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February 7, 2014

Lost in Translation: The most WTF parts added to movie adaptations of books


These days, it seems like every time you go to a movie theater, there are always a couple posters for films that have been adapted from books. [Editorial note: No one’s surprised that Emily {enthusiastically!} keeps track of stuff like that. Check out 20SomethingReads special monthly Books on Screen feature here.]

In each leap from the page to the screen, changes are made. This is understandable, of course --- different mediums require different modes of storytelling. Book scenes that involve time spent in a character’s head might translate to “slow” on the screen. However, sometimes instead of simply modifying things, film adaptations add entirely new scenes that were never in the book in the first place. Occasionally this adds to the story, but sometimes it’s just plain baffling, and all you can ask is: why? What was going on in the filmmaker’s minds, and why did he or she think that was a logical decision? Or, in other words: WTF?!

Here are some of the culprits. I tried to include as broad and random a selection as possible so that there is something for everyone:

The Lord of the Rings trilogy
The Lord of The Rings was an impossibly difficult series of books to capture on film. In general, Peter Jackson did an admirable job of staying true to the source material and changing only what needed to be changed to adapt to the medium. He also did an admirable job of method-directing by resembling his own characters (specifically, hobbits). However, in THE TWO TOWERS, there is a strange and bewildering sequence that wasn’t anywhere in the books, not even in the extended appendixes: a death-fake out for Aragorn. Aragorn falls off a cliff, appears to be dead, everyone thinks he is dead, Viggo is dragged by his horse and becomes even more attractively grime-covered, and book-readers who are watching immediately say, “WTF? You can’t just kill a major character! What are you doing?!” A few scenes later, it is revealed that it was, in fact, just a fake out, and readers of the book sigh with relief while grumbling about the unnecessary added scene.
What filmmakers could have been thinking: “If there is anything The Lord of The Rings needs, it’s extra scenes, because we sure don’t have enough source material!”

If you’ve seen this movie, you know the scene. It haunted your childhood. It still haunts you. In the film adaptation (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), the children and their parents are in a boat, floating along the chocolate river, everything is candy-filled and innocent (well, as innocent as a factory that is run by a madman who gives no regard to the safety of children and employs miniature slaves can be). Then they enter a tunnel…and all hell breaks loose. Arguably the most WTF scene to ever occur in children’s cinema proceeds. Willy Wonka sings while giving the camera serial-killer crazy eyes; scenes of bugs, obscene body parts and eyes blinking flash across the walls of the tunnel, as well as a chicken getting its head cut off, while lights swirl and the children grow terrified. It is an acid freak-out scene to end all acid freak-out scenes…and it is right in the middle of a children’s movie.
What the filmmakers could have been thinking: “If there’s one thing that children who read Roald Dahl books need, it’s a terrifying acid trip freak-out scene! Maybe that will prevent them from any future experimentation with drugs!”

I’m not talking about Joss Whedon’s recent adaptation --- all that adds is a bit of sex, guns and stuffed animals (not all together, don’t worry). Rather, I’m talking about the 1994 movie starring, among other actors, Keanu Reeves. That last casting decision turns out just as you might think: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Shakespeare Adventure. While the movie is otherwise faithful to the source material, there are two WTF scenes that stand out: Keanu Reeves, the scheming villain, is shirtless and wearing leather pants and getting oiled by his henchmen (because why not) when one henchman suddenly bursts into the room wearing a terrifying Cyclops mask. Nothing about that scene is ever explained, and Shakespeare most certainly did not envision it. A few scenes later, Keanu staggers down a hallway, evil laughing, and gives a Breakfast Club style fist-pump at the end.
What the filmmakers could have been thinking: “Well, if there’s one thing Shakespeare was missing, it was Cyclopses and fist-pumps.”

While there are too many WTF moments in the Harry Potter movies to count, there is one that stands out the most: the baffling decision to change Harry and Voldemort’s epic final showdown. In the book, the final showdown occurs in front of everyone and their mother (literally) and afterwards, the crowd storms Harry and it’s as big a deal as vanquishing an evil dictator should be…However, in the movie, the scene occurs outside, Harry and Voldemort forget that they know magic and spend a long time wrestling, and nobody notices what they’re doing. Afterwards, Harry walks back into the castle and people just glance at him with nonchalant “oh, hey there” glances. Nobody notices, cares, or comments on the fact that he just killed Voldemort.
What the filmmakers could have been thinking: “Well, movies usually try to make things more exciting and a bigger deal than they are in books…let’s try to be different and go in the opposite direction!”
Honorary mention: The scene in which Voldemort gives Draco Malfoy a hilariously awkward hug. It isn’t in the book because why on earth would it be?!, but that addition was absolutely necessary.  

Most of the problems in the recent GATSBY adaptation have already been written about, so I will mention the added sanitarium scenes (Toby Maguire consulting a doctor in a series of scenes that were most definitely not in the book), but I won’t linger on them. However, I will address the filmmakers baffling decision for any and all driving scenes. In the book, there are a few scenes in which Gatsby and Nick Carraway have important conversations while driving in Gatsby’s yellow car. The movie stayed true to this…however, they filmed it with revving engines and Fast and the Furious style speeding and weaving through traffic that was wildly distracting from the conversations that were supposed to be the focal point of the scenes.
What the filmmakers could have been thinking: “The world has been waiting for a combination of classic literature and The Fast and The Furious!”

Fight Club, Trainspotting, and American Psycho all formulate the oddly specific genre category of “edgy neo-noir 90’s movies that were adapted from books and deal with questions of modern masculinity and feature lots of pale men.” I could have written about any of them, but I chose Fight Club (so if you are interested in the others, feel free to discuss them in the comments) because what gets lost in the book-to-film translation is the entire ending. Spoiler alert, at the end of the film, after the narrator realizes that Tyler Durden is, in fact, his alternate personality, he shoots himself in the head, killing Tyler in the process. He somehow survives this and gets the girl as the credits roll. In the book, after shooting himself, he awakens in a hospital and the hospital employees are then revealed to be members of Tyler’s underground anarchic brotherhood who say that they are still following Tyler’s orders and waiting for his imminent return.
What the filmmakers could have been thinking: “Why go for an ambiguous, creepy and dark ending when the ambiguous, creepy and dark tone of the rest of the film clearly warrants a ‘happily ever after’ ending!” 

To make this list as diverse as possible, after talking about Fight Club, the anthem of every adolescent boy of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, I will now talk about the female equivalent. (Just to be clear, and also probably annoying, I’m not trying to perpetuate gender binaries and of course both can and do appeal to any gender!) If you were a girl growing up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, you probably read at least a few books in the ANGUS, THONGS, AND FULL FRONTAL SNOGGING series. It consisted of the zany adventures of an English schoolgirl, and it made you feel sophisticated because there was British slang in the title. (It also made you feel scandalous because the words “sex” and “knickers” appeared on other titles in the series). The movie adaptation (Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging) made the baffling decision to add in a scene in which the protagonist runs around her town dressed as a giant olive. Much like Harry Potter’s hug scene with Voldemort, this was a truly bewildering but wonderful decision that the filmmakers made, and I strongly encourage looking this scene up on YouTube if you need a good laugh.
What the filmmakers could have been thinking: “What instantly makes any story more riveting? A giant olive costume, of course!” The filmmakers were right.

There are many more film adaptations I could have mentioned, including others where the films actually improved upon the books (the last Twilight movie’s “battle” scene, everything about The Hunger Games), or others where the entire ending is changed (My Sister’s Keeper) or still others where the characterizations of the protagonists are completely changed (Sherlock Holmes, How I Live Now). Very rarely, there is also that gem of movies that actually stay true to the book (The Silence Of the Lambs, Jane Eyre, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for the most part). There is also that category of film that stands by itself, the category of “let’s take an iconic book monster and give him a distracting hairstyle that resembles boobs, for no reason at all” (Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Dracula).

As Hollywood keeps mining books for ideas, the question of whether they have any original ideas anymore remains (I don’t have an answer for that). There is an entire lineup of new adaptations coming out this year, including The Giver, The Fault in Our Stars, A Long Way Down, Dark Places, Vampire Academy, Labor Day, Winter’s Tale, Divergent, This is Where I leave You, The Maze Runner and more.

No matter their faults, there is one thing Hollywood can predict about the general public: there will always be those of us book readers who know they will butcher the book but masochistically go to see the movie anyway.