Dear Hollywood: Trust Authors


Dear Hollywood,

I know that this letter will likely not be read. No surprise. I am no one but a concerned and angry fantasy reader. I also know how busy you are—trying to find the next Twilight-like project, working hard to find the proper actor to play Christian Grey, remaking movies like Total Recall and Robocop that have no business being remade.

I also know that we fantasy readers are fed up with your lackluster abilities and track record in adapting some of the best stories ever written.

Last night, I went to see Raiders of the Lost Ark on an IMAX screen. It was absolutely amazing! It reminded me what truly great movie making can be—no matter the genre. A great adventure story with fantasy elements? Check. Strong characters? Check. Great dialogue? Check. Fun at times? Check. Serious at times? Check. Utterly beautiful cinematography long before everything went CGI? Check. Raiders of the Lost Ark is everything a summertime movie should be.

I realize Raiders is not an adaptation. It is an original work. But original works of that caliber have been sorely lacking in the last decade.

Instead, Hollywood, you have turned to finding new content at one of the best places you can—your local library. The only smart decision you’ve made in all of this, I’m afraid. A decade ago, we were given a vision by Peter Jackson. That vision was Middle Earth from The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. It is an amazing movie adaptation, one of the best. Jackson proved that great storytelling coupled with solid CGI can produce fantasy movies of great scope and literary merit, fantasy movies that will stand the test of time.

Hollywood, you have been absolutely abysmal at trying to duplicate adapting other books similar to what Peter Jackson was able to achieve. Want to know why?

It’s because you continually try to fix something that isn’t broken!

Do you know why The Lord of the Rings adaptation worked? It’s because Peter Jackson had a passion for the material, a passion that wanted to see the movie trilogy done right. He knew the books, knew them down to every sentence of the story. He knew every aspect of Middle Earth, every character and their motivations, every fantastical element and how they would affect the story.

He was a fan first. And the love that fans have translates well to the silver screen.

Jackson also had absolute control over his creation—which led to a largely faithful adaptation. As a fan, he had no desire to see anything monumental change in The Lord of the Rings. Sure, he made some minor changes but they did not affect the overall quality or narrative of the tale. He knew the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The same can be said of Game of Thrones. Producers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, fans of the books written by George R. R. Martin, have done an exceptional job of maintaining the depth of the books without changing too much.

The result? Fantasy fans and non-fantasy fans have loved the HBO show.

Now look at the fantasy movies that have flopped. They are numerous. They all share a commonality:

The integrity of their stories was not maintained during the adaptation process.

Hollywood, integrity comes from loving something more than yourself. Sadly, many executives, screenwriters, and directors would rather gain a paycheck and/or they have egos that get in the way of proper storytelling. Executives try to leave their mark in film history and screenwriters/directors try to change an established story to get high marks for their creativity. I get it. Leaving a mark is important. Trying to keep your job by exerting control and showing you are more than a mere book is one way to control your destiny.

Those two aspects are anathema to faithful adaptations though—and movie goers sense it in story that cripples a movie at the box office.

Let’s be honest. Executives are worried for the bottom line of the studio. As well they should be. Making movies is not cheap and a movie can bankrupt a studio. But executives also don’t know shit about story. They simply don’t. It’s not their forte. It’s not their strength. Therefore, Hollywood, stop letting them make decisions when it comes to story and adaptations. In most cases, they are wrong. Screenwriters/directors are better than executives but they fall prey to the same exact problem—ego. I’ve seen any number of screenplays adapted from fantasy novels over my years and almost all of them feature the same problem with the first draft—the screenwriter/director wants to change things. These changes aren’t just how to translate a prose medium to a visual one. It goes farther than that. They either don’t understand the material or they want to change it to leave their mark. Either way is senseless.

An example. Many years ago, Terry Brooks sold the rights for his Landover series. Magic Kingdom For Sale–Sold!, the first book in the series, features a lawyer who has lost his wife and unborn child in an unfortunate car accident. Ben Holiday is a broken man and seeks out a new life in a magic kingdom that can’t possibly exist and yet does.

What did you try to do to that story, Hollywood? A screenwriter tried to give Ben Holiday two children. It made absolutely no sense for Ben to have children. No father in his right mind would take his two children—especially after having just lost his wife and their mother—and subject them to danger in a strange magic kingdom! The last thing he’d want to do is possibly lose them too!

This screenwriter had no comprehension of the story that Terry had told, nor did this screenwriter know how fathers react in situations like that. Hollywood, all you saw was the need to put two children into the movie in order to woo children to the movie theater. What you don’t understand about Landover though is the world itself is all that needs to be created to get children to watch it and love it. And if they love something, they will go to sequels…

Authors are fucking fantastic at telling story. It’s what they do for a living. They spend years in development in some cases. These books you love? These books that readers love? They are loved because their stories were told by professional storytellers. To try and take those stories and change them to meet some egoistic need and/or marketing requirement wreaks havoc with the story—havoc movie goers can sense.

Hollywood, this is simple. Stop letting executives make story decisions and help screenwriters adapt faithfully. The power in books is there for you to harness. Trust authors and the stories they tell, and your adaptations will be loved by movie goers.

And when people love a movie, word of mouth creates a winner at the box office.

I write this out of love, Hollywood, tough love that sometimes needs to be said. You are the problem. You get in the way of actual storytellers.

So simply get out of the way.

After all, we movie watchers deserve better.

  • Kathy Contreras

    I have only one thing to say: HEAR, HEAR!

  • Ambarish Sathianathan

    This article needs more circulation. Someone send this to the big studios!

  • Bolverk

    Faithful adaptation, huh? Then why did we end up with two Boromirs and no Faramir? Why did Frodo (try to) surrender the Ring to a Nazgul, when the reason that the Ring came to a hobbit was specifically that that NOT HAPPEN?!

    Rabid fan nit-picking aside, I think you are underestimating the scope of the problem. The reason Hollywood is doing so many remakes isn’t just that they may be out of ideas. On every entertainment forum I go to, movies, TV, pen-and-paper role-playing, and most of all video gaming, there are people angrily demanding that the entertainment industry return to the 1990s. I think the reason all these movies and TV shows are being remade is because the executives also want to return to the 20th Century. There seem to be a lot of Americans that are quite simply rejecting the 21st Century. Find some way of getting past that, and then new, original and hopefully good material will appear.

  • Jamie

    I agree with you for the most part, but I do think the Harry Potter movies are another franchise that was done very successfully. I enjoy the movies almost as much as the books, and while 1 or 2 of the movies were not as good as the could have been for having so many movies I worried by the end it would be horrible, but they were amazing and well done. Also you could use True Blood on HBO as a counter example, it is a crazy popular show, but for those of us who enjoyed the book series it is NOTHING like the books for the exception of character names. Alan Ball put his ego all over that series and it (somehow) worked and people don’t seem to care.

  • Roger

    I would have agreed whole heatedly with this article…..if you had picked a better example of what was done right in Hollywood. The Lord of the Rings (although it made money) was about the worst example I could pick. They didn’t stay true to that story at all. They not only removed stuff (yes I know they had to) but in place they put in stuff that never happened and was a total waste of time. The thing that was the worst though is how they destroyed characters. Faramir was a joke. Tree beard was worse. I could make a long list of characters that were slaughtered. In doing so they didn’t stay true to anything about the books and as far as I am concerned tore the sole right out of the story. By all means trust authors. Just don’t trust authors in the way Peter Jackson did. I just want movie makers to stop thinking they know better than authors and just tell a story. Tell it well. If you can’t stick to the story then write your own and stop killing ones that were incredibly well told in book format.

  • Levi

    Well said Shawn, you speak for the people!

  • Chris Leboeuf

    Shawn, Is there any more news on this? Has Terry spoken to WB about how adding two children can’t work in this story? Any news would be looked forward to.

  • Chris, the Universal Pictures deal that featured two Ben Holiday children ended several years ago. So no kids. As of right now, Warner Bros., the movie studio that holds the new movie deal, doesn’t want to do anything like that. They are sticking to the novel as closely as possible from what I gather. And that’s all the news I can share right now.