When the Movie Is Nothing Like the Book

When the Movie Is Nothing Like the Book

It's not every day that you'll find Mary Poppins and World War Z mentioned in the same sentence. I'd wager not many people have read both of those books, but many have seen both movies. They're perfect examples of movies that have almost nothing to do with the books they are based on.

World War Z is a brilliant book. Max Brooks is one of my writing heroes. I thought zombies were stupid until I read World War Z. He took the flesh-eating undead and used them to illustrate the idea of pure war (or war for war's sake) and the implications of an enemy that never stops. I became an apologist for zombies when I put the book down.

Then Brad Pitt went and made it into a movie.

At least that's what I gather the source material was. I still don't understand how they went from World War Z the book to World War Z the movie. My expectation was a documentary-style drama following the narrator as he travels to interview the various heroes from the book, using flashback to show their stories and adding in a simple storyline to tie them together. What did we get? We got fast zombies that turn you in ten seconds, Pitt as some kind of uber-enforcer for the UN (dude, the UN doesn't have people that good), and... no spoilers, but the ending made me want to throw things at the screen.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Mary Poppins which I have read both to myself and aloud to my children. In the book, Mary Poppins has a friend who breaks off her magical candy fingers to give to Jane and Michael. And they eat them. *tap tap* Is this thing on? They eat the lady's fingers. Mary herself is haughty, snippy, and vain to a fault. The book is still whimsical and hilarious, but it is a far cry from the movie I grew up watching. Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke dancing and singing the infamous "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" are infectiously fun and joyous, and I still love the mix of animation and live action. However, the movie bears almost no resemblance to the book beyond the character's names, the tea party on the ceiling, and the setting at Cherry Tree Lane. I think my love for the novel is part of the reason why I don’t think it is sacrilegious for Hollywood to produce a sequel. I’ve read several of the Mary Poppins series, so I know there’s plenty of source material to inspire screenwriters.

(I haven’t seen Mary Poppins Returns yet, so I reserve the right to dislike it.)

And then there are movies that are nothing like the book, and the author should be singing the praises of the screenwriter who made their tome watchable. There are a lot more of them than one might realize. Case in point: The Phantom of the Opera. I don't love musicals, but Phantom the musical takes what I consider unreadable drivel and makes it soapy but watchable drama.

Another example: Frankenstein. Grab your torches and pitchforks if you must, but I hated it. I tried reminding myself that epistolary novels used to be a big thing. I tried reading it at night when it would supposedly scare me. I gave up after about five chapters, and I do not apologize. However, Frankenstein's monster is creepy on screen in almost every iteration.

And then there’s my personal favorite, Shrek. I quoted Shrek endlessly in high school, and I have enjoyed the sequels almost as much. Have you read the children’s book? I wish I hadn’t. In fact, just forget I told you that movie is based on a book.

If there's anything I learned from writing scripts for a campus television show in college, it is that converting a story from the written word to the screen is tough. I commend those screenwriters who do it successfully.

But to whoever wrote the script for World War Z... please, for the love of all things putrescent and zombified, never do that again.

What movies and books left you saying, "Wait, is this the same story?" And what movies were better than their books? I'm happy to argue with you in the comments. ;)

 
Photo Credit: L.G. McCary 2019

Photo Credit: L.G. McCary 2019

 
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