Last night I finished watching The Host on Netflix. It was bad. So bad. So bad it was entertaining.
But how? How could a movie based on a book I enjoyed be so very terrible, especially with the author involved? I get that Twilight has problematic elements (so problematic that when the fan fiction became 50 Shades of Grey those elements became more problematic), but The Host had less creepy vibes. Honestly, I think 50 years from now it will hold up as the better book compared to Twilight (when you don’t have 100-year-old stalking a 17-year-old, I think you’re doing ok).
I’ve talked briefly about adaptations before, but I wanted to give it a little more attention in light of rewatching that awful movie. I loved it, but it was awful.
Book adaptations are tricky, especially for movies. An inherent quality of a book is that you get depth of information. You get nuance. You get interesting takes on boring moments.
Those things don’t film very well.
As such, when you make a movie, you have to sacrifice certain qualities to make it work on screen (or you can go the other route and double down on elements to make them known on screen, which we’ll talk about).
Books have usually have stated thoughts. The Host had lots of thoughts. The main interaction between characters occurs inside the mind of one body. That’s not easy to convey.
You’ve got options. You can just ignore the thoughts. You can try to show them nonverbally. Or you can say all the thoughts out loud. The Host movie did that. Don’t do that.
The Hunger Games is a good example of handling this issue. The book is primarily an internal dialogue. The movie can’t function that way. Some things might have been added out loud, but I didn’t notice them. Instead, they enriched the story in another way: They added the perspective of the big bads. This allowed the story to get a different type of depth.
Perks of Being a Wallflower is another one that had to traverse that line. If I’m remembering the movie correctly, you don’t get the internal monologue throughout. Instead, it just became a movie. You lost some depth, but on its own, it stood pretty well.
And of course my favorite cutting of internal monologues belongs to Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl. The book was mediocre. It meandered. It was whiny. The movie had to cut the fluff to be a movie and became better for it. It only lost the fat. It was leaner. It was meaner. It was ready to conquer the world.
Another issue adaptations have is length. A movie is typically about 2 hours. A long movie is 3. Even a great movie can barely be tolerated for 3 hours. Even then, you’re looking at nothing compared to the books.
You can’t cover the same ground in 2 hours when you compare it to what would probably be about 10 hours of reading.
TV adaptations have a bit of an edge here, but even they tend to lose some depth to make it work. Game of Thrones always feels rushed when you compare it to the books. It’s a good adaptation, but it still feels rushed even at 10 hours a season.
But losing time isn’t always a death knell. The Lord of the Rings movies were notoriously long, even more so if you got the extended cuts on DVD. But they were fantastic. Gigantic books condensed into long movies that were fantastic. Then you look at The Hobbit, a much smaller book compared to any one LOTR book, and it got three movies that were overly inflated.
So this is an interesting area. Movies have a different type of pacing, so adding time doesn’t always make them better, which is weird when you think of the lack of depth as a reason why movies aren’t as good as the books they’re based on, typically.
And the other reason movie adaptations tend to not work: They add extra pizazz. The Twilight movies are the worst example of this. There are added fights. There’s a dream (sort of) sequence added to the last movie (I have so far refused to watch the last movie in part because of this added element). The Host pulled the same crap. They make a conscious decision that what’s in the book isn’t good enough to get by. The Hunger Games added elements, but they didn’t add extra action. They added thought. Stephenie Meyers’ books don’t get the same treatment. And they’re worse for it every time.
So let’s jump back to The Host as a movie. Why was it so bad? And please, try not to take this as a rant. I hate that there were people who put in hard work on this movie, but you have to call a spade a spade. Basically, apologies to the people who worked hard on this movie. I’m calling out the people who clearly weren’t working as hard.
The script was bad. So bad. Clunky dialogue. The book’s plot gets so condensed that they have to announce things all the time. You watch people fall in love in a couple of days. Basically, there’s nothing believable about this movie about alien invaders who live as parasites in your head. Also, Animorphs? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
The acting was… mixed. Some were better than others. Everyone was stuck with awful lines. “No one’s ever sorry for hitting my brother.” This awkward little line was thrown in so that we would know 1) who the brothers were and 2) that the other brother was an asshole. There were a couple in here who did a good job. There were a couple of others that were there because studios want them to be successful actors. The latter were not so bueno.
And here’s the real kicker: The movie is the worst where it deviates from the book. The book is about an alien species that wants to have the human experience, and yet every time you see the aliens, they are very clearly alien. You aren’t supposed to be able to tell who they are at a distance. They should just look like people. The movie made it abundantly clear who the aliens were, and that takes a silly initial premise and makes it worse. It was all downhill after that.
So what is Q’s solution for making a good adaptation? I’m glad you (didn’t) ask.
First, you have to accept that they’re different. The book can’t be the same as the movie. You have to lose something and/or add something else in. They’re different mediums, so let them shine in their best way. If you need to add in a random dance scene, do it. Seriously, random dance scenes are where it’s at. The episode that finally hooked me on The Magicians TV show, which I was initially disappointed in, was when they went completely off the rails and added a dance scene.
Second, you need to find the core of the book and figure out how to make that happen (see the first point). What makes the book special? Is it the plot? Sword and sorcery? Witty banter? Emotional entanglements? If you don’t know what makes the book special, you’re not going to succeed in the adaptation.
Comic books are a good arena to look at. Some fanboys will always be mad at an adaptation, but the good adaptations find what makes the comic good, and they run with it. Deadpool, Scott Pilgrim, Logan, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, and Tim Burton’s Batman movies all figured this out. They find the core of the source, and they run with it. For real, look at those Batman adaptations. They’re completely different takes on the same base, and they both work because they both accept Batman as an angry vigilante with no real sense of humor and add psychos around him. Some psychos are funny. Some are just psychos. None of these adaptations resemble each other on the surface, but they all show a different way of making a comic book movie. The real secret is they know the story they want to tell instead of trying to sell you on the gimmick.
Even if you make a mediocre move, if you can still find the core of what made the comic good, you’ll be ok. Man of Steel? Ok movie but still works. Superman vs. Batman? Not as much. Too much gimmick.
And finally, you just need to make a good movie. If you do the first two, you still have to make a good movie. You need a quality script, a quality director, and quality actors (and all the other things that go into movies; look, this is a book review blog, not a movie review blog). The best of intentions will all go to hell if you can’t put quality people in place. One of my favorite things about the first Twilight movie is that even though it’s silly, you’ve still got good actors in place making the most of a silly script. They can at least sell the crap a little bit better.
With that, I’m calling it a day. I’m going to be judgmental offline now.