Beyond “The Book Was Better:” The Art of Film Adaptations

Beyond Book was Better

It’s a common refrain among fans whenever a movie is made based on their favorite novel: “The book was better.” Most often than not, the reason given for the film adaptation’s alleged inferiority is its failure to remain “true” to its inspiration. For some, to alter the literal story in any way is to desecrate the source material. Other, more generous critics may be willing to forgive minor narrative alterations, provided the film stays true to the “meaning” of the novel. Both lines of criticism seem to take for granted that film adaptations are intended as “translations,” duplicating the source material as closely as possible within the “language” of cinema.

What this assumption fails to recognize are the many intrinsic differences between writing and cinema as modes of storytelling. In some respects, film is more limited: for instance, feature films are usually meant to be watched in a single continuous sitting, and so require shorter, simpler, and more cohesive stories than novels so as not to exhaust their viewers. Yet cinema also offers whole new dimensions for creating meaning unavailable to novels, such as visual spectacle, editing, casting, and soundtrack. Novels and films are not interchangeable; they are distinct art forms with various assets and limitations, which tell stories and convey meaning in their own unique ways.

If a painter were to produce a work inspired by a musical piece s/he heard, it would be obviously absurd to criticize the painting for not being “true” to the song. Rather, we would appreciate the song and painting as distinct works, and in comparing them would look not for simple equivalency, but for the ways in which their respective meanings interrelate. This, I propose, is how we had best consider film adaptations of novels, and what I will now attempt to do in reviewing movies based on three of my favorite books: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and Dracula by Bram Stoker.

The Time Machine

H.G. Wells’ 1895 novella The Time Machine has been one of my favorite books ever since I first read it as a child in primary school. Though most famous as the earliest portrayal of time travel in science fiction (with the one exception of Wells’ own earlier story, The Chronic Argonauts), the novel’s main focus centers not on the time machine itself, but on the futuristic world it reveals. This is the world of 802,701 CE, in which humanity’s distant descendents have diverged into two separate species. The first are the Eloi, tiny childlike creatures who frolic and play thoughtlessly amidst the fading ruins of civilization. Having achieved utopia, their ancestors lost the need for intellect and ambition, and eventually the very capacity for them as well. The second are the Morlocks, whose enslaved ancestors once provided the labor force necessary to support the Eloi in building their perfect world. As the Eloi grew weak and helpless, the Morlocks eventually revolted, turning the system of exploitation in their own favor. From their dark underground lairs and by cover of night, they now use the last remnants of industrial technology to farm and slaughter their former masters for food.

Though at less than 100 pages, The Time Machine is a very short book, I have found it to be an endless font of ideas, offering new insights on human nature, social injustice, and the rise and fall of civilizations every time I reread it. Its appeal is not wholly intellectual, though, for it is also at times emotionally touching. During his adventures, the Time Traveler (who is never named) has occasion to save a female Eloi named Weena, whose fervent display of gratitude challenges his assumption that the Eloi are in all respects degenerate, and lays the foundation for a very close and sweet companionship between them. Though somewhat understated and seemingly irrelevant to The Time Machine‘s larger philosophical speculations, I would actually argue for the Time Traveler’s friendship with Weena as the true heart of the novel. Its final words, written from the perspective of one of the Time Traveler’s modern colleagues, focus on Weena’s gift of gratitude as the final summation of all that he has revealed about humanity’s future:

I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers… to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.

All this and more is why I love H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine… and why I utterly despise the feature films based on it. Not just the critically panned 2002 version, but the beloved 1960 “classic” as well. My hatred for these films stems not just from the fact that both heavily alter the original story. In principle, the short length and thin plot of the original novel would seem to require that even a good film adaptation add narrative content in order to fill at least 90 minutes of running time. What the movie versions actually do, however, is not just expand on the original story, but distort it nearly beyond recognition to conform to standard Hollywood formulas of the most inane sort. Not only do they eviscerate The Time Machine of H.G. Wells’ intended message, but they neglect even to substitute any valuable meaning of their own.

Time Machine 1960 George and WeenaTheir treatment of Weena (perhaps wisely renamed Mara in the 2002 version), and her relationship with the Time Traveler, is one prominent example. Rather than attempt to capture any of the complex and unique dynamic shown in the book, which in turns resembles that of a child to her guardian, a pet to her master, and devoted friends to one another, and serves as a thematic core for the entire story, both films instead exploit the character as a pretext for predictable romantic subplots. Not only is this cliched, uninspired, and reinforcing of the damaging notion that men and women cannot relate to one another except as sexual partners, but it also raises disturbing implications. Weena is a different species from the Time Traveler (and potentially his direct descendent), and vastly unequal to him in intelligence or strength. The idea that they could share an egalitarian, mutually respectful and consensual romantic relationship seems highly unlikely. That both films nonetheless portray, and evidently condone their love affair could easily be taken as dehumanizing women in real-world relationships, by implying that a man’s ideal partner should be childlike, physically weak, and of subhuman intelligence.

Mara_eloi_2002To their [possible] credit, the filmmakers may have recognized such implications, for Weena and the Eloi in both films are portrayed as far more human-like than in the novel. However, with regard to the book’s overall message, this is an even more damaging alteration. Although in the 1960 movie they are initially portrayed as lazy, thoughtless, physically weak, and culturally degenerate much as in the book, this is ultimately explained away as a mere lack of education, rather than an actual loss of mental capacity. By the movie’s end, the Time Traveler has successfully taught them to fight against their Morlock rulers, and using books retrieved from his own time, intends to teach them to read and rebuild civilization. The 2002 film departs even further from the book, portraying the Eloi as a hard-working, literate, artistic people with a passion for architecture, living in majestic fan-shaped cliff dwellings made of canvas and bamboo. Their victimization stems not from any cognitive or cultural weakness of their own, but entirely from the brute strength and remorseless cruelty of their Morlock oppressors.

morlocksIf the Eloi are portrayed as all too human, the Morlocks are portrayed in just the opposite way: as utterly, irredeemably inhuman. In the 1960 film they are shown as lumbering troll-like monsters, capable of using machinery but otherwise too dim-witted even to defend themselves once the Eloi learn to throw a punch. The 2002 adaptation goes a step further, portraying them not just as bestial, but as actively evil. Channeling white supremacist ideology, the villainous Uber-Morlock extolls the virtues of eugenics as the secret to the Morlocks’ success, as a “Master Race” decreed by evolution to rule over the inferior Eloi. That the ancestral Morlocks were themselves long exploited by the Eloi is never mentioned in either film. Instead, the divergence between the two species is traced back to an apocalyptic event which devastated the Earth’s surface (nuclear war in the 1960 version, the destruction of the Moon in 2002).  Those willing to brave the fallout became the Eloi, while those who took refuge Time Machine Uber Morlockunderground evolved into Morlocks. This backstory reinforces the film’s morally simplistic depiction of the two species, by portraying the Eloi’s ancestors as courageous and the Morlocks’ as cowardly.

In both films, humanizing the Eloi and demonizing the Morlocks paves the way for a “happy ending” to the conflict between the two species. The book offers no such resolution; instead, the Morlocks’ predation on the Eloi continues many millions of years into the future, as the two species diverge ever further and become ever more inhuman. In principle, the novel’s cautiously optimistic epilogue might be cited to justify some sort of hopeful resolution instead. But what the films actually offer is essentially a sugarcoated celebration of genocide, in which the Eloi are liberated through the wholesale massacre of the Morlocks. Admittedly, there is plenty of Morlock-killing in the novel as well, but in direct self-defense rather than as any sort of “final solution.” Moreover, even when his hatred for the Morlocks is at its peak, Time-Machine-killing-morlockthe Time Traveler recognizes his own bias and the dangers of indulging it, commenting how “very inhuman” it is for him to want to kill his own descendents. When he later witnesses numerous Morlocks perish in a forest fire, he seems to feel a measure of pity for their suffering.

If any overall message can be extracted from the films in their own right, it is merely the formulaic assertion that “good” can always triumph over “evil” through the use of extreme violence. This vapid (and harmful) message unwittingly glorifies civilization’s reliance on cruelty and oppression of others, the very problem that Wells wrote his novel in order to diagnose. By portraying the Eloi as completely human, and the Morlocks as utterly and unsympathetically inhuman, the Time Machine movies not only deviate from, but completely destroy the single most important aspect of their source material: Wells’ powerful message that a society based on exploitation dehumanizes us all.


Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell’s 2002 novel Cloud Atlas actually consists of six separate stories, each set in a distinct time and place and told in its own unique style. These are each split in two, the first halves told in chronological order, and the second halves in reverse. Each one is cleverly linked to the story that follows: the 19th century diary of Pacific voyager Adam Ewing is read by composer Robert Frobisher in 1930s Belgium, who references it in letters to his gay lover Rufus Sixsmith. These letters are later read by reporter Luisa Rey in 1970s California, whose story is adapted into a mystery novel proofread by modern-day British publisher Timothy Cavendish. Hundreds of years from now, a film based on Cavendish’s ordeals inspires the revolutionary Korean clone Sonmi-451. Even further in the future, her words comes to be regarded as divine revalation by Zachry and his “Valleysmen” kin in post-apocalyptic Hawaii. The stories are further connected through a comet-shaped birthmark, shared by the main characters of each story, which designates them as reincarnations of one another.

The directors of the 2012 film adaptation – Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer – decided early in pre-production to dispense with the chronological structure of the novel, instead intricately interweaving the six stories to create a singular narrative arc. This is a logical alteration, considering that feature films generally require a cohesive central plotline, and that since the six stories are all relatively similar in structure – most hinging on acts of betrayal and revolution – telling them all sequentially would probably end up feeling highly repetitive. However, it is also a major and fundamental departure from the source material, and one that could easily devastate its many overarching messages.

Robert-Frobisher-Cloud-AtlasAmazingly, Cloud Atlas manages to pull off the alteration beautifully. By interweaving the stories, and emphasizing the many parallels between them, the film actually reinforces rather than undermines the novel’s central theme of interconnection across time and space. One magnificent example can be seen in the scene “All Boundaries are Conventions.” This scene intercuts between moments from a number of different subplots, the two most prominent of which are the love affair between Sonmi-451 and human rebel leader Hae-Joo Chang, and the long separation of lovers Robert Frobisher and Rufus Sixsmith. The film alternates between Sonmi and Hae-Joo, making love in the midst of revolution, and Frobisher and Sixsmith, celebrating their brief reunion in a dream by demolishing a china shop together. A monologue from Frobisher’s letters reflects on the action, musing that “all boundaries are conventions,” which we may freely transcend so long as we can imagine doing so. The soundtrack, meanwhile, reflects and magnifies the scene’s emotional content: violins swell to a soaring crescendo, mirroring the ecstasy of Sonmi and Hae-Joo’s lovemaking, while solemn piano chords punctuate the music like teardrops, evoking Frobisher’s and Sixsmith’s loneliness and foreshadowing tragedy for both couples. The final result is at once joyous, sad, thought-provoking, and deeply moving, and beautifully illustrates both the common humanity and the actual spiritual connections between the characters.

Admittedly, the narrative changes go beyond simply the order in which the six tales are told. Some of the individual stories are themselves very heavily modified. The chronological last story, for instance – the tale of Zachry the Valleysman of post-apocalyptic Hawaii – ends in a radically different manner in the movie than in the book. I do not wish to reveal too much of the story, but suffice it to say that whereas the book’s version ends on a seemingly grim note – with a focus on the continued decline of future humanity, with only a “flea of hope” as to its eventual redemption – the film offers a far more optimistic ending, in which civilization has been saved and humanity stands on the verge of expansion throughout the cosmos. At first glance, such a change would seem to fundamentally alter the overall meaning of the story. However, it is important to recall again the difference in structure between the book and film. While the story of Zachry is chronologically last in both, only the movie actually concludes with it. In the book, the story of Zachry is told in the middle, the novel finishing instead with a return to the chronological first story, as Adam Ewing reflects on what he’s learned during his painful journey across the Pacific:

Belief is both prize and battlefield, within the mind and in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation, and bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being… You and I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage and our legacy? Why fight the ‘natural’ (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this: one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the doom written within our nature?

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth and claw, if we believe diverse races and creeds can share this world… if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable, and the riches of the Earth and its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.

It is remarkable that, despite his overall bleak and dismal vision of the future, David Mitchell nonetheless ends his book with such relentless optimism.CLOUD ATLAS Evidently the predatory world order that rises to power between now and future Korea, and ultimately consumes all of civilization by Zachry’s time, is not meant to be taken as prophesy. Rather, it serves as a cautionary tale of disasters that may likely befall us, but which we are capable of averting if we can summon the will to do so. The novel concludes by inviting us to imagine a brighter future than the one it has portrayed, and implores that we rise to the challenge of creating it. In spirit, this is a very similar ending to that shown in the film, which celebrates Zachry and his family’s triumph over extinction, and the rich possibilities that stand before them. Even when the film departs from the text of the novel, it nonetheless reflects its filmmakers’ understanding of the source material, and devotion to the messages it embodies.

What makes Cloud Atlas most extraordinary, however, is the ways in which it not only remains true to the message of the novel, but utilizes assets unique to cinema to create whole new dimensions of meaning above and beyond the actual narrative. I already discussed music’s contribution to the scene “All Boundaries are Conventions.” The soundtrack continues to play this role throughout the film, exquisitely reflecting and greatly magnifying each scene’s emotional content. It manages to capture nearly every human emotion, from joy to sadness to fear and every shade and combination thereof, with haunting beauty and poise, and stands on its own as an artistic masterpiece. I can imagine the soundtrack of Cloud Atlas someday being performed by live orchestras, with similar acclaim to Mozart’s Requiem Mass and the symphonies of Beethoven.

cloud-atlas-movie-doona-bae-jim-sturgess-600x399The other striking way in which the film expands on the novel lies in its casting. As stated already, reincarnation is a major theme in the book, with the main characters of each story being shown to be reincarnations of one another. In the film, there is not just one returning soul, but more than a dozen, as conveyed by the use of the same actors to play different characters in different times. Admittedly, this does sacrifice the central character arc of the original novel, since the casting of different actors to play the protagonists indicates that they are no longer meant to be one soul. However, for the loss of this one arc, a wide range of completely new and fascinating ones are created. Tom Hanks and Jim Broadbent both begin as amoral or evil characters, gradually move towards the light, and ultimately redeem themselves through acts of heroism. Cloud Atlas Sonmi Hae-jooLovers Doona Bae and Jim Sturgess find and lose one another again and again across the centuries. Bae’s enmity toward Hugo Weaving, once her estranged father, slowly escalates to theological proportions.

Cloud Atlas not only captures the spirit of its source material, but by drawing on the most distinctive aspects of film storytelling, manages to exceed it, taking seeds of potential and nurturing them into bloom. In so doing, it represents what I believe to be film adaptation at its finest.




As one might expect from its name, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, keeps in most respects extremely close to the 1897 novel it’s based on. This is especially evident in comparison to the many other films based on Stoker’s classic tale of horror. For instance, whereas most of its peers greatly simplify the story, setting everything but the introduction in London, this film sticks to the original narrative with its many shifts between England and Transylvania. It also portrays Dracula’s full range of powers from the novel, most of which are usually eliminated: his ability to control the weather, grow older or younger, and transform into a werewolf, swarm of rats, and gaseous vapor. He is even shown walking unharmed by daylight, contrary to nearly all other adaptations – in which the sun is lethal – but true to his original depiction. At times, Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s fidelity to its source may even prove a hindrance, as when the film becomes bogged down by narration in the form of letters, and the needless inclusion of mostly irrelevant characters such as Arthur Holmwood and Quincy Morris.

Dracula: Bram Stoker's DraculaWhen the movie does deviate from the novel, it mostly does so by exaggerating scenes rather than fundamentally altering their content. For example, both the book and the movie feature an early scene in which the young lawyer Jonathan Harker is seduced and nearly drained by Dracula’s three vampyric brides. But whereas the original version is quite mild by modern standards, featuring nothing more explicit than one of the brides licking her lips, the film’s interpretation is practically pornographic, with full-frontal nudity, face and nipple-licking action, and a painfully toothy off-screen blowjob. One might cynically dismiss scenes like this as merely embodying Hollywood’s worst conventions, in which scenes of gratuitous sex and violence are added for no better reason than cheap titillation and an R rating. However, graphic though the sex and violence in Bram Stoker’s Dracula may be, they do not actually feel gratuitous; to the contrary, these scenes are actually highly artistic and stylized, featuring lavish cinematography, evocative lighting, and surreal special effects. It could even be argued that, since Bram Stoker’s intent in writing Dracula was clearly to shock and horrify, an end much more easily achieved in uptight Victorian society, remaining true to his overall spirit may actually require increasing the story’s shock value so as to provoke a similar response from jaded modern viewers.

dracula wife suicideSuch reasoning does not, however, address the film’s most significant deviation from the source material: its portrayal of Dracula as a sympathetic antihero, and creation of a love story between him and his victim Mina Harker. The two are here revealed as soulmates, Mina being the reincarnation of Dracula’s wife of some 500 years prior, when he was still the living human Vlad the Impaler, fighting in the name of Christianity against Islamic invasion of Europe. By the film’s account, it was her suicide – an unforgivable sin in Christian doctrine – that drove Dracula to renounce God and make a pact with darkness, transforming him into an undead monster. Consequently, Mina alone now has the power to revive Dracula’s heart, and through her love save his soul.

While fabulously romantic in the most perverse way, these additions are not even hinted at in the book. Stoker’s sympathies clearly rest with his human protagonists, whose fear and suffering is explicated in painful detail. Dracula himself is portrayed as an unsympathetic force of pure evil, and his actions W29 70seem to be motivated by a combination of ruthless political ambition (a tyrant in life, Dracula now seeks to conquer all of England) and instinctive predatory hunger. Professor Van Helsing describes him as possessing only a “selfish child brain” with no capacity for higher thought or emotion. What Mina has to say of Dracula below is the closest the novel ever comes to either sympathizing with or romanticizing him:

I suppose one ought to pity anything so hunted as the Count. That is just it. This thing is not human, not even a beast. To read Dr. Seward’s account of poor Lucy’s death, and what followed, is enough to dry up the springs of pity in one’s heart.

If the function of film adaptations is chiefly to translate their source material into the language of cinema, then there is no justifying Bram Stoker’s Dracula‘s enormous deviation from both the letter and spirit of the novel in this regard. But to simply condemn the movie as a “bad” adaptation for not restricting itself to the story’s original meaning, is to overlook the thematic depth it creates in its own right, and the complex way in which this meaning serves to comment on that which Stoker intended. I have already criticized the Time Machine adaptations for their moral simplicity, in humanizing the Eloi and dehumanizing the Morlocks to designate them as “good” and “evil” respectively. Bram Stoker’s novel could be criticized on similar grounds, for portraying an absolute moral divide between its virtuous human protagonists and the bestial monster Dracula. In the original Dracula, evil is portrayed as something inhuman and external to oneself.

mina and draculaBy depicting Dracula as a tragic and romantic figure, rather than just a heartless predator, the film version actually serves to complicate and critique the simplistic moral worldview of its source. Importantly, unlike many other romantic portrayals of vampires (most infamously the Twilight series), Bram Stoker’s Dracula does not attempt to sanitize its title character’s monstrous side. To the contrary, it portrays Dracula impaling his enemies on the battlefield, stealing babies to feed to his brides, raping his victims, and ripping out their throats with his teeth. The seeming contradiction between such wanton brutality, and Dracula’s deep love for Mina, is emphasized rather than downplayed. In the movie’s most romantic scene, Dracula visits Mina in her bedchamber to drink her blood. Despite his desire to be reunited with her for all eternity, he refrains from infecting her with his own blood, tearfully professing that “I love you too much to condemn you.” But overcome by desire for her long-lost soulmate, Mina begs him to “take me away from all this death,” and willingly consumes his blood from an open wound in his chest.

dracula bat monsterDracula and Mina’s passionate yet macabre lovemaking is bookended by scenes of utter brutality. Immediately prior to his visit, Dracula savagely murders his human familiar Renfield by crushing him against the bars of his asylum cell, as punishment for revealing his plans to the enemy. And immediately after Mina has begun to drink his blood, her male protectors (including Van Helsing and her husband Jonathan Harker) burst into the room armed with weapons and crucifixes, provoking Dracula to transform first into a hideous nine-foot-tall humanoid bat, and then a swarm of rats in order to escape. While the film does not portray Dracula as utterly inhuman as in the novel, neither does it attempt to hide his monstrosity. Rather, it forces viewers to acknowledge both sides of his character at once, and in so doing expresses a powerful if uncomfortable truth:

Humans and monsters are not in fact separate, opposed entities. They are one and the same, for good and evil both exist within the heart of every individual. And what’s more, they are oftentimes intricately interwoven. Just as it is Dracula’s most human quality – his love for his wife – that leads him to become a monster upon losing her, in real life many of the most monstrous deeds have been performed for all-too-human motives. Perhaps it is not just Dracula’s romantic side, but his cruelty and villainy as well, that make this version of the character so identifiable.

Of the films considered in this article, Bram Stoker’s Dracula demonstrates best of all the shortcomings in insisting that film adaptations always remain “true” to either the letter or spirit of their source material. Had Coppola chosen to limit his film to what Stoker intended in his novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula could neither have deconstructed nor critiqued its source, nor served as such an illuminating metaphor for human nature in its own right. When artistic fidelity stifles creativity, I do not believe it is a virtue. Film adaptations do not translate so much as transform their source material, and in so doing produce rich new stories and meanings of their own. As we have seen, these may indeed prove to be vastly inferior to the original book, as I believe is the case for the misguided Time Machine movies. But they can also expand or comment on their source material, as in Cloud Atlas and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Without considering them according to their own merits, as distinct works of art, it is impossible to fairly determine their true worth.



2 responses to “Beyond “The Book Was Better:” The Art of Film Adaptations

  1. I haven’t read the original 1897 Dracula novel or seen Coppala’s adaptation of it, but I very much enjoyed the commentary on Cloud Atlas and The Time Machine. In particular I appreciate that you are approaching their adaptations both from the perspective of how they capture their respective narratives and also how they translate the source material into a new medium. Too many responses (most in the form of “The Book Was Better”) treat literature and cinema as theatrical renditions of story rather than accepting the unique and defining features of both mediums. I was astounded at the audacity of the Cloud Atlas adaptation – it is one of the most interestingly edited movies I’ve ever seen. Sometimes a movie or TV show will cut between two scenes in a way that creates a thematic parallel, but every scene transition in that movie was the product of what appeared to be an extraordinary amount of thought and effort. I actually haven’t finished the book yet, but so far I don’t feel as if the changes to the storylines in the book really do any disservice to the source material. The same can’t be said, of course, to either adaptation of “The Time Machine”. I don’t think I could criticize them any more effectively than you have here – they’re both repugnant movies that cop-out of every meaningful element of the original novella in the name of a generic “good vs. bad” showdown that tries to portray genocide as the source of a happy ending. “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” and the unfairly maligned (after it won the Oscars, at least) “The English Patient” are two other superb adaptations of novels that I’ve always thought made a lot of smart decisions. I also loved Alfonso Cuaron’s take on the third Harry Potter book much more than any of the other adaptations because it successfully took the most liberties with the material to capture a mad, zany energy that balanced with the story’s many poignant and dramatic moments.

  2. Pingback: Broken Blossoms and an Uncertain Legacy | Neon Observatory·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s