Movies and the Standalone Novel

One of my favorite books in the world is The Time Traveler’s Wife. I’ve read it so many times that it looks like it’s been through a war, with dog-eared pages pointing to various paragraphs and bookmarks sticking out of especially memorable passages. Each time I read it, I’m struck by the way the author manages to recount events two or three times, in the chronological orders of both the protagonist and her time-traveling husband, in a way that seems fresh, providing new details that further the plot and enhance character development with each retelling.

I can’t often sit still long enough to watch a movie, so I didn’t pay much attention to the hype of the movie adaptation in 2009. Actually, it wasn’t until this spring break of 2017, after rereading the book for the umpteenth time, that I decided I was going to bring myself to sit down and watch it. I was so excited. I got in my pajamas, made some popcorn, dimmed the lights…

…And was massively disappointed. What did they do to Henry?! All the complexity and life that I loved about the book was sucked out, leaving a stale, generic romantic comedy that only differentiated itself from any other romantic comedy through the protagonist’s time-traveling ability, which was transformed from a diving board into the question of morality and religion into an entertaining quirk.

Watching this, I realized that this isn’t the only movie adaptation that has disappointed me. Some of my old favorite novels, such as My Sister’s Keeper, The Lovely Bones, and Dear John, were also turned into cringe-worthy movies that wrenched out every deeper motif of the novel and left the movie with nothing but the bones of the story, A-list actors, and overhyped commercialization.

Series with mass followings such as The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter aren’t stripped down of everything that makes them worthwhile when they are turned into blockbuster hits, so why are standalone novels?

I think the movie industry misreads the success that drives novels. They may think these books sell because they’re new and exciting, and producers think they need to change the movie adaptations as much as possible to avoid boredom. They completely take for granted that the love of books runs deeper than the love of plot points. They ignore the complexities that drive people to like a book in the first place.

How can this be avoided? Personally, I think this is partially the fault of us as a culture. We give no indications that we love books because of their complexities, or that we want to see more than just the bare bones of the story in the book’s movie adaptation.

The back of The Time Traveler’s Wife lists three pages of questions for book club discussion. In 2003, there were book clubs. Maybe there are still some today that are just hiding from me, but I think we have transitioned primarily to reading as an individualized experience. Nobody knows how much we care about books or what we like about them, because we don’t share it outside of academic circles. The mass readership is so quiet that of course movie producers are going to think they’re getting bored and need things changed up.

Things may be changing for the better. I’ve begun to hear mass talk of The Handmaid’s Tale, the first series-less novel I’ve heard talked about in a long time. This book is getting a show, not just an hour-and-a-half-long movie. Shows have more room for complexity, and I’m more hopeful than perhaps I should be. So maybe I’ll show my support for the series if it turns out to be any good. Maybe I’ll start a book club. Or maybe I’ll just stop trusting Hollywood with the great task of bringing my favorite characters to life.

They did, after all, ruin Henry.

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