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Don't Judge a Book By Its Movie: Adapting Appeals

by Rebecca Honeycutt

*Originally appeared in the November/December issue of Kids & Books.*

Much has been written about why there have been so many high-profile book-to-movie flops in 2013. Many blame the poor performance of Beautiful CreaturesThe HostThe Mortal Instruments, and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters on things like bad scripts, terrible casting, an oversaturated market, or a failure to rally the fans. Personally, I believe all of those problems are symptoms of one big problem: not understanding appeals.

Understanding appeals is the cornerstone of good readers' advisory. In order to recommend a book to a reader, you've got to identify exactly what makes that book awesome. Sure, books and movies are very different animals, and you can't expect all the book's appeals to work in the context of a movie. But you also can't make a good movie if you don't understand the appeal of the source material.

Let's start with a couple of positive examples: Twilight and Harry Potter. Both franchises took at least one of the books' primary appeals and ran with it on screen. The Twilight movies, for instance, foregrounded the romance, so that no matter how confused you were by the progressively weird and sprawling plot, you still got the intense, immortal vampire lovin' that you came to see.

Do directors and producers need a lesson in appeals?

Similarly, the Harry Potter movies wisely focused on one of the strongest of the books' myriad appeals: the characters. As a reader, you genuinely love Harry and his friends, and you're emotionally invested in their fate. So while many of us were disappointed that our favorite supporting characters (Tooooonks!) got short shrift, the narrow focus established enough solid characterization to carry viewers through eight long movies.

By contrast, The Mortal Instruments spectacularly failed to do what Twilight and Harry Potter did: it sacrificed both characterization and romantic oomph for splashy visuals and a tangled portrayal of an intricate, multigenerational plot. Clary and Jace, whose chemistry is fiery and dramatic in the books, were so bland in the movie that their first big clinch felt laughably unearned and overwrought.

And the Percy Jackson movies disappointed viewers not because they didn't deliver epic demigod action, but because without Rick Riordan's near-perfect pacing and Percy's wry, authentically middle school humor, the action felt hollow. (And don't even get me started on the fact that neither Clarisse nor Kronos -- the big bad of the series! -- turned up until the second movie.)

With appeals in mind, then, we look to the future. What should we expect from this fall's crop of book-to-movie adaptations? Catching Fire is certainly the most anticipated, but it's also got potential for disaster. Suzanne Collins' vivid rendering of Katniss' voice helped the book maintain momentum through the slow-burning first half of the story until our heroes once again land in the arena -- can the movie pull off the same trick?

Then there's The Book Thief, which already faces an uphill battle just to distinguish itself from the pack of heartwrenching World War II movies. This could be especially difficult, given that what distinguishes the book -- Marcus Zusak's gorgeous, gut-punching writing, and the unusual choice of Death as a narrator -- doesn't easily translate into film's visual language. The plot is powerful, but can it carry the whole movie?

For better or for worse, we'll find out in theaters this November. And if the movies let you down, NoveList has got you covered with reading recommendations that are sure to satisfy.

Want to get ready for the Catching Fire movie release on November 22? You don't want to miss "A Catch-Up Guide to Catching Fire." 

Rebecca Honeycutt is a bibliographer for NextReads. Before joining NoveList, she worked as a teen librarian in public libraries. She loves reading all kind of books for kids and teens, but finds young adult fantasy series especially irresistible.