and Lupin and the stories they tell. It isn’t just that a precious artifact his father helped create falls into his hands. It’s that there’s a whole second half of the story that comes to light when the book finally comes together. And there’s the touching scene where Harry looks across the lake and genuinely believes he saw his father coming to save him.

A scene which falls flat in the movie because the entire Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs side story was cut. I’m not sure why, since it wouldn’t have taken much time to include it, and I recall thinking there was time devoted to more pointless things (though now it’s been so long since I saw the movie, I couldn’t say what those things are). It’s my opinion that snipping those details from the third installment ultimately undid the movie series. My husband never read a single Harry Potter book, but watched the movies faithfully until number six. Then he looked at me and said “I’m totally lost. I don’t see how these movies fit together. I have no idea what’s happening.” We’ve never watched the last two movies and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t feel missing the series conclusion is any great loss.

4. Battlefield Earth
I’m probably going to catch flack for this one because I never actually saw the movie. Maybe it’s unfair to judge a movie I’ve never seen, but I’m trusting all the friends who did see it, and informed me it was a steaming pile of crap, to have given me an honest and unbiased opinion. While I never saw the movie, I have read the book. It’s probably the best hard science-fiction book I’ve ever read (which is why it amuses me that L. Ron Hubbard apparently wrote it for fun).

Why it failed:
It’s impossible to make this book into a single movie. I’m so confident in that, I’m calling the movie crap without ever watching it. It was made in the days before the trend of making two or three movies at once. I’m told they used the first half of the book for the movie, perhaps hoping it would do well enough to warrant a sequel. But even the first half of this book is so long and so complex, they’d be hard pressed to fit it into a single two and a half hour movie. Now if they made a six hour movie, they might succeed at making something semi-decent, but any less than that is pushing it. This is really the kind of book a director has to sit down and plan as a trilogy from the beginning (not that I think we should encourage that behavior).

3. The Neverending Story
For most of my life, I’ve extolled the wonder that is The Neverending Story novel. Unfortunately, most people have never heard of it. Those that have take a moment to recall the vague reference before offering the response, “That’s the movie with the flying dog isn’t it?!” And I try my hardest not to facepalm. I really do.

The Neverending Story is translated from a German novel. (Cool fact, each chapter starts with a different letter of the alphabet in order from A to Z.) Apparently it was my favorite movie as a kid (when I too knew it as the flying dog movie). I found the book in the scholastic catalog sometime in middle school and it’s been my all time favorite book since. I may have mentioned this before, but I’ve read it so many times the front cover pretty much disintegrated.

Why it failed:
Like so many other books, it just can’t fit into one movie. There are three Neverending Story movies that I know of. I don’t think they were made anywhere near the same time since Bastian is played by a different kid in all three (in one of them I think he’s played by the Free Willy kid). The first movie tries hard to follow the first half of the book, though the ending is just silly. The second movie contains elements of the second half of the book but doesn’t try to follow the story. And the third movie is… well its a movie. And it’s called The Neverending Story. And there’s some characters from the book in there. And that’s about all I can say.

Like the Harry Potter movie I mentioned, the first Neverending Story movie isn’t really all that bad on its own. I mean it’s pure cheese; they didn’t have the budget or technology for this kind of movie back then so it’s very Labyrinth style costumes and effects. But it has a certain kind of charm, especially since it does capture most of the essence of the first half of the novel. There is, however, no flying dog. The dog is supposed to be a dragon (though I’ll agree it looks more like a dog). In fact I don’t think there’s an actual dog in the movie, or the book for that matter, let alone a flying dog.

The problem is there’s such depth in the Neverending Story novel. The whole idea is the transformation of a shy, nerdy little kid into a strong, confident individual via entering the world of a story and becoming the main character himself. By the time you get to the end of the first movie, Bastian has only just entered the world of Fantastica and the movie pretty much needs to end. So all the character development never happens and the point is totally missed. In the second movie, he returns to the world of Fantastica to save it from a threat (non existent in the second half of the book), but the story elements are mismatched and Bastian’s wonderful journey, and subsequent transformation, never actually happen.

As for the third movie… don’t go there. You really don’t want to.

2. The Time Traveler’s Wife
I read this book for a class I took in college (and that class was such an easy A). I had never heard of it until then, but it was by far the most interesting book on the list. It’s a romance, and we all know I have a not-so-secret soft spot for romances so it was right up my alley. I let a friend from work borrow the book when I finished with the class and shortly after she read it, we discovered they were making a movie. With Eric Bana. How could you go wrong with a movie with Eric Bana as Henry, we thought, and eagerly awaited the release so we could watch it together and have a sob fest in the theater because that’s what girls do.

Why it failed:
I don’t know why its so hard for screenwriters to pick out the important details of a book when they write the movie script, but I’d say the movie’s failure was a matter of cutting what shouldn’t have been cut and changing things that were better left untouched. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few things I was sort of glad not to have to watch (the thing with Henry’s feet), but then they went and changed the ending and it lost all its power.

There’s this bitter-sweetness about the way the book ends. There’s longing and unfulfilled desires. There’s the fact that both Henry and Claire are forced to accept their own mortality, the idea of fate, and their inability to change theirs. And there’s the fact that Claire spends so much of her life waiting for Henry, something the book emphasizes by framing the whole story with it, beginning and end. Somehow, they cut all the wrong bits of the story, the foundation collapsed from underneath it and the whole thing fell flat. Both my friend and I left the theater disappointed.

1. The Golden Compass
I’ve mentioned this book so many times, I promise not to talk about how wonderful and amazing it is again. When I first saw the poster for the Golden Compass movie my first thought was how the hell are they going to make this into a movie without offending everyone? My second thought was OMFG they’re making a Golden Compass movie, gimme gimme gimme, right now! After seeing the movie a friend of mine said they did everything leading up to the movie perfectly; they had the perfect cast. They had the technology for the all important special effects.

Why it failed:
So what went wrong? Well, first they aimed the movie at two young an audience. The Golden Compass is a coming of age story, aimed at young adults but easily enjoyable for adults because of the philosophical themes woven into the narrative. Yet, because there’s a giant talking bear in it, clearly we should make a kid’s movie! They also completely rearranged the course of events, which I might have been able to forgive, if not for their cardinal sin.

They changed the ending.

No they didn’t just change the ending. They mutilated it. They cut the last two chapters of the book from the movie entirely.

So they movie ended early, you’re saying. They planned a trilogy, surely they could have taken the end of the first book and put it at the beginning of the second book. Yeah, okay, sure. They maybe could have managed that.

Except that cutting the last two chapters of the book gave the movie a happy ending. Aside from the fact that not every story ends happily (are you taking notes Hollywood?) cutting the story off completely robs it of its resolution. Everything the movie was building to, that big revelation of what is all of this about, they completely robbed the viewer of it. It was like a big dramatic build and THEN… movie’s over guys. Come back in a year.

Except the first movie was such a flop, the second movie never came to be. Part of me is happy one of my all time favorite book series wasn’t further mutilated, but part of me is sad because they’ll never have such a perfect opportunity to make those books into a movie ever again. (Nichole Kidman is such the perfect embodiment of Mrs. Coulter, even the author commented “I was wrong; she’s a blonde.”)

What book-inspired movies have let you down?

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