We’ve all been there: a favored book is snapped up for adaptation, with a whole lot of potential behind it. But when it hits theaters, you walk out wishing that they’d done everything differently.
It’s often said that the book is always better than the movie, and there’s a long history of that being true, because Hollywood simply didn’t get what the book was about, or did any number of other things wrong.
But the movie version of a book isn’t always inferior: just look at Blade Runner, Minority Report, Children of Men, or Jurassic Park, with films that rival or even exceed their source material. It’s possible to get the book right, or to get a good version of it.
For all the complaining that people make about Hollywood not green-lighting original projects, let’s face a reality: adaptations from books, reboots of old movies, and the general recycling of content will continue. With that in mind, here’s a couple of films out there that we wish Hollywood would go back and do over again, hopefully better than before.
This film always falls into a love-it-or-hate-it category. It’s a film that latches onto a couple of elements from the novel in a somewhat faithful adaptation, but it’s been decried for being over the top and pulpish. Depending on who you talk to, that’s what the intent was.
Regardless of the intent, Starship Troopers is one of those novels that is just begging for a new take—one that gives us the power armor described in Robert Heinlein’s novel, while giving us the action and excitement of war in space.
A Wizard of Earthsea
Back in 2004, Lord of the Rings was in theaters and everyone was trying to jump on the epic fantasy bandwagon, including the SciFi channel. The result was an incredibly poor adaptation of A Wizard of Earthsea, which author Ursula K. Le Guin has publicly slammed:
A far cry from the Earthsea I envisioned. When I looked over the script, I realized the producers had no understanding of what the books are about and no interest in finding out. All they intended was to use the name Earthsea, and some of the scenes from the books, in a generic McMagic movie with a meaningless plot based on sex and violence.
The show’s screenwriter, Gavin Scott, recently noted that he had very little contact with Le Guin, which could have helped.
It’s a shame, because Earthsea is one of the really great works of epic fantasy fiction. It’s set in a fantastic world, and uses magic in a brilliant, philosophical way. If handled properly (ie, not whitewashed), this could make for a great adaptation.
The Golden Compass
Along with the SciFi channel’s rush to get in on the Lord of the Rings rush, New Line Cinema tried to replicate Harry Potter’s success by adapting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The result was a mixed one: the production cut down on some of the more weighty, controversial material and went for straight up adventure. There was quite a bit to like here, such as the casting and visuals, but the film never quite lived up to the books.
Fortunately, a do-over is in sight, as the BBC is set to take on the novels as an eight-part miniseries. They’ve been doing some good things with books—just look at their work with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
Isaac Asimov’s novelette The Bicentennial Man is a great book—it earned the Hugo Award in 1976, and follows a robot, Andrew Martin, as he works to become a human being.
The movie follows the story, but only just, and I have some nostalgic love for it, because it’s a goofy (but pretty terrible) movie. It’s a film that should have worked: Christopher Columbus directed it and it starred Robin Williams, Sam Neill, and Oliver Platt. The film was turned into a comedy that basically amounts to a whole bunch of dad jokes strung together, and it just doesn’t work.
We’ve seen some really incredible movies about robotics recently: Her, Robot and Frank, and Ex Machina all come to mind, and if someone went and redid the film in the same vein? It could be a really incredible movie.
Speaking of Robotics, another Asimov-derived work is I, Robot. There had been plans to turn Asimov’s collection of short stories into a film, written by none other than Harlan Ellison, but that never went anywhere. The title and concepts were attached onto another film, Hardwired.
I, Robot shares very little with the stories, each of which play with the idea of how Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics could be subverted. It’s hard to say exactly how a film could be adapted from such a diverse group of stories, but it would be interesting to see Ellison’s screenplay brought to life.
World War Z
When it comes to miserable movie adaptations, the most common thing to hear when Max Brooks’ World War Z is mentioned is “maybe they should have actually adapted the book.” Aside from the title, there’s not much crossover with the source material. The movie follows one character through the zombie apocalypse, while the book follows a whole bunch of individual stories. Even Brooks noted that “it’s only World War Z in name only.”
There’s not likely to be any sort of do-over here—World War Z 2 is on its way. That’s kind of a shame, because apparently the original script written by J. Michael Straczynski was a great adaptation of the novel.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The movie that made Alan Moore swear off Hollywood forever: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Released in 2003, this movie is a trainwreck from beginning to end. The film was significantly changed from the original source material, and production and cast conflicts didn’t help. The movie was critically panned, and it’s since become a bit of a laughingstock.
From all accounts, there’s actually a reboot in the pipeline, one that already appears to be much closer to the source material. At this point, any reboot would likely be better.
Horns was an interesting movie. It was one of the first major roles for Daniel Radcliffe when he finished Harry Potter, playing Ig, a man accused of killing his girlfriend. When he grows a pair of horns, people start telling him their darkest secrets.
The book does follow the story closely, but takes on more of a whodunit narrative, the result of which didn’t quite work. We thought that the film lacked the depth of the novel and was ultimately too light for its own good.
It would be hard to do this film over, because they got a lot of the atmosphere right, while the acting was pretty decent. Maybe a film with a stronger script that matched the intensity of the novel would overtake this one.
Ender’s Game, despite the controversy over Orson Scott Card’s political views, is one of the genre’s best-known novels, and it was a film that was stuck in development hell for decades. When the technology to film the complicated battle room scenes became practical, the result was an adaptation that was fairly faithful to the book, but that lacked all of its intensity.
After watching it, I felt like it was the best that we’d ever get, but after so many years of waiting, it felt deflated. We never quite feel the intensity of the training and how Ender was utterly broken by the end of it.
If we could get another version of this? Stick with Ender’s Game as a characters story, rather than getting caught up in the CGI fest that the movie ultimately became.
Like Starship Troopers, this one falls under the love-it-or-hate-it category. There was David Lynch’s fantastic movie Dune from 1984, and the 2000 SciFi miniseries Frank Herbert’s Dune. Both are reasonably competent adaptations: They get the broad strokes of the story right, but there’s something about Herbert’s novel that neither have really been able to capture.
Dune is a really tough book to adapt, because it’s such a dense and rich story. Still, given the trend for thick, dense novels to make their way onto television, it would be interesting to see if an HBO-style, 10 episode season series would work for this.
War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds has been adapted a whole bunch of times over the years, but I’m thinking of the 2005 Tom Cruise thriller. The movie shifted the story to the modern day and across the Atlantic to the American East coast. The film is a decent alien invasion movie, with some connections back to the source material.
What would be really interesting to see? The book has been adapted no less than 10 times, but there really hasn’t been a period take on the book, one that incorporates some of the deeper implications that Wells stuck into the novel, such as England’s Imperial heritage and colonization. Even a modern take with similar themes would be interesting to watch.
Finally, there’s the Hobbit (all three of them). If Lord of the Rings was a good lesson in adapting a trilogy of novels, The Hobbit is a good lesson in what not to do. From the get go, it was an over-stuffed CGIfest that stretched what should have been a single film into three, all while trying to connect the trilogy to its predecessor.
Fortunately, there doesn’t need to be any reboot to make this better. There’s a whole bunch of fan edits out there that cut out the excess and pare the three films down into one. If there has to be a new film? Focus on the goddamned title character.
Obviously, everyone will have a slightly different take on what movies should be redone, but what would you add (or take off) from this list?