When Books are Changed for the Stage and Screen

Print is so different from other media, it is no surprise that when a story that first appears in a book is later adapted for the stage or screen it goes through some noticeable changes. During my college days, I wrote a paper examining the differences between the novel and the movie versions of Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I might post excerpts from it here on my journal someday. Until then, here are some other shows and movies that have taken some liberties for various reasons with the original source material.

Wicked – The hit Broadway musical was based on a much darker fantasy book by Gregory Maguire called Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. The theater show of course added tunes and dance numbers to the story and shaped it into much more of a sequel/prequel to the classic movie The Wizard of Oz. In the book, Elphaba, the future Wicked Witch, suffers from a serious allergy to water, but in the play she has no such affliction, she only fakes her weakness in order to set up the climactic ending. Characters from the movie play a much different role in the stage version than they do in the book, all resulting from an effort to make Maguire’s revisionist retelling of the Baum tale into a more pop culture, mainstream production.

FlashForward – The new ABC television show makes some significant changes from Robert J. Sawyer’s original science fiction novel. Beyond adding more action, including a car chase, and dumbing down some lengthy scenes of dialogue into more TV-typical soundbites for the more visual medium, the story is altered in a number of ways. The premise remains the same in which everyone on Earth blacks out at the same time and experiences a vision of their future. In the book, the future is twenty years from now, providing some fascinating speculations about where our global society and the individual characters are heading. In the television adaptation, in order to fit the season-long storytelling needs of a major primetime network show, the future is only about six months away. The book implies right up front what might have caused the worldwide phenomenon, but the show keeps it all an initial mystery, keeping the audience guessing so they can tune in week after week. FlashForward, the novel, uses the basic premise to explore themes of free will and paradoxes in time travel. FlashForward, the television series, uses the basic premise to try to replicate the tone of Lost, ABC’s other hit.

It – Stephen King has had a string of successful adaptations of his bestselling horror novels. His huge novel, It, was published in 1987 and became a successful television mini-series in 1990. It’s one of my favorite King books, and it tells a decades-long tale of kids haunted by a malicious, supernatural entity that takes the form of a killer clown. It deals with the loss of innocence and the dangers children face in the adult world around them. “It” refers to the nameless monster that has existed since the dawn of history, but also to the youthful games when kids would designate one of their own as “it,” and also to that pronoun used to refer to the unspoken act when people are “doing IT.” That last reference is sort of lost in the live-action adaptation for obvious reasons. In the book, the climactic scene in which the children defeat the monster involves sex, and in my opinion it works as a coming of age metaphor. On the screen, however, it had to be changed, and the result was a rather anticlimactic conclusion with a silly looking spider-like beast getting slain in ho-hum fashion. The imagination sparked by written words is much more frightening than whatever Hollywood special effects makers can produce (especially in the 1980s).

Spider-man – Fanboys-and-girls inevitably get into an uproar whenever their comic book superheroes are adapted for the big screen and changes are made. Costumes are always a topic for debate. Men and women wearing colorful and often scanty outfits might look fine on the four-color page, but on the movie screens costume designers rightfully try to make something that looks realistic and not laughable. The X-Men for example wore yellow tights in the original comics, but wore black leather in their movies. People got used to it pretty fast, the same way they got used to Batman’s body-armor. One big change in Spider-man was that part of Peter Parker’s powers after getting bitten by a radioactive spider was the ability to organically produce webs from his wrists. In the comics, Spidey had increased strength, agility, the ability to stick to walls, and a cool “spider-sense” that warned him of danger, but his webs were the result of a web shooter invention he himself created. The “organic” webs sparked quite the outcry. Filmmakers thought it was unrealistic to expect a teenager to be able to create such a thing (although some might argue that part of Peter’s new powers might have been increased intelligence too). Nevertheless, it worked for the screen, and the comic books eventually followed suit, adding the web-generating power in the Ultimate Spider-man line of comics.

There are many more changes in adaptation, from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings. Let me know if you have any favorite examples that I didn't mention.


Peter said…
"IT" is definitely one of King's best! I read it when I was much younger. Suffice to say I stayed away from clowns for a very very long time.
Anonymous said…
I completely agree about It; I didn't find the movie anywhere near as terrifying as the book. I read Wicked long before the play came out, but I don't necessary like one better than the other. I see them as two different stories. And while I haven't seen Flashforward, I had no idea it was a book! That sounds really interesting.

Bridget Jones (I know you don't care about it) was made into a really nice and funny first movie, which was actually IMO a combination of both books in terms of Bridget's growth. Problem there was that the character growth that took place in the book sequel was already in the first movie, so the movie sequel made it seem like Bridget had regressed. So, I liked movie 1 just as much as book 1, and hated movie 2 while I really liked book 2.