14 Ways Movie Adaptations Sabotage Themselves

A staggering 57% of movies in released in the last five years were sequels, reboots or adaptations. That means that only 43% of Hollywood movies released in that five year period were based on original ideas. An average of 57 movies in each of those given years were adaptations.

And a lot of them sucked. Honestly. The book really was better than the movie. There are all sorts of reasons that movie adaptations of books, plays, games and comics go wrong: bad directors and screenwriters, nonsensical casting, a lack of respect for or understanding of the source material, toxic masculinity, racism and even a too tiny budget. It’s so rare to see a big Hollywood adaptation done right, that we had to talk about some of these ways that they go wrong.

We hate when movie adaptations…

  1. Make it a Sausagefest

I hate when movie adaptations diminish the role of women in favor of men. The X-Men movies are notorious. They’re based off of some of Chris Claremont’s best work, which was chock full of women with roles important to the story. Most egregiously, they gave Kitty Pryde’s time travel plot o Wolverine. They switched Emma Frost from a woman who used sex as a form of power to a simple object of the male gaze. They fridged Wolverine’s love interests. It’s like Hollywood is so determined to sell that “nobody wants movies starring women” line so hard that even in films where they’re already sidelined, they sideline us even harder.

It’s even worse on the meta level. Let a woman be part of a blockbuster, then dare to ask for more money. The producers will replace her with someone cheaper or write her out entirely, but still back up those dump trucks full of money for their marquee boys.

— Jamie Kingston

Hermione Granger: that's totally barbaric


  1. Pull an Adaptation Fakeout

What’s worse than adaptations that actually aren’t adaptations? Don’t use the name “I, Robot” if that’s not the movie you are making. People will still go see your movie starring a big name actor who happens to hang out with robots.

— Wendy Browne

  1. Rely On Bankability

I hate when studios cast a tried and true bankable actor just for the sake of cashing in on their star power. There are loads of incredibly talented people looking for a break in Hollywood. If you’re adapting a medium with an established following, trust it to be the draw and proceed to make a damn good movie that sells itself without the need of an A-list actor to do it for you.

— Wendy Browne

  1. Go Overboard with Realism

I hate it when superhero movies try to make origin stories and costumes more “realistic:” Superman’s mesh armor getup in the Snyderverse, whatever was going on with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, the lack of giant alien squid in Watchmen, the explanation of how Ra’s al Ghul seems to live forever in the Nolan movies, etc. Superheroes AREN’T realistic. That’s the point. It would be a futile exercise to escape into a world about as terrible as our own. And at their core, there is always something unrealistic about superheroes; realistically, someone traumatized by his parents’ murder wouldn’t dress up in a bat-themed costume and have bat-themed tech and a bat-themed car and a bat-themed plane. I wish movies would embrace the unreality. Give us a world to properly escape into.

–Kelly Kanayama

  1. Choose Style Over Substance

Stop doing panel-for-panel replications of and lifting dialogue directly from your comic book source material with zero regard for the actual themes contained therein, SNYDER. (Maybe my problem is just with everything Zack Snyder does, which would, I think, be justified. I recently watched Man of Steel for the first time and when Superman killed General Zod at the end, I could hear the clang of my soul hitting the floor.)

It’s not enough to make your movie look or occasionally sound like the comic you’re copying; what matters most is whether the narrative captures the spirit of the characters and their actions. That means staging shots to look like iconic panels in Watchmen without ever interrogating the idea of the superhero in the context of pre-apocalyptic global fear, or depicting the characters as deeply flawed people rather than total badasses isn’t enough.

Lifting dialogue from All-Star Superman — one of the most redemptive, optimistic, non-American-imperialist portrayals of Superman out there, which many readers have actually credited with pulling them back from the brink of wanting to end their own lives and towards valuing themselves and their well-being — for your movie where Superman “wins” by snapping the bad guy’s neck is tone-deaf as hell, and a slap in the face to all those readers. You have the Internet and teams of consultants, writers, and so on at your disposal. Think about the significance of your source material before you commit an empty copy of it to film.

— Kelly Kanayama

Dat radiation poisoning.
Dat radiation poisoning.
  1. Whitewash

No more casting white people in Asian roles. It’s not just about money at this point, so please stop lying to us. That goes for (a number of) villains, too — an Asian villain can be an interesting, complex, non-stereotypical/stereotype-transcending character if you put even a bit of thought into their script and costuming. E.g. I understand why the studio might have been afraid to cast a Middle Eastern man as Ra’s al Ghul, who is basically a terrorist. But in all my years of Bat-fandom, I never put the words “terrorist” and “Ra’s al Ghul” together, because he is always more than that. He’s a family man of sorts, a father figure, a super-classy dresser, and one of my favorite Batman villains ever. It took the casting of a white man to equate the character and the stereotype for me, so thanks a lot for that.

In this day and age, there’s really no excuse for not giving Asian actors and other actors of color the exposure and money they deserve. If the otherwise hilariously stupid Gotham can cast an old Chinese guy in a non-stereotypical role (albeit a small one; he plays a witness helping the police identify a suspect, and he’s great. Sample line: “If I show up in a cop car, my girlfriend’s going to kill me!” No othered accents, martial arts, or mystic wisdom in sight) so can a multimillion-dollar movie.

— Kelly Kanayama

  1. Cast fake REDHEADS!

I hate it when they cast non-redheads as redheads. I don’t mean in roles that were originally redheads, but are now not. I mean trying to recreate a comic book redhead by bolting whichever actress (always an actress) into the salon chair for a few pointless hours every day. The bad wigs, the dull locks, the insufficient colour matching… It make my eyeballs itch. Comic book redheads are tuned to vibrancy, by way of printing abilities and ink register. Adaptation redheads, with lighting as well as whatever else to worry about, have never (have they ever?) managed to do more than look a little sad in comparison.

— Claire Napier

Great moves. Bad wig.
Great moves. Bad wig.
  1. Steal My Sunshine

Adaptations tend to make carefree, expressive women into anything but. I saw “Rogue” and “Mary Jane” in cinemas… But I didn’t see Rogue or Mary Jane. Cripes, can a sunny, noisy, charming girl live? Apparently not.

— Claire Napier

  1. Are Too Faithful to the Source Material

Books are books. Movies are movies. Any movie maker who decides to adapt a book into a movie which follows that book scene by scene should be dipped in gasoline and launched into the sun. A perfect glaring example: the first Harry Potter movie. Chris Columbus must have faced enormous pressure from the studio and the fans to overburden Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with all the enchanting details found in the first book. However, the book’s pacing is incredibly uneven with the first 75% spent in exposition city and the last quarter crammed full of the main conflict and the resulting action. It’s like drinking a large glass of pumpkin juice, another glass of pumpkin juice, still more pumpkin juice, and then guzzling a butterbeer with a Red Bull chaser. J.K. Rowling pulls off this format largely due to her inventive descriptions and fascinating character moments.

On the other hand, Chris Columbus’ film adaptation of Sorcerer’s Stone is more like a visual read-a-long than a movie. I’ve never actually turned on this film and pulled out the first book to follow along. But I suspect that I could do so very easily. Likewise, the poor child acting (searching for ways to feel superior to one’s on-screen contemporaries is a common nerdling activity) and exposition wallowing (Diagon Alley has amazing details but too much lingering) may be a 2000 era tween’s idea of a couple of hours well spent. However, having come to the Harry Potter books and movies as an older teen, any time I see the first HP movie, it feels like I’m shoving soggy pumpkin pasty filling in my eyes for 90 minutes and then assaulting them with pumpkin pasty shards for the remainder. It just doesn’t work!

— Jennie Law

  1. Are Just Retreads

Most notably the Batman, Superman and Spider-Man properties. We do not need to see Martha’s pearls in a recreation of Miller’s artwork–again. We do not need to go over Jor-El getting screwed over by the Kryptonian council as he warns of the planet’s impending doom. We do not need to see Uncle Ben gunned down every time another movie is made about these characters! They’re iconic! Even Joe Random stopped on the street knows these stories. Literally, you could walk up to any stranger and stand a better than 50/50 chance of them being able to tell you the salient points of these origin stories. Stop running them into the ground!

— Jamie Kingston

  1. Are Bloated and Indulgent

Expanding one work into several pieces seems to be the hot new trend in filmmaking. While it might make sense now and again, it’s more likely to turn up as a sloppy, indulgent product that rakes in money than something actually worth watching. We have Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. We have Twilight: Breaking Dawn. We have The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, a two-parter that left me feeling bored when I should have felt passionate. And we have the messy Hobbit series, which improved nothing about the original and introduced a whole lot of unnecessary garbage that slowed down what was originally a tight, fun right rather than a shambling mess. Please stop doing this; I’ll take a well-made movie that leaves out gratuitous wink-nudge references over a film that insists upon injecting obscure lore and extra “comedic” scenes as padding.

— Melissa Brinks

"Why won't you let me die?"
“Why won’t you let me die?”
  1. Don’t Acknowledge How Medium Changes the Story Being Told

Television is its own medium. As is film. Comics are a medium that are different than regular books. Mediums impact how we interpret and experience the story – they can add an entirely new dimension to the experience of a story and that is what movie producers should aim for when adapting books and comics.

— Ginnis Tonik

  1. Stretch or Cram for the Sake of Making a Movie

This one goes hand-in-glove with the bankability item above, as films that suffer this indignity seem most frequently to be vehicles for an actor whose star is on the rise at the time of the film’s release. Always a male actor, too.

A Series of Unfortunate Events crammed together the first three books for that first movie, and it suffered terribly for it. Despite the movie having big name cameos, it was just ninety minutes of scenery and very little else. Oh, and Jim Carrey chewing on said scenery. 

The Grinch (Jim Carrey again) and The Cat in the Hat (Mike Myers), both adaptations of Dr. Seuss stories, were expanded and filled with nonsensical filler and crass adult humor respectively so they’d be long enough to put in a movie theater. Both movies were garbage because they went far astray from Dr. Seuss’ story and message to extend their runtime. In animated form, these two beloved classics are thirty minutes each.

Thankfully, studios seem to have learned — a little. The Lorax and Horton Hears A Who, were both extended to feature film length, but the script and/or screenplay were kept much closer to the source material. They were, as a result, much better films.

— Jamie Kingston

  1. Pass Off the Glory

I can’t stand it when characters who get really great little moments of bravery or even just character development have their second in the spotlight passed off to another person. Whether it be due to a reduction in the number of characters during adaptation or a change in the story, it really bothers me. If I’ve come to enjoy that character and their personal growth in a story, I want that to be reflected in the film version! Sometimes it’s minor and then it’s just a nuisance or slightly bewildering, but when it’s something major it’s downright infuriating.

— Jules Low

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.

8 thoughts on “14 Ways Movie Adaptations Sabotage Themselves

  1. In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde famously wrote, ” There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

    I agree with that. Artists have no moral responsibility towards their audience.

    The piece flatly stated, “No more casting white people in Asian roles.” That sounds like it falls pretty close to “THOU SHALT NOT!!!” to me. I just wondered if, in your opinion, that rule applied only to Asians, or if it applied to the ethnic background of all actors. The addition of the “fake red hair” commandment, gave me the impression that it was a fairly zero-tolerance opinion. If so, I was trying to point out, that such a stand would eliminate great movies like The Godfather, and great plays like Hamilton. And I disagreed with that.

    One can’t have it both ways (well, of course, they CAN, but that wouldn’t leave them with any moral authority). Obviously, equality must apply to everyone, or no one.

    Either way, it’s all just an abstract debate. Artists, real artists (and there’s probably still a few in Hollywood, despite all evidence to the contrary), don’t care about the “rules”. They’ll do what they think is right for the piece, and ignore the meaningless chatter from the outside, whether it agrees with them or not.

    I didn’t mean to fill up the comments with all this. The position stated by the author struck me as rigid, with a whiff of “purity test” about it. I simply feel that it’s a nuanced subject, with no clear line.

  2. Regarding #6 and #7 — I understand some of the criticisms regarding casting according to ethnic type, but not all of them. If we’ve gotten to the point where each actor has to naturally possess precisely the same characteristics as every character they’re portraying, down to their hair color, then we’ll have to find a new word for it, because it’s not exactly “acting” anymore, it’s just a dramatic reading of lines.

      1. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be perplexing. Without a doubt voice acting is acting — but I don’t think voice should be the limit of transformation available to actors in the future. At its heart, an actor’s craft is to transform themselves into a character. Sometimes they do a good job, and sometimes they do a bad job.

        As an example of the bad job side of that, despite his other great performances, I don’t think anyone is going to disagree that Mickey Rooney was an unfortunate casting choice to play Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But was the main problem with the performance that Rooney wasn’t Japanese, or was the main problem more that the character and the performance were entirely idiotic and insulting to Japanese people?

        Obviously, we would all be better off without performances that are deliberately racially insulting, but not all transformative performances are. For instance, Marlon Brando was a 47 year-old man of German, Dutch, English, and Irish ancestry in 1972 when he won the Oscar for his brilliant performance as the 60-something, Italian, Vito Corleone in The Godfather. And to take that even further, Linda Hunt was a 37 year-old white woman from New Jersey when she won the Oscar for her amazing performance as a Chinese-Australian MAN, in the 1982 film, The Year of Living Dangerously.

        Both of those performances were among the best ever given on film, and if we’ve gotten to the point where an actor’s natural hair color should be a deciding factor in casting (as the author of the piece suggests in #7), then I wonder if the further suggestion isn’t that actors never again be given the opportunity to play a character remote from their own experience? If so, then I would think a lot of the “acting” part of acting would be lost.

        1. I think maybe the main problem was both, tbh.

          Linda Hunt’s performance may have been fascinating to many, but was that on the strength of her performance alone, or was it because audiences were intrigued by the facts of it? “Wow, the transformation involved here — a woman playing a man, a white person in yellow face, a person of normative height playing a little person?” For example, Craig Gholson’s interview with Hunt, contains this exchange:

          “CG The characters you’ve portrayed all seem to have a very strong ideology. There’s also some sort of sexual ambivalence, it’s a very interesting mixture of the personal, the private, and this ideology which seems to be one of the ways you make them human . . .

          LH The supra-personal.

          CG Billy Kwan is supra-personal. There are layers upon layers of sexual ambiguity in that role.

          LH Yes, and the fact of my playing it.”

          That’s not a matter of acting, it’s a matter of voyeurism or vicarious play. Audiences (normative audiences) found it pleasurable to explore male/female presentation and divides, and got that on the back of a role about a intersectional disadvantaged man dying for his fictional, but other people’s real-world, politics.

          And honestly, Hunt may be a very fine actress, but I’ve seen her in other films — I’ve never seen a Chinese-Australian man with dwarfism play anything. I think that’s probably quite important.

          1. I understand what you’re saying, but maybe there weren’t any talented Chinese-Australian actors with dwarfism available. Maybe the producers of the film auditioned every Chinese-Australian man with dwarfism they could locate, only to agree that Linda Hunt did a much better job.

            Of course, violating audience expectations can be a powerful tool in casting — from Orson Welles’ all-black, 1936 production of Macbeth, to the current Broadway champion, Hamilton. But making a political statement isn’t the only legitimate use of theater. You’re obviously right on-target that movies and stage plays are primarily about voyeurism and vicarious play. If audiences don’t like what you’re doing, you’ll be out of business pretty quick, so sometimes producers make choices based on pleasing the most people they can. Maybe that means booking a star with known box-office appeal, instead of casting someone more ethnically suited to the part. Sometimes this works, as it did with Brando in the Godfather. Sometimes it’s stupid and distracting, as it was with Emma Stone in Aloha, and sometimes it’s downright insulting, as it was with Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

            Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but you seem to be advocating a take-no-prisoners stance. Where is the line that you feel we shouldn’t cross? If you’re contending that the line is that each actor MUST share everything — gender, race, sexual orientation, medical affliction, and hair color with the character portrayed, then I just completely disagree with that.

          2. I think it’s probably possible to eke out a basic sketch of the line if you read around the site a bit and allow for personal taste having no impact on The Rules of Reality. Fake red hair is annoying to look at. Substituting eye tape and a horsehair moustache for a demographic of actors who get little work is an affront to dignity. Sometimes bad decisions please a lot of people, sometimes demonstrably regressive structures produce edifying work but are still rejectable. The world is not clean, which means that wrong things can be useful but does not oblige a person to say they are in fact right things. Someone can say “this sucks [in my opinion]” and “this is actually bad for society” about two different things but in one breath without getting out a knife and demanding that the director whose neck they have it pressed to cast exactly who they say in exactly which role and get away scot-free. You’re asking for hard and fast THOU SHALT NOT!!! framework, you’re responding as if to one, and that’s just not what we’re offering in this piece. Some points are drastically important, some points are personal grievances. They’re not clearly labelled. You can manage anyway.

  3. A great read, but point #10 seems as though you’re lumping movie-goers into one mass perspective.

    Whilst I agree that such characters as Batman and Spider-Man have some of the most recognisable/quotable origins in characters in popular fiction, I think it’d a bit heavy-handed to assume that everyone who saw Batman v Superman knows Martha’s pearls off by heart.

    There may be more superhero product in cinema now more than ever, but isn’t it safe to say that everyone’s superhero movie is somebody’s first superhero movie? When I saw BvS in the cinema, about a third of the cinema were young kids, the bulk of which I can only assume weren’t familiar with Frank Miller or Christopher Nolan.

    The flipside of this of course is the sense of frustration for us older fans who do know these sequences of by heart. First world problems, I guess.

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