Prompted by seeing the imaginative Day Watch and by a question from this person, I've returned to a train of thought that occupied my mind constantly in December of 2005 (can't remember any particular reason why): movies made from books.
It's a subject I have strong feelings about, perhaps because I can be so precious about books I love. The first anguish I remember having about movie based on books centered on the much-beloved 1971 version of Roald Dahl's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. (They didn't keep the title of the source book--is this a hint of things to comes?) As I said, this movie was and still is enormously popular; it's fun and colorful and features Gene Wilder and orange-skinned midgets. But for me, a huge Roald Dalh fan who had read the book multiple times, the movie was just confusing (and honestly, it still confuses me). Each child could only bring one parent--okay. But what was up with the kids being asked to steal the gobstopper recipe? Why did they replace Roald Dalh's wonderful, creepy Oompa Loompa poems about the fates of the children with (admittedly catchy) dopey, simple songs? And why did Charlie and his Grandpa Bucket break the rules? This last one was the clincher--the whole point of the story is that Charlie is absolutely good just because you are supposed to be (hello, Kant!) and is therefore rewarded. These changes made no sense and didn't add anything worthwhile to the story. (I didn't like Tim Burton's new version much, either; while better in many ways, it had its own attrocious additions.)
Worse than Chocolate Factory was 1995's Jumanji, which stole the name and a vague concept from Chris Van Allsburg's beautiful illustrated book (I'm not going to get into everything that was wrong with the movie version. Just read the book and you'll see for yourself why I won't use the phrase "based on" to describe the movie, even if Van Allsburg helped write the screenplay).
This angst over changes and additions to stories seems to cover my problem (and solution) with adaptations: just don't change anything, I seem to be saying. Remain absolutely faithful to my beloved source material, and maybe you'll have something. But why bother to take a good book and make it into a movie if you're just going to change some of what makes it good in the first place?
I usually put off reading books I haven't read yet if I intend to the see the movie release, just to avoid this kind of frustration and disappointment. I went out of my way to read Frank Miller's Sin City before seeing Robert Rodriguez' film of the same name precisely because it suppose to be an utterly faithful adaptation of the novels (the panels of the graphic novels were used as a storyboard), and it succeeded in that. If I just don't want any changes, that would explain why I liked Sin City so much.
However, I have enjoyed the movie versions of some books I've read. I suppose this could be because it had been a long time between reading the book and seeing the movie and I'd forgotten some things, or perhaps the books were ones i wasn't as precious about as others, and I had been a bigger fan of that particular book, I would have understood what was so horribly wrong with the cinematic version.
I want to think that it's more than just that, because that attitude just makes me feel childish. It's alright for filmmakers to take someone else's favorite stories and ruin them for him or her, but not my own? This is an unsatisfactory explanation.
My thoughtful answer comes back to the question I asked earlier: why bother to take a good book and make it into a movie?