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The Most Heinous Book-to-Screen Bastardizations of a Novel

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | August 13, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | August 13, 2009 |

Inspired by last week’s rant from Steven Lloyd Wilson regarding the new, test-audience driven ending that Robert Schwentke appended to The Time Traveler’s Wife, we decided to look back at ten of our favorite novels and how they were completely bastardized for the screen, both big and small. Here are the results:

the-dresden-files.jpgThe Dresden Files: Come batter me with your plastic lightsabers and foamcore PVC broadswords, but I feel like nine times out of ten, the Sci-Fi Network fucks up anything they get their hands on. They can’t even spell their own fucking name right. You have to be some kind of hardcore nerdcore devotee to get into most of their offerings. For a network that commits itself to creating science fiction and fantasy series, the special effects budget looks like it was handled by two guys with a Casio and a Collecovision. I adore Jim Butcher’s clever novels about a wisecracking wizard for hire in the mean streets of Chicago. SyFy used their special brand of magic to complete wheat-paste the ever-loving fuck out of anything enjoyable about the novels. Harry Dresden is supposed to look like the fucking Gunslinger with Chuck Norris’s beard. Instead, they cast a dude who looks like he should be repairing your Dell or selling you renter’s insurance. They took tough little Karrin Murphy and turned her into a weather girl for Telemundo. Murphy’s not eye-candy, she’s a fucking bobcat that will tear your goddamn eyes out. Even the actress who played her — and the only person in the cast who actually read the fucking series — auditioned for Susan because SHE KNEW SHE WASN’T RIGHT FOR THE PART. And for a series about a wizard — where was the fucking magic? They sewed a retarded “Law and Order” to “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and ended up with the bastard cousin of “Charmed.” Except “Charmed” had hot chicks to look at. This cosmic abortion took the wisecracking, seedy skull Bob and turned him into The Weehauken Shakespeare Festival. Terrence Mann is a nice enough guy, but seriously, this needed one of the Jerky Boys. And don’t get me started on that fucking magic hockey stick. Were they subsidized by The National Film Board of Canada? Anyone who read past book three realized this series was fucked like a frog prince in France, and thankfully was yanked. Butcher’s able to buy back the rights in two years, seven months, sixteen days, eight hours, and three minutes. Not that anyone’s counting. — Brian Prisco

fever-pitch-2005-0.jpgFever Pitch: My biggest beef with Fever Pitch is that it’s not really an adaptation of the Hornby novel (who otherwise has had a lot of success with adaptations; see High Fidelity and About a Boy. Nick Hornby’s 1992 novel of the same name was about Hornby’s obsession with Arsenal, a British soccer team. My problem is not that the Farrelly brothers decided to change the sport from soccer to baseball — after all, Hornby’s sense of sports-driven obsession is universal, and can be just as easily applied to baseball as any other sport - it’s that they didn’t even attempt to capture the spirit of the book. I, for one, don’t know a damn thing about English football, but I understood what Hornby meant when he wrote, “Entertainment as pain was in idea entirely new to me, and it seemed to be something I’d been waiting for.” For any ardent sports fan, Hornby’s message is familiar; and it is the complete lack of this sentiment in Fever Pitch that pisses me off so much.

Indeed, the essence of Hornby’s mania is something I have longed to see on the big screen, but it took only two words to dash all my hopes: Drew Barrymore. As soon as I saw Drew Barrymore, I knew the Farrellys had all but abandoned their source material. You see, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch had no romantic lead; in fact, there were no women at all in the novel. It’s a nonfiction account of one man’s relationship with a sports team, and it had nothing in the world to do with Drew fucking Barrymore. In fact, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel — the inspired writing team behind such classics as Forget Paris and Edtv — didn’t lift a single goddamn line from the brilliant memoir upon which they supposedly based their film. Instead of making a movie about real Red Sox fandom, they decided to bring Ione Skye in to talk to Barrymore about relationships and fitness routines; these assholes infuriatingly attempted to epitomize one’s love for a baseball team by having Jimmy Fallon (who is from Long Island, for Christ’s Sake) sniff his Fenway Park tickets. Sniff! This is not passion for baseball, folks — it is retardation. — Dustin Rowles

flowersattic2.jpgFlowers in the Attic: Over the years, I’ve gradually come to realize that this was probably an unfilmable book, albeit a beloved one by so many teenage girls of my generation. Still, the abomination of an arguable classic is well worth some serious bitching, for, if one can’t produce an adaptation that is true to the themes of the book, the film version shouldn’t be made at all. The book wasthe seminal edition of V.C. Andrews’ Dollanganger series, which focused on an almost otherworldly set of Aryan siblings, who are betrayed by their very own mother and almost destined to become a part of their own incestuous family history. In contrast, the film did away with the entire incest issue, even though much of the target audience was made up of teenage girls who had already read the book yet still hadn’t decided that it was a great idea to fuck their own brothers. This omission also rendered the grandmother’s inexplicable fury almost laughable, for the film gave its audience absolutely no explanation why a matriarch would simply burst into the children’s quarters and, for absolutely no reason at all, scream, “Sinners!” Presumably, the filmmakers also decided it was adequate to substitute contrived drama in place of the book’s vow of revenge by main character, Cathy. So, the film climaxes with Cathy (again, since this the film’s method of illustrating tension) screaming, “Eat the cookie, Mother!” Arsenic poisoning has never been so inadvertently hilarious. — Agent Bedhead

handmaid.tale.jpgThe Handmaid’s Tale: The reoccurring question I found myself asking while watching this 1990 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopian novel was “What went wrong?” Unlike some of the films on this list, The Handmaid’s Tale had an amazing crew at the helm including acclaimed German director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum), Nobel Prize winning playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter (The Birthday Party, Sleuth), and a cast including Robert Duvall (The Godfather) and Faye Dunaway (Chinatown).

The Handmaid’s Tale is a bastardization because it completely misinterprets the original text. Atwood’s novel takes place in the dictatorship of Gilead and follows a female concubine or “Handmaid” called Offred (Natasha Richardson in the film). You see, widespread infertility has spread across Gilead and Handmaids are offered up as sexual slaves to men of power with the hope of sustaining the republic. Moreover, the novel is a narrative about a woman who is ultimately passive and that is its point. Atwood uses Offred, who is incapable of embracing feminist activism, as a cautionary tale while the film turns her into a heroine: she kills her sexual owner and flees Gilead. In this sense, the original meaning of the novel has been inverted.

Moreover, the film takes a book about sexual exploitation, told in Offred’s first-person, and offers up an odd moment in which the camera seems to leeringly gaze upon her body. This moment takes place in a scene in which Offred bares her breasts to a man (her Handmaid duties are completed while clothed). While her action once again seems out of character, it’s Schlöndorff depiction of the scene that is particularly troubling. Instead of filming it from Offred’s point-of-view, he films Offred from the on-looker’s point-of-view, making sure everyone in the audience gets a look at her rack. This is the sort of representation that provided feminist film theorists with their critical ammunition and its coming from what was originally a feminist text! Oh sweet irony. — Drew Morton

storyda.jpgHow the Grinch Stole Christmas: Poor dead Theodor Geisel. The man who published books as Dr. Seuss created a body of work that influenced children for decades and is still regarded as some of the best in the field. Who here doesn’t have fond memories of Green Eggs and Ham or Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? or many more. Some of the author’s works were turned into animated specials, none more revered than 1966’s half-hour adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, narrated by Boris Karloff. But as would happen three years later with the mentally impaired feature version of The Cat in the Hat, the year 2000 saw Ron Howard get his big hacky hands on the Grinch, turning a simple, iconic children’s story into a bloated, awful, cruel, and just downright idiotic feature-length live-action film starring Jim Carrey, whose rubber-faced antics were old by the end of 1994. The movie is a slick and cheerless revision of a story beloved for its honesty, and the remake was an unnecessary blight on the moviegoing public and the memory of Geisel, who spent his life telling stories so much better than what this film became that I’m actually glad he wasn’t around to see it. Poor guy would’ve died of shame right there. — Daniel Carlson

_39912096_i_robot_pa.jpgI, Robot. I, Robot, the book, is a seminal work of science fiction. Through his collection of nine short stories, the brilliant Isaac Asimov tells the creationist history of the robots that would come to populate many of his future stories. More importantly, these stories, most famous for presenting the Three Laws of Robotics (short version: don’t hurt people, obey people, protect yourself), present a major departure from the tales that came before them, offering robots as psychologically complex creatures, rather than just machines which eventually turn on their creator. Just about every story, film and show involving a robot over the last 60 years owes a great debt to I, Robot.

And I, Robot could’ve been a great movie, given the brilliant screenplay written by Harlan Ellison (with input from Asimov) in the 1970s. But that screenplay is not the I Robot movie you know (it was published about 15 years ago, however, and it’s a great read). The movie you know features the Three Laws, shares a few character names and elements from Asimov’s stories, and even feebly tries to stick its toe ever-so-gently into the psychological waters of Asimov’s story. But it amounts to little more than a boiler-plate Will Smith summer blockbuster. The depth and heart of the film is entirely manufactured and unearned, and it ultimately lacks the Asimov stories’ spirit and inventiveness, replacing intellectual depth with robots that climb walls like Spider-Man. I don’t despise the flick for what it is — a relatively watchable popcorn flick — but an Asimov tale, it is not. — Seth Freilich

league-of-extraordinary-gentlemen-800-75.jpgThe League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — There are countless novels that have been massacred by Hollywood knuckleheads. Graphic novels certainly haven’t escaped unscathed. While The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen isn’t exactly a novel — it’s a run of comics, followed by a graphic novel — it holds two distinctions in the Most Heinous category. Not only is it easily the worst graphic novel adaptation ever made, but it’s also one of the worst films ever made, period. The source material, by Alan Moore, is nothing short of brilliant. A dark, twisted blur of fiction and history that creates a series of super groups of historical and fictional figures, ranging from Mina Harker to Dr. Jekyll to Captain Nemo to John Carter of Mars, band together to fight off some world-threatening evil — Fu Manchu is one of the big ones. It’s heady, fascinating stuff, full of gorgeous artwork and featuring some serious dark sides to the characters. In many ways and in the proper hands, a series of amazing films could have come out of it. Of course, in the hands of Stephen Norrington (despite a decent cast), who has made exactly one decent film, (Blade), it turned into a worthless, bloated shit sandwich, full of terrible effects, gut-churningly bad dialogue, hideously stupid plot twists and absolutely zero redeeming characteristics. Unnecessary characters were added (Dorian Gray was flat-out stupid, and don’t get me started on the surrogate father Quartermain/Tom Sawyer storyline) and not only that, but it may well have single-handedly destroyed Sir Sean Connery’s career — it’s the last film he made, with nothing on the docket even now, six years after. If there were any justice in the world, Connery’s career would be revived, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen would be forever wiped from our collective cultural consciousness. But instead, it continues to plague my memory, and Norrington is set to violate The Crow next. — TK

21404853.jpgRunning With Scissors: Augusten Burroughs created a brilliant memoir that had little to do with prose (his was not remarkable) or stylistic flourishes (which he dispensed with completely).Running with Scissors had little to do with the earth-shattering use of language, and a lot to do with striking the right tone, which is where Burroughs’ genius lie. Few memoirists could have deftly strung together as many bizarre and misfortunately outlandish incidents as did Burroughs in Running With Scissors, all the while maintaining an astonishingly good sense of humor. Reading about a 12-year-old boy semi-voluntarily submitting to an increasingly painful blowjob from a 34-year-old pedophile could be stomach-wrenching and/or incredibly sad in the hands of a lesser author. But, as Burroughs tells it, it’s downright hilarious, even if there is a certain amount of discomfort associated with the laughter the experience elicits.

And that’s the problem with Running With Scissors, the feature film. The characters, the unheard-of idiosyncrasies, and the holy-shit-that-didn’t-just-happen! events from the memoir are still there, but Burroughs’ tone didn’t make the cut. His matter-of-fact voice is gone, as is the dry, anti-pitiable first-person perspective. In their place is a film that described setting and character and drew on period-appropriate props and a big, expensive cast, but it wasn’t really about Augusten Burroughs. Aside from the unnecessary attention to detail and the muddled translation, Running with Scissors is also kind of dull, filled too often with stillness instead of the crackly fluidity of the memoir. — Dustin Rowles

115759__scarlet_l.jpgThe Scarlet Letter: I watched a lot of crappy book-to-film adaptations in my grade school days, most of which added random love scenes that weren’t on the original page. Sure, why not add some more lovin’ to 1993’s Ethan Frome starring Liam Neeson? Why not have Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale get it on in the woods in the 1979 TV miniseries of The Scarlet Letter? But I didn’t know literary adaptations could get any worse until I stumbled upon the most recent take on The Scarlet Letter, the 1995 film starring Demi Moore (red flag) and Gary Oldman and directed by Roland Joffe. Douglas Day Stewart adapted the screenplay, but that bastard had the nerve to add Nathaniel Hawthorne to the writing credits. If we’re lucky, Hawthorne is haunting Stewart to this day. This taking of a classic American novel of atonement and turning it into a romance slash feminist tale is downright evil. In it, Hester and Dimmesdale are tortured lovers, who, after an hour or so of longing gazes, give in to their lust with a heavy-breathing tryst in a barn (this is after Hester gave birth to his baby and was labeled with the scarlet “A”). For some reason, there’s a brouhaha in the town, and when things get worse for Hester, Dimmesdale stands up for her and the two start preaching the merits of women’s rights and sexual freedom to some Puritans. Chaos ensues, thanks to her husband they thought was dead, blah blah blah, but Hester and Dimmesdale and their bastard baby end up happily ever after, walking out of the crumbling town, liberated. Bull. Shit. What pisses me off the most about adaptations that butcher the source material is the lack of original ideas and creativity. Just write your own story, you know? Why ruin someone else’s work? Why fool some into thinking that’s actually what happened in the original novel? Why cast Demi Moore at all? Ugh. Philistines. — Sarah Carlson

STAND_09.jpgThe Stand: The Stand meandered through the eighties in development hell, with Stephen King originally aiming to have it directed by George Romero. Instead, ABC picked it up as a miniseries, leading to the wholesale culling of violence, grotesqueness, and sex from the plot. A horror story of the disintegration of modern society into an orgy of chaos gelded as PG for primetime is as satisfying as playing spin the bottle over Skype with your sister. The elements are more or less all there, they just ripped out the fun parts so that middle America could watch it over hamburger helper with their toddlers.

And the casting, my god, picking names out of a hat would have yielded a better cast. At least then it would be deliciously random like a high school production of Rent. The Stand was so badly cast, it seemed like they went part by part selecting the actors who least resembled in any way the character to be portrayed. The only thing Molly Ringwald shares with Fran is a vagina. Pudgy, whiny, faux-intellectual Harold is naturally played by Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. Weather-beaten, weary, working class East Texan Stu should be played by Gary Sinese, the poor man’s Tom Hanks! And Randall Flagg, the walking dude himself, who Stephen King visualized as Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, the master manipulator, yanking at the marionettes of human weakness with mad charisma, they toss that to Jamey Sheridan. Who? Exactly. Sheridan looks bloated the entire film, his constant smiling conveying less menace than a chia pet. Flagg in the right hands could have been a tour de force like Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker, but in Sheridan’s hands the character just comes off as that creepy weird uncle at Thanksgiving who tries for six hours to convince the kids to show him their tree house before passing out in the garage with one hand down his pants. — Steven Lloyd Wilson

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.