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Film, TV adaptations often disregard source material

Published: Saturday, Oct. 19 2013 3:20 p.m. MDT

CBS's CBS's "Under the Dome" bears little resemblance to its source material a novel by Stephen King. (CBS Broadcasting Inc.)

When a book is adapted to film, one must acknowledge that certain changes are going to be made. Multiple characters will be consolidated into one and plotlines will be simplified. Given the inherent differences of the mediums, viewers of book adaptations must accept that generally they will not be privy to inner monologues and thought processes; rather, characters and their actions will be presented in a much more linear, obviously visual style.

Yet there is something really exciting about seeing characters and stories you love come alive on the screen. When many people read books they instantly become casting agents in their own minds, playfully fitting their favorite actors into roles like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. It can be a lot of fun seeing just how close your pics were to the production's. And of course, for a lot of book-to-film projects, seeing how eye-popping special effects meld with your own vision of the book's events can be a thrill all its own.

Angie (Britt Robertson, right) helps Barbie (Mike Vogel) find and protect Julia from Big Jim on Angie (Britt Robertson, right) helps Barbie (Mike Vogel) find and protect Julia from Big Jim on "Under the Dome." (Brownie Harris, CBS)

There is an old adage that film and TV adaptations are never as good as the books themselves. While generally true, there are some exceptions, and given the different medium, film and TV adaptations can have a charm all their own. It is really disappointing, however, when the adaptation bears almost no similarities to the source material.

In the first episode of the new CBS summer series “Under the Dome,” a story in which residents of a small Maine town are cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible force-field, readers of Stephen King's novel were already uncomfortably aware that the book and TV show bore little resemblance besides character names and the most basic similarities in plot line.

Take, for instance, the book's principal protagonist, Dale "Barbie" Barbara. In the book he is an ex-special forces drifter, trying to leave town after an unpleasant run-in with the family of the town's councilman, "Big" Jim Rennie. In the TV show, Barbie was mixed up in some illegal activity and ended up killing a man, the husband of another major character who was not married in the book.

Brad Pitt is Gerry Lane in Brad Pitt is Gerry Lane in "World War Z." (Jaap Buitendijk)

Rennie (played by the wonderful Dean Norris of “Breaking Bad” fame) is not nearly the self-involved monster he is in the book. His son Junior, though menacing in the show, is not nearly the psychopathic multiple-murderer that King created in his novel.

In perhaps the biggest change from the novel, the dome itself is completely different. In the book, the dome configures to the city's borders perfectly, tipping off everyone immediately that the occurrence is not a natural phenomenon. By contrast, the dome in the adaptation is a literal dome, like a salad bowl turned upside down over the city. Additionally, in the novel townspeople may freely communicate with the outside world, speaking through the dome normally and talking through cell phones. Indeed, communication with the outside world is a major plot point of the book.

CBS recently announced that it intends to renew “Under the Dome” for another season, making the book's ending all but impossible.

The above are just some of the mountains of changes that the producers made. Some could argue that if the TV show is good anyway, what do the changes matter? The question that seems more pressing, however, is when the book was so good to begin with, why did the producers feel the need to make such drastic changes in the first place?

With “Under the Dome”'s series format, one could argue that producers needed to fill out the story with new subplots, requiring different back stories. Though with the book's nearly 1,000 pages, that hardly seems to be the case, and the creative decision to block communication with the outside world would seem even more arbitrary.

Another recent adaptation that played fast and loose with the source material was Brad Pitt's summer movie “World War Z,” a film detailing the global effects of a zombie apocalypse. In the film, Brad Pitt's character races around the world in the search for a cure, essentially making this an action film and a rather colorless, not very inventive zombie thriller.

The book, written by Max Brooks, was so much more. The novel is subtitled “An Oral History of the Zombie War” and looks at the zombie crisis from multiple perspectives. The character that Pitt's is based on was a United Nations historian, researching what happened during the zombie war, traveling the globe to interview survivors.

With this premise, the readers saw events play out not only throughout the United States, but also in Russia, South Africa, France and even in the International Space Station. Each character had a lot to say and do in this truly wonderful and genuinely unique novel that no one movie could possibly have contained it all.

In the film Pitt's character visits Israel, a walled-off island in the sea of the zombie plague. While he is there, however, the undead manage to scale the walls and overrun Israel. This is disappointing to the reader of the book, as Brooks intended to show the circumstances in which Israel, with its history of wars and attacks by its neighbors, had managed to overcome the crisis. To readers of the book, the film's sequence in Israel might seem a cheap action set-piece that sacrificed a legitimate statement on the nation's power to endure. While the book was filled with such social commentary and meaning, the film offered none.

After the massive, sprawling, imaginative book, the producers of the film offered an occasionally fun though generally bland adaptation. Perhaps they should have opted for a TV series as well, one where the multitudes of characters could each be given their due, and each story could have played out in a "Twilight Zone"-like anthology.

The novels “Under the Dome” and “World War Z” were both best-sellers that earned a legion of fans. When screenwriters and producers stepped in to tackle these projects, they essentially threw away the book and created a story based on the flimsiest of interpretations. The only question that fans of the books can ask is, “Why?”

When Francis Ford Coppola made his classic, Oscar-winning 1972 film “The Godfather,” it was the script that he often left behind. Rather, he used novelist Mario Puzo's book as his on-set guide when shooting and editing the film. With more big-budget adaptations sure to come in the years ahead, let's hope more filmmakers take a leaf out of Coppola's notebook.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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