True to the writer’s words

Big screen adaptations of popular literary works have been some of the highest grossing films in history. Some, like Twilight, have reached box office records while receiving poor critical reviews. Others rely on storylines that are touching to the hearts of audiences. Regardless of how they earn their acclaim, these films have one thing in common — they stay true enough to their origins to earn approval from readers, while still grabbing the attention of movie aficionados.

Whether a book has established a base of dedicated fans who have fallen in love with an author’s words, is a strong indication of potential success for movie producers. The power of loyal fans is evident in the record-breaking sales for each film.

Artwork by Liz Swezey; ERJKPRUNCZYK/FLICKR
Artwork by Liz Swezey; ERJKPRUNCZYK/FLICKR

Siobhan O’Flynn, a professor of media at the University of Toronto Mississauga, says, “Probably the biggest factor [in books made into films] is the economic one — Hollywood studios are going to be more likely to invest big budgets in what are viewed as ‘properties’ that already have a big global fan base — Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, the Divergent trilogy.”

In 2001, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released, making nearly a billion dollars. The reviews were positive for the acting, the sets, and the writing. It is the highest grossing franchise ever with $7.7 billion made worldwide.

Seven years later, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight was released in theatres. The reviews of the movie were mixed at best. Twilight has been criticized for its poor acting, script, and the film in general.

What kept fans pouring through the theatre doors was not the movies themselves, but the power of a loyal fan base — proving that an adaptation does not have to be good to be popular, as long as it stays true, to some extent, to the original story.

Quality writing is important, but it’s the narration and the plot that draw the readers in, and the characters that make the story relatable. O’Flynn explains, “Adaptations for young adult and… family markets often build on good characters, story and importantly story worlds… with an eye to marketing, merchandizing, and sequels. Something that drives… future revenue return.”

It only takes a quick Internet search to understand the devotion fans have to their favourite stories and their keen interest in how the adaptation will take shape. There are entire websites dedicated to which actors should play leading roles, such as Tris or Tobias from Divergent Before the trailer is even released, fans often will create gifs of their favourites with quotes from the book.

Once official announcements are made, image compilations are created of the actors on Instagram and Tumblr and discussions break out about the actors, plots, and shooting locations. For the fans, this is their way to strengthen the community surrounding the book and the film.

The growing prevalence of adaptions can raise questions of originality — whether Hollywood depends too much on literary successes for its film content. However, as long as adaptations remain a profitable market, Hollywood is likely to follow the money. If positive responses to films like The Hunger Games, The Wolf of Wall Street, and potential blockbusters like Divergent are any indication, books will continue to head to the box office — and take their fans with them.