The upcoming The Secret Life of Walter MItty is based on a relatively well-known short story, but you certainly wouldn't know it. Nothing in the film's marketing has suggested that it's based on an existing work and for good reason: Ben Stiller's film has little to nothing to do with the source material.
This isn't the first time that a major film has thrown away the book or story that it's supposedly based on to blaze its own trail and it won't be the last. Sometimes, the results aren't bad. Sometimes, they're awful. Sometimes, they're just plain fascinating, an interesting look at how filmmakers shape (and break) existing stories to transform them into films. Here are but a few of them.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Ben Stiller's film adaptation of James Thurber's 1939 short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a message so wildly different than the source material that you have to wonder how one became the other. In the story, the title character is a completely average Joe who spices up his mundane life by imagining himself in fantastic, exciting and violent situations, always casting himself as a hero, only to always return to his dull and normal existence. The movie makes Walter a total social outcast whose daydreams represent a deep-down longing for adventure, and when he gets the chance to go globetrotting and change his life forever, he takes it. Thurber's work is straightforward, funny and a little melancholic. Stiller's film is a massive family epic about self-improvement. Other than the daydreaming lead character, there are no similarities.
If you pick up Winston Groom's original novel of Forrest Gump expecting something warm, pleasant and sentimental like the film adaptation, you'll be in for something of a shock. While Robert Zemeckis' movie is a celebration of Americana and Tom Hanks' lead performance is sweet and gentle, Groom's novel is a bitter, scathing satire that declares war on American culture and its title character is coarse and frequently unpleasant.
The novel is also far sillier, sending Forrest into space, stranding him on an island of cannibals and throwing him into the world of professional wrestling. In other words, the source material is the kind of thing that would never win Oscars, so the the film only borrows the basic concept, throwing away everything else. And honestly, it makes sense: as written, the episodic and totally crazy book would never work on-screen.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, David Fincher's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button completely does away with the source material because there really isn't a narrative to be found. The film lifts the central idea (a man is born old and ages in reverse) and runs with it, transforming a tiny comedic story into a sprawling epic. Reading the source material, it's easy to imagine a wacky comedy being the best way to transform the material into a movie, but Fincher and his crew work overtime to do away with Fitzgerald's satire, creating a flawed fantasy that occasionally seems ashamed of its own origin. The story is pretty good but so is the movie, albeit in completely different ways.
Most of the movies mentioned here threw away the book only in order to shape the material to fit a director or studio's needs. The weird thing about the Will Smith action film I, Robot is that is happened in reverse. Isaac Asimov's original novel is a hard sci-fi classic and the kind of thing that doesn't easily lend itself to an easy Hollywood adaptation. That didn't stop people from spending decades trying.
Eventually a screenplay titled Hardwired showed up bearing enough resemblance to Asimov's work to justify putting the title on it (and adding a few touches from Asimov's work into it). Further revisions drained the intelligence out of the script and increased the scope, creating a very dumb (if occasionally amusing) movie that has nothing to do with the original novel aside from mentioning the rightfully famous three laws of robotics.
The Scarlet Letter
When asked about the many changes that occurred when Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter became a bloated disaster of a film in 1995, star Demi Moore famously said "In truth, not very many people have read the book." Apparently, neither did anyone involved in this production. Hawthorne's novel isn't the most accessible read and it rejects traditional narrative in favor of deep explorations of sin, guilt and remorse.
The eventual decision should have been "You know, let's just not make this into a movie," but the actual decision ended up being "How about we beef up the love triangle, write a bunch of weird sex scenes, add a new climax that involves a massive battle with the local Native American tribes and force it all to end happily ever after." The Scarlet Letter functions nothing like its source material and it remains to this day one of the most embarrassing examples of Hollywood attempting to adapt an important literary classic.
The Count of Monte Cristo
Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Criso is one of the most famous revenge stories of all time, but it bares little resemblance to modern tales of vengeance. Perhaps that's why the 2002 movie adaptation modifies the story significantly, keeping the basic setup and tossing everything else out entirely. Kevin Reynolds' film isn't bad, but it lacks the pleasures of the original novel, which weaves one of the deepest and most complex tales of righteous retribution over 1,000-plus pages. Edmond Dantes' escape from prison and his absurdly devious plans to take down those who wronged him become hugely oversimplified in the film, which replaces his plotting with a whole bunch of sword fighting and stabbing. How strange is it that the centuries-old novel actually feels fresher than the decade-old movie?
The Time Machine
In H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, an unnamed time traveler journeys to the distant future, where he learns that humanity has evolved into the complacent Eloi and the vicious, nocturnal Morlocks. It's a simple story and one that exists to make a few fascinating (and often fascinatingly wrongheaded) observations about class, class warfare and the future of the human condition.
In the 2002 adaptation of the novel, the time traveler travels through time so he can prevent the death of the woman he loves and ends up meeting a hologram, witnessing the destruction of New York (Armageddon style!), battling a bunch of mutants like an action hero and happily falling in love and living happily ever after in the distant future. To add insult to injury, the film was directed by Simon Wells, great-grandson to H.G. Wells, who, of all people, should have known better.
Alice in Wonderland
Not every fantasy film needs to be an epic tale of warfare and action in the Lord of the Rings vein, but try telling that to Tim Burton, who took Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and forcibly molded it into something that it very much isn't. This is another case where the source material didn't fit the structure of a typical blockbuster release, so the episodic tale of Alice's surreal journey through a dreamlike land became just another "hero's journey." The whimsy, humor and social commentary of the book was replaced with action and busy CGI and talented actors hamming it up like their lives depend on it. Sure, the film tries to get away with this by quietly acting as a "sequel" to the original book, but we know better. If only the people behind the movie actually knew better.
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