Arts and Entertainment

From Print to Picture

A look at the adaptation of books into digital media, and how the integrity of the books may be affected by primarily focusing on the Handmaid’s Tale and 13 Reasons Why.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“This is the Queens-bound F train. The next stop is Roosevelt Island.”

The air conditioning of the subway car washed over me as I stepped in and took a seat next to a mother lecturing her daughter.

“You’re always on your phone. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen you without it.”

“Mom, I’m watching ‘13 Reasons Why’ on Netflix. I’m basically reading a book.”

Though her mother adamantly disagreed, the girl was not exactly wrong. Film adaptations are nothing new, but their popularity seems to be greater than ever; The New York Times now has a list of books that are planned to be made into films. This year, “Crazy Rich Asians,” adapted from Kevin Kwan’s novel of the same name, broke the box office, and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” based on the novel by Jenny Han, has been met with extremely positive reception. The fact that so many books have successfully been made into film adaptations allows for a casual assumption that reading is no longer necessary. In reality, film and literature are two entirely different realms, even when they cover the same subject matter.

The highlight of my fourth grade experience was a class trip to watch “The Hunger Games” at the multiplex. I watched Katniss marvel at the wonders of the opulent Capitol, Haymitch drunkenly stumble about, and the tributes hunt each other down. I enjoyed the movie, but was disappointed that what I saw on the screen didn’t live up to my expectations. Though the filmmakers had stuck to the heart of Suzanne Collins’s novel, I was upset that the cinematic representations of Collins’s descriptions were nothing like what I had imagined. In a way, reading allows for the individual interpretation of a story, while film has already imagined everything for you.

On the other hand, some screen adaptations end up far from the book that they were based on. Take Hulu’s interpretation of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The first season of the show remains true to the novel, but the second season vastly differs. Not only is the fate of the main protagonist different, but numerous other characters go through events that are not mentioned by Atwood. As a result, the film series ends up with two (and counting!) seasons with a much longer plot line that only loosely resembles the original story. However, the minor discrepancies are accepted by most viewers. The lack of outrage from fans may be accredited to either the possibility that viewers did not read Atwood’s novel in the first place or to Hulu’s thoughtfully crafted transcript, complete with commentary and suggestions from Margaret Atwood herself. In this case, the series has set itself apart from its original source, making itself a distinct piece of thought-provoking art.

Similarly, “13 Reasons Why” started off its first season with close adherence to its print counterpart, differing in only the order of those named on the tapes. However, the second season introduces a lawsuit, the ghost of Hannah Baker, and even more viewpoints of the events that had previously occurred. Though it had the potential to extend the story that author Jay Asher conceived, the show’s half-heartedly written plot and less-than-stellar acting make an extension of the story unnecessary. Asher was reportedly not involved in the production of the second season, primarily because he left the production board due to a sexual assault allegation. Personal matters aside, it almost feels like Netflix is cheapening the story that the author had intended to deliver. Though adaptations may expound upon the value of a book, as with Atwood’s case, the prevailing trend seems to be more of what has happened to Asher.

Contrary to what the girl on the F train might tell her mother, print and digital media are two different mediums, and consequently, stories have to be adapted to each. Though I do not believe that changing the plot of stories automatically compromises the integrity of an author’s work, the alterations that filmmakers decide to make must be logical, and the content they deliver must be well executed. The popularity of film-adapted books means that there is inevitably more to come. Maybe by then we will have given up completely on consuming print media, or maybe “Did you read the book first?” will remain an essential question.