Opinion: We Don’t Need More Book-to-Screen Adaptations

Last Wednesday, one year almost to the day after the finale of Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments on Freeform, Constantin Film and the BBC dropped a bomb on fans of Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter Chronicles: they’re making a TV Show out of The Infernal Devices.

The response was… not exactly what you’d expect from a fandom as large and as passionate as this one, especially considering the fact that this seemed to be the absolute best-case scenario for an adaptation of a Shadowhunter series. The Infernal Devices is probably the Shadowhunter series that lends itself best to television, and the BBC is known to be a) good at adaptations b) good at period pieces (the series is set in Victorian London), and c) unlikely to drag the show out longer than necessary, as an American network would. People were even saying the new show would be true to the books! How exciting!

Despite all the positive signs, the dominant feeling across the fandom – or at least in the corners that I frequent – was one of dread. We do not want an Infernal Devices TV show, people were saying. We may have wanted one a few years ago, but these days we are perfectly content to enjoy our books and not worry about adaptations. Leave these books – and this fandom – alone.

Now, for those who may be unaware of this particular fandom’s complicated history with adaptations, let me explain. The Shadowhunter Chronicles spans five series of young adult fantasy novels, plus a bunch of novella bind-ups and spinoffs. The Mortal Instruments, a six-book series set in New York, kicked off The Shadowhunter Chronicles in 2007, and was completed in 2014. It is the only series that has been adapted to screen so far. The Infernal Devices – the series that is now apparently getting a TV show – is a prequel trilogy set in Victorian London that stars the ancestors of the protagonists of The Mortal Instruments. It was completed in 2013. There is one other complete trilogy, one incomplete trilogy, and another set to be published in a few years. Needless to say that the Shadowhunter Chronicles fandom is a very large one that has existed for a very long time and has a lot of content to look forward to in the coming years. It is not, however, a fandom that has been particularly lucky with adaptations.

The first attempt at an adaptation was the 2013 movie The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, which was a bust. After that came the 2016 TV show Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments, which ran for three seasons and in that time managed to divide the fandom in half, attract a dedicated fanbase of people who despised the books and the author, and create such a toxic environment in the fandom that it became difficult to talk about the books online without attracting mobs of show fans demanding that you justify your preference for the books over the clearly superior TV show. It even inspired people to go after the author! The book fandom essentially disappeared as TV talk dominated conversation, and didn’t fully recover until the release of Chain of Gold earlier this year. It was a mess, and I am sure I am not alone in being very relieved to have that era finally over with.

So you can forgive fans of The Shadowhunter Chronicles for being wary of this new adaptation, even if it is based on a different series, produced by a different network, reportedly much more faithful to the books, and completely unrelated to Shadowhunters. As it turns out, a bad adaptation can’t ruin a book, but it can ruin a fandom!

Adaptations of popular books are always controversial and rarely satisfying. As an avid reader, I have always firmly believed that even the best movie adaptations cannot ever be as good as the books that inspired them, and I am not alone in this belief. However, like many of my fellow readers, I have also long been obsessed with adaptations; the Harry Potter movies used to be my favourite movies, and I have eagerly followed many of my favourite books through the adaptation process.

It is only in recent years that I have started to realize that I don’t actually enjoy any of those movies as much as feel like I should.

Yes, I appreciate that the Harry Potter movies are pretty true to the books, but I feel like every time I watch them, I’m mostly just annoyed and frustrated at what they did with the characters and what they left out. I loved The Hunger Games movies, but I haven’t had the desire to re-watch any of them since I first saw them in theatres. I remember the Narnia movies being some of my favourites as a kid, but I got bored of watching them very quickly. I’m thinking back to every book I’ve loved that has been accurately adapted to film or TV, and I don’t have strong feelings about those adaptations at all – even though a lot of them were extremely important to me at the time. Honestly, the adaptations I remember best are the really bad ones, because at least those evoked strong emotions in me.

Obviously this is just my opinion and I’m not judging anyone who genuinely enjoys book-to-screen adaptations, but as I have started to see more and more books I love being optioned for film or television, I have started to ask myself why I care so much about my favourite books getting good adaptations.

I accepted long ago that no adaptation will ever be able to capture the magic of my favourite books. For one, part of the magic of reading books is that the way I visualize the story is completely different from the way any other reader will visualize it. Most people seem to be in agreement with me on this point. One of the complaints I keep seeing thrown around regarding the Infernal Devices TV show is that no show will ever be able to portray the books accurately on screen. It is impossible to play Will Herondale, so nobody is allowed to try.

Most importantly, though, film and literature are completely different mediums with different strengths and different ways of telling stories. Asking a movie to tell the same story as a book just isn’t fair, because a movie can’t tell you what’s happening inside a character’s head the way a book can. In the same vein, a novelization of your favourite movie can’t be as fast-paced or as exciting as the movie itself. Lindsay Ellis talks about this phenomenon in relation to Hollywood movie musicals in her most recent video essay “Why is Cats?”, arguing that it is long past time that Hollywood stop trying to make movies out of popular musicals, because the things that make musicals good are things that simply do not work in film.

Popular musicals being adapted to films because ‘Oscar bait’ is a disease. The only way movies like this work is either through hyper-stylisation in the vein of decent films like Moulin Rouge or Chicago, or animation, which likewise can rise visually to the magical unrealism inherent to the medium of musicals. But gritty realism? Oscar bait? No thank.

Lindsay Ellis, “Why is Cats?” 54:00

A good musical does not a good movie make, and neither does a good book.

Most of the time, the only way to make a good movie out of a good book is to change the story to fit the new medium, but who wants that? I liked the original story.

So if I want my adaptations to be perfectly faithful to the books… but I know that that’s impossible and won’t make a good movie… then why do I still get excited about adaptations?

The first thing that comes to mind for me is the exposure that the books receive when they get adapted. The truth is that movies and TV shows reach more people than books do. A movie adaptation puts your favourite book on people’s radar. Constantin Film making a movie out of City of Bones meant that I could buy Shadowhunter merchandise in my local bookstore, and that people actually knew what I was talking about when I mentioned my favourite books. The first time I dressed up as a Shadowhunter for Halloween, I drew runes on myself in sharpie and nobody knew what I was; the second time, I had temporary rune tattoos and most people had a vague idea of what a Shadowhunter was. That was fun! Also, lots of new people were reading the books because of the movie! Heck, I discovered some of my favourite books because of their adaptations. It’s great marketing.

There’s also a sort of pride that comes with seeing a story you love so much achieve a level of popularity it might not have achieved before. You feel vindicated, like “see? I knew this was good all along! I liked it before the movie!”

Of course, any avid reader knows that increased exposure can come with drawbacks when the adaptation misrepresents the source material. I die a little bit inside every time I mention the Percy Jackson series to someone and they say “well, I saw the movie but I didn’t really like it,” as if not liking a terrible movie that didn’t even try to understand the characters or the themes of the book series is a judgement on the quality of the books. I get the same feeling when I talk about The Shadowhunter Chronicles and people immediately bring up the TV show and how they didn’t couldn’t even get through the first episode.

A few months ago, I recommended Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda to a friend, and they told me they weren’t interested in reading the book because the movie’s ending was cringey and they didn’t like the way Simon’s friends reacted to him being outed, two things that were very much not in the book. And I could write a whole other article about the tone-deaf marketing for the later Hunger Games movies, when the whole world seemed to forget about the actual message of the series while the studio was churning out district-inspired makeup lines and cheerfully introducing viewers to the tributes of the next Hunger Games, and reviewers were complaining that the Mockingjay movies weren’t exciting enough without children fighting to the death.

Movies and TV shows are more popular than books, but sometimes that means they overshadow the books a little bit.

But exposure can’t be the only reason I like adaptations! Surely there’s something in it for me as well. Maybe it’s just really cool to see something that had previously only existed in your head turned into a movie or a TV show. It’s also a fun way to relive your favourite book in a condensed format – re-reading the entire Harry Potter series would be a pretty big commitment, but if you really wanted to, you could binge all the movies in a single day while eating popcorn and looking at your phone half the time. I won’t lie: even though I’m dreading the fandom drama that will come with this new Infernal Devices adaptation, and would be perfectly happy if the whole thing was cancelled, I also think it would be kind of fun to watch one of my favourite book series in TV format, and share it with people who otherwise might not have picked up the books. I don’t really want it, but I’m still going to get excited about it, and I’m definitely going to watch it.

Still, are adaptations really all that necessary, when the best thing we can hope for is an almost exact copy of the books?

The more adaptations I see – whether they’re failed or successful – the more I start to think that maybe books are best left as books, and movies and TV shows are best left as movies and TV shows.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!

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