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Pop Culture Happy Hour: A Look At Literary Adaptations


If it seems like there have been a lot of books coming to the big and small screens, it's not in your head. Never mind the long-running "Game Of Thrones" on HBO or Hulu's "Handmaid's Tale." At least 15 books were adapted into movies for 2017, including a summer blockbuster take on Stephen King's "The Dark Tower"...

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Ooph (ph) is my straight reaction.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

...To a sweet indie adaptation of a young adult novel called "Everything, Everything."

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: I liked that movie. It's sweet. It's - you know, it's YA. It's romance. It's YA romance.

CORNISH: That's Linda Holmes of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast and panelist Glen Weldon as well. I stopped into their studio to ask, what's the deal with all the book adaptations this year?

HOLMES: I mean, you definitely have a couple of these major ones. You know, "The Handmaid's Tale," which I think when people first heard that, you know, that's kind of a classic book...

CORNISH: Right, Margaret Atwood.

HOLMES: ...And it was like, wow, are you going to touch that book? But then, you know, it was actually a very well-regarded adaptation. And they're going to a second season even though they've used up most of the plot from the book. And that, of course, is one of the things that you run into when you adapt a book, is that sometimes there's only so much plot in the book. Then you have to figure out, what are you doing with your second season?


ELISABETH MOSS: (As Offred) My name is Offred. And I intend to survive.

CORNISH: Is film or TV better for adaptation?

WELDON: In my opinion, I think television just maps easier onto the structure of a book. You can capture the mood, but one thing you do definitely lose when you're adapting television to books or movies is richness, texture, you know, inner life because books give you direct access to characters' inner life. You're basically sharing their brain.


WELDON: And in TV and movies you have to cheat that. You do it one of two ways. You either put it all into dialogue, which is clunky, or you try to do this thing with voiceover, which is fraught.

HOLMES: And the voiceover has to be written in a certain way because people will say, you should be able to get across the characters' sort of inner thoughts through, you know, acting, which to some degree you can. But if a character is thinking of a specific time in the past, you can't expect acting, no matter how good it is, to necessarily reveal everything that you can reveal in a book.

CORNISH: Yeah, you can only do so much with your eyebrows, I think.

WELDON: Absolutely.

HOLMES: Absolutely true. Right.

CORNISH: How close should creators stick to the source material? Do you get the sense lately that people are really being punished when they don't?

HOLMES: I think there are times when that happens because one of the advantages of adapting a book is the same advantage that you get when you - when you continue a franchise or you adapt a board game or something like that, which is the existing intellectual property. This is where you hear so many people in Hollywood throw around the idea of existing IP, which is familiarity.

But the downside is people who are familiar are often also really passionate about precisely following the structure of books. And honestly, in many cases, you will make a better movie or TV show if you allow yourself to stray a little bit from what is technically the exact content of the book because if you were writing a movie or a TV show you would write it differently than a novel.

CORNISH: I think of something like "Children Of Men"...


CORNISH: ...P.D. James, where the movie I found far more engaging and did a lot of interesting things.

WELDON: Right.

CORNISH: I didn't think the book was bad, but I just thought this is a completely other creative thing that stands on its own merit.

WELDON: And that's the key because every adaptation is another bite of the apple. And you can get upset and wring your hands over the fact that we're not telling original stories and we're just telling the same stories over and over again. But you always have the books to go back to.

HOLMES: And sometimes there are two different things involved, right? We talked a little bit about "The Dark Tower." And there are a whole bunch of Stephen King adaptations, some of which stay really, really close to the book. If you hear him talk about Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," he doesn't like that movie. And "The Shining" is a great movie. "The Shining" is a great book. But the movie is not the book.

CORNISH: Right. Right.

HOLMES: They're quite different. But you can appreciate them both if you don't expect them to be the same thing.

CORNISH: If there's one author, though, who should know, it's Stephen King.

WELDON: Absolutely.

CORNISH: I feel like for every generation there is a Stephen King (laughter) adaptation.

HOLMES: He has been adapted so...

CORNISH: It's crazy. I mean...

HOLMES: He has been adapted so much.

CORNISH: ...To this year, when I saw the trailers for "It," the movie...


CORNISH: ...It's like the demonic clown that goes after children, I'm like, as scary as the first time...

WELDON: Yeah, sure.

CORNISH: ...I saw a trailer for a similar movie. And then when I tried to read the book and got through half of it because I was terrified.

HOLMES: Yeah, and "It" has already been adapted as television...

CORNISH: Exactly.

HOLMES: ...Years and years ago. So it's - yeah, boy, he has been adapted a lot. That is true.

WELDON: As has Agatha Christie. We're going to get another interpretation of...


WELDON: ..."Murder On The Orient Express" this fall.

CORNISH: ...With Johnny Depp.

WELDON: Johnny Depp.

CORNISH: Are you worried about that?

WELDON: Who is clamoring for this - no one, precisely no one. But again, it's another bite of the apple. It's another take. It's not going to do anything to the original book. It's just going to enrich the world.

CORNISH: (Laughter) OK, so Glen Weldon is a regular panelist on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He also reviews books and movies for npr.org. Glen, thanks so much.


CORNISH: And Linda Holmes is host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast and also writes and edits the entertainment and pop culture blog Monkey See. Thanks for having me in your studio, Linda.

HOLMES: Thanks, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF GENERATIONALS SONG, "SAY WHEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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