ByBen Lacey, writer at
Ben Lacey

Going from paperback to Blu-ray isn't easy, and it's rare for an adaptation to truly capture the essence of its source material. Sometimes, you must make bold decisions because adaptations are about translation, not reproduction. The films included on this list are often regarded as unfaithful adaptations, but somehow captured the essence of their source material.

1. 'A Series Of Unfortunate Events' (2017)

Netflix has earned a reputation for quality with its original programming. They're fresh, fun, big-budget and they take artistic risks. The 2017 iteration of the beloved book series feels much more faithful than the 2004 offering. It has found an ideal format. Those who remember the books will remember their episodic nature. Each book had a different colored spine, its own roster of unique larger-than-life characters, gothically stylized settings and outlandish Olaf impersonations.

Tying this episodic nature together is the mystery element; the delayed gratification of discovering the truth behind the Baudelaire's misfortune. This style is far better suited to a TV series. Although I lament the new style of release, as I think it stymies one of the most enjoyable aspects of TV: Speculation and discussion. The loss of that excitement over a weekly release is a shame.

The makers have also done a great job of finding Snickett's tone — the darkness of the events, the surrealness and the sense of fable that characterized the novel guide the aesthetic and the writing of the series. The presence of the author in these books is heightened by the pithy story weaver and commentator style. This is Lemony Snickett's A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The apologies for the darkness of the tale that precede and pepper the books are the series' hallmark. The decision to have him as a physical character in the world and not as a talkative, Jude Law silhouette in an attic, is a great example of maintaining the essence of the source material.

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2. 'Watchmen' (2009)

Frame for frame: Panel for Panel 'Watchmen' [Credit: Warner Bothers Film & DC Comics]
Frame for frame: Panel for Panel 'Watchmen' [Credit: Warner Bothers Film & DC Comics]

It is hard to be more faithful than Zak Snyder was to Alan Moore. I assume they didn't need to draw a storyboard, instead using the graphic novel as a blueprint. At times it is shot for shot, frame for frame, panel for panel. Terry Gilliam described it as a "slave" to the comics. Fortunately, the Alan Moore graphic novel is possibly the greatest graphic novel ever written (and drawn). It is the only one on The Time Best Books List, coming in at No. 17.

The striking images and rich color palette are torn straight from the pages to the screen. They are also collated with music that oozes the time period and the mood of the graphic novel. In fact, some of the music is included in the same scenes that their lyrics feature within the novel. Slow motion, close-ups, choppy editing and rich imagery help to curate these borrowed pictures with a similar flow a comic strip.

One of the only divergences from the source material was the omission of a certain Squid. The Alien Monster is a bizarre part of folklore. It is indicative of the great detail of Moore's work but was probably rightfully cut from the film adaptation as the backstory is very long and makes no material difference to the plot. Even The Tales of the Black-Freighter, the comic book miniseries sold by the New Yorkian paper guy in the film and book was included as a special feature.

[Credit: DC Comics]
[Credit: DC Comics]

3. 'The Life Of Pi' (2012)

Boat, check. Tiger, check. Boy, check. 'The Life of Pi' [Credit: 20th Century Fox]
Boat, check. Tiger, check. Boy, check. 'The Life of Pi' [Credit: 20th Century Fox]

When Ang Lee decided to take on Yann Martel's sensational bestseller, I thought it was doomed for failure. Its success is down to the beautiful prose, the internal machinations of Pi and the fantastical nature of his heartbreaking and heart-mending voyage. Ang Lee used saturation, CGI and artistic liberty to create a film that feels surreal. The highly allegorical nature of events is hinted at and delivered to the spectator through the use of stunning aesthetic and pulse-pounding sequences.

The interplay between claustrophobia and boundlessness, company, loneliness and danger put the philosophical ruminations of the novel firmly onto the celluloid. When this is placed alongside Suraj Sharma's masterful and captivating performance the film is as personal and overwhelming as the novel.

The framing device, developed and extended from the book, ensures the feeling of first-person narrative, uncertainty and majesty imbues every scene of the film. It gives the audience the same startling decision as the book — to choose the more beautiful story and thus seems to deliver the same astounding essence. It saves the unveiling of the analogy and the reveal of the dark heart of the story to just the same point at the end of the film. Drawing the true horrors of his journey with palpable pain and disgust from the sterility of a hospital bed brought about the same sinking moment that the book delivers. Ang Lee has translated the gut punch that surmises Martel's thesis: "Does it mater which story is true? Which one do you prefer?"

4. 'The Lord Of The Rings' (2001–2003)

The Lord of the Rings was one of the most ambitious projects in film. It took 2500 crew members, $281 million and one Andy Serkis to bring the 1216-page book to the screen. It was a film project of epic proportions perfectly suited to the tone of the mammoth novel. The Lord of the Rings is a much loved book and it was abundantly obvious that those working to bring the world to life loved it on a fittingly huge scale.

Howard Shore's soundtrack is an incredible achievement in itself, and a deserved reinvention of the music already in the books. The showcasing of New Zealand's landscape mixed with detailed models and CGI made Middle Earth real. The costume and makeup departments breathtaking work and attention to detail matched the importance of folklore, extended histories and depth of the source material. The cast endured a grueling filming process; actors like Sean Bean and Viggo Mortensen backpacked from scene to scene, soldiered past broken toes and generally filled the boots of their respective characters.

This is the essence of The Lord of the Rings emotion, fate — everything on a huge scale with unimaginable amount of ardor, commitment and walking. Peter Jackson's masterpiece couldn't have been more faithful to this maxim.

'The Fellowship Of The Ring' [Credit: Warner Bros. / New Line]
'The Fellowship Of The Ring' [Credit: Warner Bros. / New Line]

5. 'The Great Gatsby' (2013)

Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic received a mixed response when it was released in 2013, especially the soundtrack. For some, this anachronistic music was an incoherent element. Some ridiculed the film's stylized aesthetic, made stranger by the decision to film in frames per second. These are both typical of Baz Luhrmann's style and he is seen as a filmmaker and auteur who strays from his source material. Few would consider his Romeo and Juliet to be as the bard intended. However, Luhrmann may have been hugely misunderstood

'The Great Gatsby' [Credit: Warner Brother's Pictures]
'The Great Gatsby' [Credit: Warner Brother's Pictures]

If the job of adaptation is not reproduction but faithful translation, Luhrmann may be one of the best and most loyal book adapters. The Great Gatsby does not look, or sound like Fitzgerald but it feels right. A 2013 audience is very different to a 1925 audience. Their cultural differences constitute a different language. Luhrmann very successfully translates the hedonism, emptiness, opulence and glamor of the '20s into the language of 2013 with rap stars and popping bottles.

Added to this was the decision to shoot in a reduced frame rate. This gives the entire film the look of 1920s footage, albeit with all the colors and crispness of modern-day film. It is a mixture that is incredibly pleasing to the eye and truly fits the exuberance and color of the novel's descriptions. The narrative unfolds with confusion equal to its splendor. Tobey Maguire was perfect casting for Nick Carraway as he was guaranteed to be upstaged by Leonardo Dicaprio.

Is there another film or TV series which you think deserves a nomination for most faithful adaptation? If so let us know why in the comments.


Which is the most faithful adaptation?


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