If you have a fond memory of reading a popular book, you'll likely have a terrible one of watching the inevitable film adaptation. The most liberating part of reading is how intrinsic the storytelling is. Everything occurs in your head; the author's words are merely prompts. That's why, for every Fellowship of the Ring, there's a Golden Compass. In the act of translation, concepts, characters, and endings can be left on the production room floor.
However, the big screen is no longer the be-all and end-all for book adaptations. The HBO adaptation of G.R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire remains one of the most-watched TV series of all time. More recently, #Netflix has redeemed a beloved children's series almost 13 unlucky years after a bad movie adaptation had apparently killed off the potential of the franchise.
'A Series Of Unfortunate Events'
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events was the first attempt to convert the beloved children's novels of the same name onto the screen. It received generally positive reviews, grossing around $209 million, and nailing the casting of the villainous Count Olaf with the frenetic Jim Carrey. Despite all of this, it was categorically bad. Not in the Lemony Snicket tongue-in-cheek morbid sort-of bad — it hacked up the stories of the first three novels and packaged them as a rapid, overarching plot that rushed along to a run-time of just 1hr 48 mins. Suffice to say, it failed to launch the franchise that Paramount hoped would reach Harry Potter levels of success.
It's been 13 years since then, and A Series of Unfortunate Events has been resurrected by #Netflix for an eight-part adaptation of the first four novels. It translates seamlessly to Netflix's streaming service, with more than a few memorable, fourth-wall-breaking gags about the nature of stay-at-home viewing. It's also been praised for the toy-box visuals of the highly-stylized world and deliberately absurd characters.
However, the movie did that same for cinema. It also delivered on the absurd, zany, gothic world of misery and intrigue, and it won an Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. The real difference between the two is the faithfulness to the story. With two hour-ish long episodes devoted to each novel, Netflix allowed itself some wiggle room to explore the mysterious backdrop to the Baudelaire orphans' terrible story. This is a much more rounded adaptation, drawing from the wider canonical works of character-narrator Lemony Snicket.
While Paramount's movie franchise struggled to get off the ground, Netflix has already renewed A Series of Unfortunate Events for a second season. This time, it seems, we're destined to see the Baudelaire's woeful story through to the bitter end. That got us thinking about other film adaptations would have worked better as a serialization.
1. His Dark Materials
Phillip Pullman's epic metaphysical fantasy series is one of the most widely read children's series of all time, winning third place on the BBC's Big Read of 2003. The novel wrestles with theological concepts of creation, the philosophy of consciousness, and the science of parallel universes, in a coming-of-age story fronted by the willful Lyra Belacqua. If you saw the New Line Cinema movie adaptation The Golden Compass, then you might recognize one thing from that brief synopsis.
To be polite, the movie was a soulless spectacle that attempted to parcel Pullman's first entry into the trilogy, Northern Lights, as a neat, dumb, action-packed story capped off with a happy Hollywood ending that left fans of the book reeling with disgust.
Without the bite or the controversy of the source material, 'The Golden Compass' is reduced to impressive visuals overcompensating for lax storytelling — Rotten Tomatoes.
Did I go too far? Northern Lights doesn't end with Lord Asrael reuniting with Lyra and Roger in a cosy airship on the way to the north pole. It ends with a brutal betrayal, and one of the most memorable cliffhangers in children's literature.
The Golden Compass was one of those tentative attempts to form a foundation for a franchise. Unsure of how successful the film would be, it seems that the consensus was to make something that could function as an easily digestible, standalone story. This resulted in two hours of CGI that hugely under-performed at the domestic box office. The movie made just $70 million in the US against a budget of $180 million. Plans for a sequel — if there ever were any — were scrapped, and Pullman's novels were left alone.
His Dark Materials only gets more complex after the events of Northern Lights, with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass delving into parallel worlds, including Heaven and Hell, so it's probably for the best that the franchise was aborted early.
There's a twist in the tale, however. In 2015, the BBC commissioned New Line Cinema to have another shot at the source material, this time bringing it to the small screen as a series. The high concept of His Dark Materials is the core of the story, with Lyra acting as the humanizing lynchpin of this creation-spanning story. On TV, all of this could be explored at a digestible pace, giving enough time for the heart-wrenching drama of the story, and of course, the armored polar bears.
Westworld proved single-handed that TV audiences are not stupid. They can handle complicated scientific and theological concepts, particularly through the longer time-frame allowed by a serialized format.
2. 'The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen'
There's a reason you haven't heard the dulcet sibilance of Sean Connery in a long time. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ranks among the worst of the worst on Rotten Tomatoes, with a measly 17 percent rating, despite being a relative commercial success. It was Connery's last film before he retired. He cited disillusionment with the "idiots now making films in Hollywood" as the reason behind his decision. This frank appraisal ties in with the critical consensus regarding the movie adaptation of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neil's steampunk-inspired comic book series, revolving around an Avengers-style team-up of fantastical characters from Victorian literature.
It's a brilliant premise that weaves through the plots of H.G. Wells's novels to the works of George Orwell's. This alternate, fantasy timeline creates an enormous scope of possibility for humor and added content. The creators of the comic delighted in peppering the source material with visual jokes and suggestions, from the creation of a bridge across the British Channel, to a panel featuring the ancestors of all the chief characters from the soap opera Eastenders.
This could work as Penny Dreadful via A Series of Unfortunate Events, with the quirky elements offset by violence. It was reported that Fox ordered a pilot of a potential series adaptation in 2013, but 20th Century Fox updated that in 2015, killing the series in favor of a movie reboot. Because we need another superhero ensemble franchise in cinemas, apparently.
3. 'The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy'
The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy is one of those movies that's a guilty pleasure for some, and outright nonsense for others. Think of it as Monty Python in space. It was heavy on fan service, with plenty of absurd science fiction antics and a charming, quintessentially British aesthetic. The casting of stalwart actors Martin Freeman, Warwick Davis, Bill Bailey, Stephen Fry, Richard Griffiths, et cetera guaranteed a sincere approach to the daftness of a universe in which a towel is the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.
It's problem was, again, the constrictive length of a cinematic run-time. There's so much source material to draw from: six novels, an original radio series, and a TV series that aired during the '80s. It was impossible to please everyone — fans included — at the same time as attracting unfamiliar audiences to Douglas Adams's wacky galaxy.
This one's a no-brainer. It's worked across multiple formats and has had a lasting popularity for decades. Get on it, Netflix.
The Hollywood epic Troy is one of the larger successes on this list, grossing just shy of $500 million worldwide. It was gritty and spectacular, featuring a stellar ensemble cast, from Brad Pitt to Sean Bean. Troy is based on Homer's epic poem, The Iliad, which chronicles the 10-year siege of the city of Troy by Agamemnon's horde of Greeks. The movie eschewed the mythological aspects of the source material, aiming to deliver a believable historical epic. Some brilliantly choreographed battle sequences featured in the movie, but this brawny Hollywood movie was light on emotion and smaller-scale drama.
Take a look below at the fantastic duel between Hector and Achilles for an example of the quality action that the film showcased:
A serialized version of Homer's epic poem could straddle his two greatest works, The Iliad and The Odyssey. This proto-sequel poem tells the story of Odysseus's belabored journey home across the Aegean sea, following his participation in the sacking of Troy. Odysseus is the perfect choice for the character-narrator of this franchise, fulfilling an even more active role than that of Lemony Snicket in Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events. He could be telling the story of The Iliad throughout his journey, enforcing breaks from the meta-narrative to explore Odysseus's "current" situation.
As these are two of the oldest stories in Western civilization, they've been adapted in a variety of forms throughout the years. Personally, an unflinching look into the darker side of Odysseus would be great to see on-screen, as well as something that didn't shy away from the mythological aspects of the source material.
5. 'The Saga Of Darren Shan'
The Saga of Darren Shan was written by author Darren O’Shaughnessy, who described his debut vampire series as Goosebumps by Stephen King. It launched his writing career into a new niche of children's horror (which is now mostly overtaken by "dark romance." Damn you, Twilight).
It was never as well known as the likes of Harry Potter, but it had a hardcore fan base of Shansters, who loved the fact that the series was never afraid of going too dark. There're twists and turns throughout the saga, culminating in one, absolute last-minute twist that sheds new light on everything that's occurred in the 12 preceding novels.
As with any series in the children's / middle grade / young adult section that finds itself relatively popular and commercially successful, there was a brief attempt to turn the vampire saga into a cinematic franchise of its own.
The Vampire's Assistant is among the many examples of terrible book-to-film conversions, failing on every front. It attempted to cram the first three novels of the series into a single film, an act which has, apparently, never culminated in a decent film. Yet, producers still consider it a good idea. The broadly talented cast couldn't save the uninspired film, which does resemble Goosebumps, but is a far cry from Stephen King.
There you have it — The top five bad book adaptations that deserve another shot on TV. If you've got any suggestions or any gripes with a take on one of your favorite books, let me know in the comments! I love a good rant.