As horror loving folk we are called many things, not all of them kind, One thing we are never called is optimistic. Yet I say horror-kind are the most optimistic people you will ever meet. We will watch movie after movie, hoping for that one that will surprise you. We read book after book, longing for That Feeling. You know what I’m talking about. That feeling when a book draws you in so much that you forget the time, feel yourself riveted with the characters and pages of monsters, insane asylums, and blood-stained rooms. And, if a book is working, we’re optimistic for the characters. Even when all hope seems extinguished for them and us we hope everything will be all right.
We are never so optimistic as when we hear a favorite book is being turned into a movie. We go to the theatre, pay our money and take our seats in excitement. We’re restless throughout the previews (unless a particularly good looking horror trailer catches our eye) and get absurdly delighted when the movie starts and we can finally see the world we’ve created in our hearts and imaginations be brought to full, glorious life.
Unfortunately, what usually follows is the sinking feeling you get when you see beloved characters acting contrary to their book counterparts. You feel a feeling almost akin to disorientation as events play out differently than you remember them and characters have inexplicably changed names and even genders. The sweetest storybook character has been turned into a ravening bitch and a hero is reduced to a petty, squabbling coward.
Sometimes we are pleasantly surprised and, in some rare cases, the movie surpasses the book. Jaws (novel) is terrible. Everyone is unlikable and, for such a short book it spends most of its time on the riveting beach argument. Peter Benchley once said that if he had known how much fear the Great White would instill in people he never would have written the book. Don’t worry, Pete. Trust me, it wasn’t the book that terrified us.
I’m sure there are plenty of good, well, bad, reasons as to how the stories go astray in transition between book and movie. The larger the book the more things are going to be left out in the quest for the run-time sweet spot. Back in the day (i.e. I’m too lazy to do actual research) studios tried to hit that perfect run-time. It had to be long enough to make the story coherent (although that wasn’t necessarily a requirement) but short enough so teens and young adults, the primary horror audience at the time, wouldn’t get restless. Titanic opened the door for longer movies but it took a trilogy of movies to make studios realize that yes, theatre goers do have an attention span longer than that of your average squirrel. And, maybe not so coincidentally, it was the adaptation of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But we’re here to talk horror. Horror and adaptations have a long and uneasy relationship going back to silent movies and Nosferatu. Dracula is one of the most adapted characters of all time. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is probably the closest to the actual book. Except for the utterly ridiculous addition of Mina Harker falling in love with Dracula. Instead of terrifying we get Gary Oldman being all smoldering. I won’t even mention Keanu’s English accent. At least he tried. The only other literary characters with that level of staying power are Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.
Through the years and various adaptations these three have undergone numerous changes. Dracula in the book is described as having long, dirty nails, hairy palms (and we all know what that means) and stinky breath. The modern Dracula is suave, attractive and sexy. Frankenstein has gone from an erudite Godwinian theorist to a large, shambling brute. Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde has been changed the least but even he has undergone nonsensical changes. Jekyll in the book only wants to create Mr. Hyde not to rid himself of evil but so he can go and live it up without his friends being any the wiser. In more modern adaptations his motive is usually “ridding himself of evil” or the purely scientific. Latterly he’s been shown as a Hulk-like figure, morphing from the ‘wimpy’ scientist into a large, monstrous figure.
So what seems to be the problem? The book is there to work from. It’s all written down in detail. The only thing left for the director and scriptwriter need to do is translate it visually. When the bigger, thicker books fail it’s not so baffling. We kind of expect it. After all, how can you fit into two hours what took two weeks to read? With shorter works of fiction like short stories, novellas and short novels this shouldn’t be a problem. Yet the same things end up happening. Important events are either left out completely or only partially shown leaving the viewer scratching their head. Readers will recognize what’s going on but it leaves the casual movie-goer in the dark. Characters are dropped or changed so much that they’re unrecognizable. Another favorite character trick they like to do is roll three different characters into one. That way they can have important lines delivered but not have to work in three different actors.
I do get that some things are almost impossible to translate from book to screen. Like the above example. Why pay for three different actors when you can just part out the important lines to the other characters. Dialogue that flows well in a book sounds strange or unnatural when said by actual people. Sets or monsters may be impossible to recreate convincingly. Sometimes it seems to be a matter of time and budget constraints. Or, the director who is a genius needs to piggyback off of someone else’s ideas in order to tell the story they want to tell. Instead of, you know, actually creating their own story from scratch.
I think most of the reason why book to film adaptations in the horror and fantasy genres are never really satisfying is that nothing can match up to our imaginations. When more “real-life” books are made such as romantic comedies, love stories, war and spy novels (although the reality of love stories is debatable) you don’t have to stretch your imagination very far. They are truer to actual life so the suspension of disbelief is set much lower. Horror and fantasy require a much greater suspension of disbelief. We can accomplish this much more easily in our own minds than trying to see another’s view of the same scene. Which could be a large part of why Stephen King’s dramatic stories work better on-screen than his more supernatural tales. It is much easier to share the same view of Dolores Claiborne as somebody else than it is for several different people to have the same image of the Tommyknockers or The Walking Dude.
With Hollywood clearly running out of original ideas we will probably continue to see a long string of book to film adaptations, game to film, reboots galore and sequels without end, amen. And we’ll be there. Why? Because we can’t stay away. Because we have that hope that this will be the perfect one. Because we’re optimists, masochistic optimists, yet optimists nonetheless.
Down below are some adaptations that I consider to be good ones. Keep in mind that these are my opinion only and I know I left off a lot of good Stephen King ones because I wanted a varied list. So let me know down below if there were any you guys particularly like or despise.
- Secret Window
- Stir of Echoes
- The Shining (1997)
- The Last Man on Earth (1964)
- Let the Right One In
- Rosemary’s Baby
- The Haunting (1963)
- The Exorcist
- Legend of Hell House
- Ringu/The Ring
- Picnic at Hanging Rock
- The Thing
- Village of the Damned
- The Wicker Man (2006…Just kidding! Please put away the torches and pitchforks!)
- The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad/Sleepy Hollow
- Dark Water (2002)