The Nature of Disappointment – Even More Thoughts on Movie Adaptations of Books

27 Aug

Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina

I’m on my way to developing a very large soap box regarding this issue, but it absolutely fascinates me! It should, however, be my final post on this subject, barring some kind of further epiphany.

One of the biggest issues regarding how we enjoy a movie based on a book is our expectations and the nature of disappointment. But before I talk about that, I want to talk about the difference between a good movie and a good adaptation. A good adaptation, as I’m using the term, is a movie that has seriously attempted and succeeded in putting the author’s vision from the book on screen. A good movie is simply that, a good movie, and it has nothing to do with whether or not the movie is close to the book. A good adaptation is not, of necessity, a good movie and a good movie does not have to be, of necessity, a good adaptation.

One of my favorite examples of this phenomena is the difference between the 1935 Anna Karenina with Greta Garbo and the 1948 Anna Karenina with Vivien Leigh. The movie with Vivien Leigh is closer to the book, but it is a curiously lifeless movie. In the Greta Garbo version, the movie has helped to further the notion that the book is about how Anna Karenina was wronged by society and driven to suicide by those wrongs, which is not true to Tolstoy’s vision; but the movie is still better, flows better, is more interesting than the version with Vivien Leigh.

"First Disappointment"

“First Disappointment” by Erastus Dow Palmer

The Nature of Disappointment – But whether we can handle a movie version of a book is directly linked to our expectations…and whether we’ve read the book or not. When we expect something and do not get it, we are disappointed. This is why we tend to like the version of a song that we hear first. It sets up expectations for how the song ought to be sung and when certain notes or musical riffs are not heard, notes and riffs we hear in our head, we feel let down. It has nothing to do with the right way to sing the song; it’s a matter of taste and also very much a matter of what our experience tells us is right. If we love a book and we are looking for the same things we loved in the book to be in the movie and we don’t get them, then we won’t like the movie. The problem is that everyone likes different things about a book.

As my cousin pointed out, if he and I were each to make a movie version of the same book we both like, chances are that we would both leave out something or underplay some aspect that the other loved in the book, perhaps the very thing that made the other love the book. I am not a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, but it’s really not that bad an adaptation and when you listen to Jackson and the screenwriters talk about the movie, they felt that they were being true to the book. But we have different perceptions of the book.

There is also a difference between adapting a known work of literature that has stood the test of time and adapting a popular, contemporary work such as The Hunger Games. I do not know whether people will still be reading it a hundred years later, but because the book is popular now, whoever made the movie – however much people may disagree whether or not the adaptation was done skillfully – the movie did not radically change the story. But this is an issue of skill in adaptation: casting choices, dialogue choices, the inevitable cutting of scenes from the book.

Adapting a book into a movie is difficult, even when people intend to be true to the book. The tone of the narrator goes a long way in providing the flavor of a book and when that narrator is gone and all that is left is the story and dialogue, the movie can have a different feeling than the book. But the people who love the book intensely are bound to feel disappointment because they are only watching the movie because it is based on the book. They might not have watched it otherwise.

The-Hunger-Games-fanmade-movie-poster-Katniss-Everdeen-the-hunger-games-movie-22637851-884-1280And this brings up another point I have heard people mention and I think is a legitimate concern: that people will develop an erroneous idea of the book from the movie. However, I believe that argument shifts the responsibility of finding out about a book from ourselves to the movie. We blame the movie for giving us wrong ideas when we never took the time to read the book. It’s the same with history. You can’t blame a movie for giving you bad history when you haven’t cared enough to find out the truth. Movies are entertainment and cannot be expected to be otherwise, though they can be a wonderful bouncing board to many interests, historical and fictional. I’ve read about Queen Victoria, James J. Corbett, The Edwardian Period, WWI, all because a movie or TV show made me curious. And I have found many authors because of the movie versions of the book.

I’ve actually almost talked myself into the notion that we should watch the movie before reading the book. I’ve done it so many times accidentally and it never hurt my enjoyment of either medium: The Lord of the Rings, Mary Poppins, all of Jane Austen’s books, most of Charles Dickens’ books, some of Anthony Trollope’s, The Maltese Falcon…. But because a movie is usually a simplification of a book, I am rarely disappointed when I try the book next, whereas I am frequently disappointed with the movie if I start with the book.

And it seems that truly classic and enduring books can handle multiple interpretations by moviemakers, just as they can handle multiple interpretations by literary critics. An essay is no less an interpretation than a movie and just as directors and screenwriters bring their own vision and try to fix what they consider to be weaknesses in the plot, so do critics attempt to show where an author erred or how the author’s character ran away from the author and is alive apart from the book.

However, I would like to say that I love a movie that is close to the book…even when I haven’t read the book when I saw the movie. You can’t change a well-constructed story without peril and good books (and plays) do deserve to be skillfully adapted. Many of my favorite movies are skillful adaptations and not just loosey-goosey ones – Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, Pride and Prejudice (1995), Pygmalion (1938), He Knew He Was Right. I love to see what I read come to life on screen. I think the point is that it is not easy to adapt a book, even when you want to. And the multiple movie and TV adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Frankenstein, The Three MusketeersSherlock Holmes and any of Shakespeare’s plays show just how enduring these stories (and characters) are, how many perspectives people have of them, and how difficult it can be to do them justice.


Posted by on August 27, 2014 in Books, Movies


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5 responses to “The Nature of Disappointment – Even More Thoughts on Movie Adaptations of Books

  1. Andrea Lundgren

    August 27, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    Great thoughts! I agree. Movies need to be judged as movies, not just the book. If the directors cut out something integral to a good story, the movie will probably suffer for it. If not, then maybe it wasn’t as integral as we thought. 🙂


    • christinawehner

      August 27, 2014 at 9:58 pm

      Very true! Especially since a movie is like a condensed version of a book. I was listening to the Lux Radio Theater version of “It Happened One Night,” which took the two hour movie and did it in 50 minutes as a radio show. It was fascinating to hear how they condensed certain scenes, cut others out, and conveyed information through almost nothing but dialogue….essentially reducing the movie to its absolutely essential core. A movie could be theoretically seen as doing the same to a book, cutting out, as you say, the less integral parts.


  2. littlealmond

    August 29, 2014 at 8:13 am

    Fascinating! I love how you said that you’ve convinced yourself to sometimes read the book AFTER watching the movie. Watching the movie first helped me so much when I read “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” earlier this year. The Romola Garai movie version of “Emma” helped me overcome my disinclination to read the book. I watched the Leonardo di Caprio “Gatsby” without reading the book because I knew that some people came out of the theater and complained about how much it messed up the story. I just wanted to be able to enjoy the movie. Once I had read the book twice (once for a class), I tried re-watching the movie and got bored.
    Also, I studied a LOT about Queen Victoria after watching “The Young Victoria” and I had never cared about her before that movie. I like being able to differentiate the facts from the fictitious…but not necessarily the first time around.
    “Captain Blood” was one of the first novels I read where I was really paying attention to differences between it and the movie, which I saw for the first time when I was probably about 6, so I don’t even really remember a time when I hadn’t seen it. Initially, I was actually peeved that the book wasn’t more like the movie, not that the movie had omitted so much of the book. I know people who read the book first and don’t even like the movie. As Anne Shirley said, “Marilla, how much you oomiss.”
    Ugh; I mean, I love the movie way too much to even pay much attention to their opinion. And I love the book too. And at this point I do not care that they are different. Reading the book is for me like watching the deleted scenes, the extended version is for my sister who is obsessed with the LOTR books and movies.
    I’m getting carried away. This was such a cool post, really made me think. I caught a bit of the Garbo “Anna” on TV once, but haven’t been interested enough to watch any movie versions or read the book. I have toyed with the idea of watching the Keira Knightley “Anna”, but my general dislike of her has kept this idea just an idea.

    As the Man in Black tells Inigo Montoya, “Get used to disappointment.”


    • christinawehner

      August 29, 2014 at 1:04 pm

      “Get used to disappointment.” That is perfect! It should be the motto of all readers. 🙂

      It does seem like such a loss to prevent yourself from enjoying a movie, just because the book came first…especially a movie like Captain Blood, which I recall being not a bad adaptation. I want to reread the book (which I always enjoyed), but I just watched the movie again and it was even better than I had remembered it! I like how you compare a book to being a bit like reading/watching all the deleted scenes.

      I hadn’t considered how useful it can be to see the movie before reading the book, but you are right. I had never cared for Emma that much until I watched Romola Garai’s version of it and then I just had to go back and read the book and I loved it. Somehow, that particular version made the book seem more alive to me. Maybe I need to see The Great Gatsby; maybe that would provide the impetus I need to stop resisting the book.

      Anna Karenina was one of those few books I actually read before seeing the movie. I haven’t had the courage to see Keira Knightley’s version, though (I was traumatized by her Elizabeth Bennett). Anna Karenina, the book, really surprised me by how rich it was and how Anna was only in 1/4 to 1/3 of the book; there were so many other, equally important, characters and the movies always end up being a slice of the actual story. I guess it’s not the fault of the movies, though; it’s a pretty big book.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I love hearing about your own movie to book experiences! I’m thinking somebody needs to start a national campaign: “See the movie first!” Like you say, so many people are missing out by following the conventional wisdom and reading the book first! And movies can be such wonderful inspiration to discover book, history and historical people. Perhaps movies have the unique power to bring life to what can be inanimate facts and dry pages.


      • littlealmond

        August 29, 2014 at 6:14 pm

        (I found Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennet very very traumatizing. That plus her cavorting character of Elizabeth Swann makes me very wary of her. I would probably watch her as Anna Karenina to be amused or to have something to mock.) That said, my sister really likes the book of Anna Karenina and someday I suppose I’ll read it. Right now I’m reading Emma and plan to try George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

        I will say that I have read a lot of War and Peace (not nearly all of it though), some short stories by Tolstoy, and his novel Resurrection, and… when it comes to 19th century novelists, I prefer women. I think Tolstoy is weird. (There, I said it). Russian literature is something that I find necessary to avoid for the sake of my mental health.

        The book of Captain Blood has several subplots and characters that the book doesn’t. One of the most dramatic differences is that the duel between Peter Blood and Levasseur is in the book over a girl who is not Arabella Bishop. It gets reaally complicated in the book, with Arabella thinking Peter likes that other girl, and Peter thinks that some English pirate chasing dude is serious competition where Arabella is concerned.
        The traumatizing change is that in the book, Peter Blood goes to Tortuga to sulk, binge, and grow a huge beard. Also…Errol Flynn’s Peter Blood never says “och”. Which is something I far from mind.

        I mean, I understand it when there’s a movie version that totally trashes the book and people are still agog over it and hardly notice the vast Hollywood style overhaul.
        On the other hand, when the book is something mediocre like “Beautiful Creatures” or downright terrible like “Eragon”, I just can’t be bothered to care if the movie is different.
        I think movies can give dimension and illustration to stories that sometimes seem confusing on the page. The characters in Shakespeare or Emma or Lord of the Rings are easier to keep track of when there’s a face to match to the name.



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