Great book, horrible movie

My friends over at the writing Web site Red Room asked members last week to vote for books that were made into great movies. RedRoom was accentuating the positive, and there are a few books that most of us can agree did translate well to the screen: To Kill A Mockingbird, the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies.

But I’m going to be a little black raincloud and focus on the books that didn’t translate so well to the big screen or the TV screen. Because we all know that’s a much longer list.

My votes in that category go to the films made from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the Tales of the City books.

Midnight was a phenomenal non-fiction, true crime book that was made into a movie in 1995. But despite having Clint Eastwood as a director, the movie was a disappointment.

Why? Well, in my opinion, this story would have been better told as a miniseries. Midnight is populated with the very colorful and eccentric characters of Savannah, Georgia. I think that it needed a bigger canvas than a two-hour movie.

Six or eight hours (hell, even four hours) would have been a much better way to tell the story. A limited run series on HBO would have been great, and still attracted the big screen talent (Kevin Spacey, Jude Law, John Cusack) that were in the movie.

Eastwood (or the screenwriter) also decided, for reasons unknown, to create a romance that wasn’t in the book between a young singer in town and the reporter covering the story. And to add insult to injury, he cast his daughter Alison Eastwood as that singer. (Unfortunately, Alison did not inherit daddy’s acting talent.)

Fans of the book were up in arms – after all, so many of the interesting, colorful characters had to be cut or condensed due to time. Why were we seeing a character who wasn’t even in the book?

The redeeming moments of the movie were the ones featuring The Lady Chablis as herself. Eastwood wisely got THAT decision right.

I wasn’t necessarily as disappointed in Tales of the City, but I think that book, which was filmed as several miniseries, would have been much better served if it had been developed into an actual television series. I say this for many of the same reasons: the story and the characters would have been much better served by having more time to explore them. 

Tales was a serialized story, so making a series of the books on TV seemed like a no-brainer to me. And it was serialized to a degree – as a miniseries. This seemed to work well in the first miniseries.

But I think the later adaptations suffered from that format, because too much story and too many characters were stuffed into too few hours. (Those adaptations also suffered from having several of the main roles recast with less-engaging actors.)

These are just two stories that I can name (and ones that I thought suffered for similar reasons). There’s certainly many more. What’s your vote for great book, horrible movie?

And more importantly – why do you think so many filmmakers stumble when adapting a book to film?

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