From The Mortal Instruments to Mortal Engines, let’s take a look at some of the worst book adaptations in recent cinema.
After the popularity of adaptations such as The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, it’s no surprise that there has been an influx of films based on books in recent years. However, not all adaptations have managed to find the same success as those mentioned. Most recently, Disney’s Artemis Fowl, which dropped on their streaming service earlier this month, has been hit with a bout of criticism from fans and critics alike. There’s a common theme among these adaptations, which is that they are based mostly on young adult or children’s books, pandering to a younger audience that will watch the film regardless of its reputation.
It is easy to presume, as a viewer, that adapting a book into a film would be a simple task, as writers and directors already have a good idea of plot, setting and overall tone for the film. But there are obviously bound to be changes from page to screen: after all, what works well for a book audience is not always going to come across in the same way to a film audience. There is always the guarantee that, regardless of the appeal to wider audiences, there will already be a pre-existing group of book fans who will go to cinemas to see the adaptation regardless of criticism. And with adaptations, they are one of the only cases within film where the opinions of fans can drown out those of film critics. When judging adaptations, not only do we need to view the film as an adaptation, but also as a general fantasy film. Often, films that fail as adaptations are still worth watching, be it to judge them as such or because some of them aren’t bad films, only bad adaptations. With that said, here’s a list of the top 5 book adaptations that are the worst.
5. A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS
Director: Brad Silberling
Where to watch it: Netflix
Brad Silberling (Casper, Land of the Lost)‘s adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events covers the first three novels of the series (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room and The Wide Window) and is an adaptation that failed to succeed as such. It features a cast of both new and well-known talent such as Jim Carrey, Emily Browning and Liam Aiken, as well as household names Meryl Streep, Catherine O’Hara, Billy Connolly and Jude Law. Although, admittedly, I find this film is the least-worst choice on this list. It succeeded in capturing the mysterious gothic nature of the book series, primarily through its set and costume design, as well as capturing some of the frustration of being a child in a dismissive adult world that the books focus on, although, here, it is slightly diluted for film audiences. Aside from these elements, the film falls flat. The plot is changed greatly, with three books squeezed into a short runtime, which does not allow for much of the world or characters to be introduced and explored. Jim Carrey’s performance as Count Olaf is entertaining, but it can often become tiring and over the top, making it completely detached from the book’s character in all elements apart from its looks.
Like many recent adaptations, A Series of Unfortunate Events got a second chance on the screen, with a Netflix series staring Neil Patrick Harris, Melina Weissman, Louis Hynes, Presley Smith and Patrick Warburton. The series was ultimately more successful among long time fans of the books than the film adaptation was. Both the A Series of Unfortunate Events 2004 film and the 2017-19 show are available to watch on Netflix.
THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS:
CITY OF BONES
Director: Brad Silberling
Where to watch it: Netflix
Harald Zwart (The Karate Kid, 12th Man)’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is the adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, the first of six novels in her The Mortal Instruments series. Starring Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower, alongside Robert Sheehan, Kevin Zegers and Jemima West, the film seems to be a mash up of a variety of other teen films, such as Twilight, meaning that it struggles to find any sense of originality at all. Considering the run time of the film, there is a significant lack of development regarding both the characters and the plot, making the film feel soul-less in comparison to the popular book series. The comedy element of the film, again, lacks in comparison to the novel, with a vain attempt at what would be referred to as edgy teen humour. The only cast member who manages to land any laughs is Robert Sheehan, whose character was clearly the established comic relief among the brooding backdrop of the other characters. Overall, the film somehow manages to take itself both too seriously and not seriously enough at moments when the tone is vital to the films premise.
Similarly to A Series of Unfortunate Events, the series got a second chance on the small screen with the Shadowhunters series on Freeform and Netflix, which ran form 2016-2019. Both were received positively by fans, given that the series stuck closer to the plot of the book. Both The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and Shadowhunters are available to watch on Netflix.
3. THE GOLDEN COMPASS
Director: Chris Weitz
Where to watch it: Prime Video
The Golden Compass was directed by Chris Weitz (About a Boy, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) and is based on the 1995 book Northern Lights, the first novel in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Starring Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig alongside Sam Elliott, Eva Green and Ian McKellen, the fantasy film is clearly another film that aimed to be the first in a series but didn’t perform well enough to be such. Within the film’s 1-hour and 45-minuite run time, there is a clear attempt to condense the original novels’ characters and plot, which creates a narrative which is unbelievably unclear and incredibly difficult to follow, once again losing the charm of the original. One highlight of the film is Dakota Blue Richards (Skins), whose performance as the lead character Lyra was her film debut. At 13 years old, she does well in the role: even though at times she underacts, it’s impressive and unfortunately rare to find younger actors cast as characters who match their ages.
This is the third adaptation that has recently had a television reboot. In 2019, the first season of His Dark Materials aired on both BBC one and HBO, staring Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, Anne-Marie Duff and James McAvoy. The series was praised by both critics and fans and is a much better portrayal of the first book.
2. MORTAL ENGINES
Director: Christian Rivers
Where to watch it: Prime Video
Based on Philip Reeve’s 2001 book of the same title, Christian Rivers (Feeder, Pete’s Dragon)‘s adaptation of the post-apocalyptic action adventure story was the biggest box office bomb of 2018. The film stars Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving and Jihae Kim, and both its characters and plot feel dull in comparison to the books. The plot feels slow and uninspired due to a lack of on-screen build-up, and the characters are unrecognisable, looking nothing like their vivid descriptions in the book, which would occasionally not be as much of a problem if a major character motivation was not linked to their physical description in the novel. The end result feels like the last film in a series, all action with the expectance that the audience knows the context. Both visual effects and production design the visual effects, not including Robert Sheehan’s wretched wig, make the 2-hour run time feel a little less like time wasted.
1. PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS:
THE LIGHTNING THIEF
Director: Chris Columbus
Where to watch it: Disney+
Directed by Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs Doubtfire), this adaptation is undoubtedly one of the most famous film fails. Even though it wasn’t a box office flop, the amount of negative criticism the adaptation received from fans of the book series cemented its reputation. With Logan Lerman in the title role and a selection of already famous faces such as Uma Thurman, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean and Steve Coogan, there was no denying that the cast alone was to bring in a variety of target audiences. The film strips the story of the books’ portrayal of Greek Gods and dismisses the importance of Greek tragedy that the books rely on. Opting, instead, for characters who fulfil the typical cliché over the top portrayal of mythical beings within film. Though the characters are not the only element of the adaptation that are unfaithful to the book series, the plot itself had many major elements removed in order to allow for the inclusion of more action scenes. Creating a mass amount of plot holes and resulting in the film lacking the secure sense of direction found in the book.
Overall, the film takes a well-researched and masterfully constructed book and strips it of such qualities, resulting in a movie devoid of any memorable character, which only strives to move the plot from one action sequence to the next, with little care for the development of those scenes in between. Even Rich Riordan, author of the series, publicly criticised the film’s final script, admitting that he had no intention of seeing or promoting it. Arguably one of the worst things about the Percy Jackson adaptation is that it somehow got a sequel, and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters was released in 2013. It was announced by Riordan via twitter in May that a Percy Jackson tv series was in early development over at Disney+: let’s hope it’ll be a better adaptation than its predecessor.
Both Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lighting Thief and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters are currently available to watch on Disney+.