How NOT to Adapt a Novel

By September 7, 2017Main, Screenwriting 101

By: Christopher Osterndorf

August is always a tough month for movies, and 2017 was no exception.

One of the month’s biggest releases, the adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, was panned by critics and met with lackluster reception at the box office (the film will end up making a meager profit, thanks to its relatively conservative budget and the help of international markets.) Wannabe prestige picture The Glass Castle fared even worse financially, and received an underwhelming shrug in most reviews. On streaming, Netflix’s adaptation of Death Note has been widely deemed a misfire, despite being eagerly anticipated by many.

What’s the one thing that all these films have in common? They’re all adaptations of beloved books. The Dark Tower is based on a series of novels by Stephen King, and adapted mostly from The Gunslinger, which is the first installment King wrote. The Glass Castle was a best-selling and award-winning memoir by Jeannette Walls before it became a film. And Death Note was originally an epic manga, which was later made into an anime show with its own devoted following, as well as several live action adaptations and a mini-series in its native Japan.

The Dark Tower, The Glass Castle, and Death Note all represent how not to adapt a beloved book. But the mistakes of these movies provide valuable lessons for screenwriters looking to adapt other artists’ work.

The chief issue with The Dark Tower is that it goes to painstaking lengths to set up the rules of the universe. So much explanation and backstory are crammed in that there’s no room for character development. With eight novels in total, it’s no wonder that the writing team behind the film felt they had to cover as much as they possibly could, as to make sure non-fans of the books weren’t confused by King’s dense mythology. But in doing so, they made The Dark Tower all plot, no emotion. Iconic characters like The Gunslinger and The Man in Black get short shrift, while the writers make confusing changes, such as elevating Jake (Tom Taylor,) the young boy at the center of the story, to the role of protagonist, thereby allowing Idris Elba’s Roland to fade into the background.

Death Note, meanwhile, has the opposite problem in the sense that the specifics of the world are never fully explained. There’s one lengthy scene where the film’s would-be hero, Light Turner (Nat Wolff,) has the rules of the Note explained to him by the death God, Ryuk (Willem Dafoe,) but the movie only gets more convoluted after this scene is over. Twists and turns reveal rules on top of rules, characters make choices that don’t make any sense, and the plot dissolves into a series of contrivances and misdirections which culminate in a dramatic ending that’s more baffling than shocking.

What Death Note and The Dark Tower do have in common though is that the writers of each seem to have no idea who their central characters are. Light’s quest for vengeance is supposed to stem from his mother’s murder when he was a child. But this information is casually dropped into the film, and never fully explored. Light is presented as a would-be superhero out to avenge his mother’s death, but half the time he just feels like a pissed off kid in over his head, and the other half he feels like an outright sociopath. Then there’s his girlfriend, Mia (Margaret Qualley,) who’s egging him on the whole time. Why Mia has a thirst for blood, and why she’s turned on by the power of the Death Note are never explained. Even worse, we also never learn anything about her home life or backstory, and she becomes little more than a violent plot device inserted into the film to facilitate Light’s journey– which doesn’t end up being much of a journey anyway.

One character in Death Note who is interesting is L (Lakeith Stanfield,) a young, independent investigator who’s on Light’s trail. The details put into L’s character, such as the way he covers his mouth with a mask, eats copious amounts of candy, and perches like a cat rather than sitting normally, are over the top. It’s like he’s written to be an anime character come to life. This is an intriguing choice, but it’s one the rest of Death Note fails to explore. With the exception of Ryuk, who’s a CGI character, no one else in the film is this eccentric, and the result is that L’s scenes feel tonally off with what’s going on in the rest of the film.

What’s a shame about this is that the movie goes to painstaking lengths to make L a compelling character, only to give him little to do. Information about his past, in which he was raised in an elite Japanese school designed to create the world’s best detectives, is thrown out and then fades away. But L’s backstory is not the only element of Death Note that feels awkwardly cut short. The biggest issue with both The Dark Tower and Death Note is that they are condensed into movies with an hour and a half runtime, despite coming from source material that clearly demands longer adaptations.

Again, The Dark Tower is based off a saga that’s eight novels long. Death Note is based off a series of books, an anime show, a miniseries, and several feature films, all of which are around two hours long. It’s not a great sign that the scripts for The Dark Tower and Death Note have seven writing credits between the two of them. It’s also hard to say how much of the fault here lies in producer intervention. Perhaps there are longer cuts of both these films which don’t try to streamline the narratives and dumb things down for the audience as much. However, in the versions we do get, the original source material has been hacked away into almost nothing.

Then there’s The Glass Castle. With only two writing credits on the script, and a respectable runtime of just over two hours, omission and studio intervention are not the problem with this film. Instead, The Glass Castle struggles with depiction.

The Jeannette Walls memoir the film is based on tells a sometimes harrowing story, largely centered on Walls’ father, Rex (Woody Harrelson,) an alcoholic who was often neglectful of his children. Although Rex was a charismatic and loving father, he also put his family in dangerous situations, some of which even resulted in abuse. And yet the darkness of the book is al but erased by the film. As the onscreen character is written, Rex is a fun, inspiring character. The portrait of him in the movie is almost hagiographic, and the tone doesn’t match the information we’re being given.  

Walls was heavily involved in adapting The Glass Castle, which might explain the version of her life we see onscreen. It’s one thing to be critical of a family member on the page, but to actually see one’s life depicted onscreen is another thing entirely, and she may have wanted to protect those closest to her as much as possible. This is an understandable impulse, but from a screenwriting perspective, it falls short. When real life material is adapted into a script, it’s best to be as honest as if you were writing a memoir, otherwise the end result just feels shiny and fake.

The Dark Tower, Death Note, and The Glass Castle all had great casts and talented directors behind them, but for some reason, none of them worked. While it’s unfair to place all the blame on the writers of these films, it is worth considering their shortcomings for aspiring writers who plan on crafting their own adaptations. Remember, don’t sacrifice character so you can explain all the rules of the source material. If you have to make cuts, make them, but don’t try to condense the material just to make it palatable to a wider audience. And if you’re adapting a true story, have the courage and conviction to stick to the facts of the actual events you’re depicting.

More than anything, don’t be afraid to let your movie be its own thing. A faithful adaptation is good, but a great book does not necessarily make for a great movie, and trying to duplicate exactly what the original writer did is often more perilous than productive.

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