The Hub loves movies, no doubt about it, and we’ve got the Monday Polls and blog posts to prove it. And why not? Watching a really great adaptation of a beloved novel is a little like getting to read it again for the first time, with the added bonus of a new format that can highlight, expand, or focus in on the core of the story. (The flip side of this, of course, is that a bad adaption makes us want to scrub our brains.)
For me, the ideal adaptation comes with the creation of something that is a great movie in its own right, but still remains true to the book, maybe not in every detail, but at least in spirit. The overall tone and feeling of the book — the lingering image, the message, the character you can’t shake — if a movie can translate that from page to screen, it’s on the right path at least. For example, none of the changes Peter Jackson made to the Lord of the Rings trilogy bothered me in the least, mostly because the epic scope and feeling of the books came through in spades, not to mention the characters who, despite minor deviations, were still the hobbits, ranger, elves, dwarves, and great flaming eye I’d come to love. (In fact, I really only have one quibble with Mr. Jackson, one tiny little detail he left out that would have been the cherry on top, and that’s impressive given that he adapted hundreds and hundreds of prose pages into 14 hours of cinematic awesomeness.)
Anyway, I can’t pretend for a minute that picking out the scenes, details, characters, and plot lines that would build an effective movie is something I’m very good at, but it’s an exercise I find endlessly fascinating (and I confess I use it as a technique to help me fall asleep at night when my mind is whirling, along with “casting” whatever book I’m currently reading.) Almost every book I read gets the movie treatment eventually (though some are quickly dismissed as being unsuitable candidates.) Which characters stay? Who gets the boot? What plot lines survive intact and which need to be streamlined or even drastically changed in order to fit the new format? What parts are particularly cinematic and what kind of special effects am I most looking forward to? How would a particular scene or element be filmed for maximum effect? Trying to choose what stays and what goes and what gets added to build a cohesive theme and plot is engaging, instructive, and just plain fun. (And apparently quiets the voices in my head that insist on making to-do lists at midnight.)
Over the years I’ve given the “movie treatment” to hundreds of books, and I could go on and on and on about lots of them. For now, though, here are a handful of books and series that I think would make excellent movies. Note, according to my personal rules, the book can’t already have been optioned — at least as far as I know — which rules out titles like Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Ready Player One, which would otherwise definitely be on this list. Also, the director must still be directing. (The hypothetical film game where director and cast are wide open is a different set of rules for me.) Please also note that I don’t consider myself a serious film aficionado by any stretch, so my director picks are basically mainstream, at best.
A Stir of Bones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, a 2004 Best Book for Young Adults, is a quiet book about a girl hiding a terrible secret behind a wealthy, polished exterior. It’s about confronting abuse, making new friends, and learning to live in the world, instead of merely on the fringes. It’s also about a sentient house, a lonely ghost, and supernatural powers bestowed through the gift of a bone. Grounded in the crushing reality of horrific childhood trauma, this book would make a spectacular, if odd, little movie, specifically because of the juxtaposition between the two houses involved. The houses — and the teenagers that inhabit them — harbor secrets and power, and the danger of uncovering both is at the heart of the plot. It’s the evocative, emotional journey of the main character, Susan, however, and her ghostly friend Nathaniel, that would form the core of a haunting, bittersweet movie. I’d love to see what someone like Wes Anderson or Alfonso Cuaron or Steven Spielberg would do with this. (Yeah, I’m all over the map with directors … it’s one of the fun parts of adapting in my head, imaging how different people would approach the source material.)
The Gatekeepers series by Anthony Horowitz is a no-brainer as far as movie adaptions go, at least in my mind. Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider series and the new authorized Sherlock Holmes sequel, among other things, has also written numerous screenplays and more television scripts than I can count. The Gatekeepers series (Raven’s Gate, Evil Star, Nightrise, Necropolis, and the soon-to-be-released Oblivion) is possibly the most cinematic story I’ve ever read, and that’s not an adjective that usually springs to mind for me. The story of five teens gathered from around the world to battle the Old Ones has everything from satanic cults to nuclear physics, alternate dimensions to evil multinational corporations, telepathic twins to a City of the Dead. The plot might sound convoluted, and it would probably require a little bit of streamlining, but Horowitz does a pretty remarkable job of cutting straight to the action, despite the globe-spanning, mythology-heavy plot and the large, eccentric cast. This would be a dark, gross, intense movie series, and in the hands of someone like Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, Robert Rodriguez, Christopher Nolan, or Joss Whedon (who would be so good at highlighting the characters in between vats of acid, demonic possession, and secret societies) it would be magnificent.
The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean, the 2008 Michael L. Printz Award Winner, is a strange book, I’ll be the first to admit. I had to read it probably four or five times before I became unequivocally convinced of its genius, though I got there (and I could explain my reasoning at a more appropriate time.) For now, let’s settle for an examination of the story elements that I think would make this highly adaptable: setting, character, theme, and … Titus. The White Darkness is set almost entirely in the Antarctic, and the vast expanse of “The Ice” is practically a character in and of itself. While the descriptions of that startling landscape are one of the highlights of the text, seeing them recreated on the big screen could be equally wonderful. The main character, Sym, is engaging, idiosyncratic, and memorable; in fact, voiceover narration — a cinematic technique I’m not always fond of — could work really well here, since Sym’s “voice” is so distinct, so integral to the tone of the book. McCaughrean’s book fits into the proud tradition of works that draw dramatic and effective parallels between external landscape and internal emotion, and with the right director and cinematographer, that theme could be beautifully illustrated onscreen. And finally, any adaption must rest, as the book does, on a convincing, grounded, and completely unexplained Titus Oates, the other half of Sym’s inner dialogue, who might or might not be a figment of her imagination. The pivotal and poignant question at the end of the book would make an equally haunting ending to a movie, and I can see Sofia Coppola, the Coen Brothers, or M. Night Shyamalan (who can be great at depicting uncertainty, and has the eye of an artist) each offering compelling and completely different versions.
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, a 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults pick, is a hard book for me to describe because my mind goes immediately to Harry Potter comparisons that, while accurate, don’t really do it justice. The story of American-born albino Sunny, who currently lives in her parents’ homeland of Nigeria, has many of the same fantastic elements, to be sure: revelations of magical heritage, climactic sporting events, a school for practitioners, coming of age with a group of new friends, and a suitably creepy antagonist. But Akata Witch is no Rowling knock-off, not by a long shot. The evocative details of modern Nigerian culture and landscape are wholly original, as is the magic system, and most importantly, the characters. Soccer plays a prominent role, as do real-world problems like an abusive father and school bullies, but true to most good fantasy, the realistic and fantastic elements complement each other, offering insights that would be easily highlighted by a director skilled at both depicting relationships and creating magic onscreen. I’m thinking someone like Julie Taymor, the Hughes Brothers (who would tease out more of the serial killer storyline, I bet), or Chris Columbus would do a really great job with this.
Nation by Terry Pratchett, a 2009 Michael L. Printz Honor Book, might seem like a difficult pick, and I’m not entirely sure about trying to translate Terry Pratchett to the big screen. Nation, however, has a lot going for it, as far as being adaptable, and I would love to see someone try (though of course I’d rant violently if they messed it up.) Some of the intricacies of plot, characterization, and setting would need to be streamlined, but the main outline of the story — Mau’s return to a devastated island, his discovery of “ghost-girl” Daphne, and the struggles between the refugees and raiders — would make for great movie moments. Besides, much of the charm and wisdom of Nation actually occurs in the dialogue (some internal, some external — I’d have to think about more voiceovers…), so I think a careful director could keep Pratchett’s trademark wit and insight intact. The deeper themes of the book — survival, leadership, perception, belief, responsibility — could be conveyed, with a touch of humor (or it wouldn’t be Pratchett) and with great heart through careful selection of scenes and characters. Plus the beginning (that enormous wave!) and the ending (which makes me tear up just thinking about it) could be fantastically, cinematically awesome in the way that the best movies capture huge events beyond imagination and the quiet, tension-filled moments that mean everything. I’m honestly not sure who could capture the vision I have in my head … Spike Jonze, Kathryn Bigelow, Martin Scorsese — I’m flailing wildly here … but I’d like to see someone try. (As long as they do it right, of course.)
I could go on and on. The Midnighters series by Scott Westerfeld, Stephanie Perkins’s Anna and the French Kiss, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, the Hungry City Chronicles by Philip Reeve, John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines … with the right director and a stellar screenplay, can’t you see each of those lighting up the big screen?
— Julie Bartel, currently reading Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis and Liar’s Moon by Elizabeth C. Bunce, both of which might make good movies…
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