The Best and Worst of Book-to-Screen Adaptations


A promotional graphic for the Shadow and Bone series on Netflix

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of book-to-screen adaptations pop up. This isn’t a new thing, in fact, the “lately” has more to do with me and my media consumption habits than any larger trend. I think. I’m not a media trends scholar.

Anyway. As with any form of media, some of them are good, and some are bad. So I’d like to discuss which ones fit into which category and, more interestingly, what makes that the case.

Here’s the key question: What makes an adaptation good or bad?

I’m sure I’m not the first person to pose this question, and I’m sure if you did a quick web search you could find loads of other people’s thoughts. I will simply share with you one Tumblr post I saw on Instagram recently, and then I’ll move on to reviewing some actual adaptations.

The real problem with books-turned-movies isn’t “omg they didn’t include every single word in the book” it’s “omg they completely overlooked the main theme, threw out any significant allegories, took away all the emotional pull, and turned it into a boring action movie with a love triangle in it”.

Shadow and Bone

Some of the Six of Crows characters featured in the Shadow and Bone show. From left to right: Kit Young as Jesper Fahey, Amita Suman as Inej Ghafa, and Freddy Carter as Kaz Brekker.

(Based on the Shadow and Bone series and Six of Crows series by Leigh Bardugo; Netflix)

I’ve heard overwhelmingly positive reviews of this show. It’s an interesting adaptation because season 1 follows the storyline of the first Shadow and Bone book and an additional new storyline following the characters of Six of Crows before the first book of that series takes place. They also made a few other changes from the books to the TV series, such as making Alina (the main character of Shadow and Bone) half-Shu (Chinese) rather than fully Ravkan (Russian) as she is in the books. When one hears that large changes like this are being made, it’s natural to raise an eyebrow, but these changes were executed incredibly well.

The core vibe of the series is perfect. The cinematography, the settings, the costumes, the actors: it all looks like the books came to life. Fans were delighted with the inclusion of the Crows, because they’re many people’s favorite characters. The new storyline stayed true to the characters and was generally delightful in every way.

The only complaint I’ve heard is that a few aspects of the worldbuilding are under-explained and hard to understand for people watching the show without having read the books, but I don’t think this is a huge concern.

10/10, highly recommend for fans of the books; 8/10 for casual watchers who haven’t read the books

Artemis Fowl

Judi Dench as Commander Root, a character who in the books is supposed to be a sexist, angry man whose face is usually beet-colored (and is DEFINITELY NOT A WOMAN).

(Based on the book by Eoin Colfer; Disney+)

I have not actually seen the Artemis Fowl movie, and I don’t plan to. I also don’t need to have seen the movie to know how terrible it is. I watched the trailer when it came out, and I thought “what the heck is this and what did they do to Artemis Fowl?” It’s not based on the book series. At all. Whatsoever. Some of the characters have the same names as the book characters, and a few scenes are included, and that’s it. The plot has nothing to do with anything. It looks like whoever made the movie literally did not even read the books. It’s universally hated. I’m including it on this list as an example of what not to do. This is what every fan fears will happen to their favorite books when they hear they are being made into a movie or show.

Since I haven’t actually seen the movie, I can’t say for myself how it fares if you consider it on its own, but a glance at the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and Wikipedia suggests that, to no one’s surprise, it’s terrible.

The only piece of media I can recommend here is the pitch meeting video: (and also the books. They were good.)

Discovery of Witches

Teresa Palmer as Diana Bishop (left) and Matthew Goode as Matthew Clairmont (right) in Season 2 of Discovery of Witches, which takes place primarily in the sixteenth century.

(Based on the All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness; Prime Video)

*skeptical grumble* The show started out pretty strong. Visually, it’s really satisfying: the settings are beautiful, the costumes are nice, and for the most part, the actors represent the characters really well. (The biggest exception is Season 3 Baldwin; the actor changed after the first two seasons due to a schedule conflict or something, and the new actor doesn’t carry the character well at all.)

However, the show changed a lot about the plot and character arcs, and they didn’t do a good job of it. I recognize that some amount of cutting and reshaping is necessary, but then they went and added whole other arcs that aren’t in the books to show us the perspective of characters that are non-central in the books. This made key plot arcs feel rushed and other ones cut entirely. They also dropped the ball on a lot of foreshadowing that should have taken place in the first few seasons to set the stage for what happened later; the way magic is visually portrayed was changed; and important lore was altered and explained differently.

By the time we got to the third season, it felt simultaneously too slow and too fast. They regularly showed sloooow establishing shots that were aesthetically pleasing but took up way too much time and included scenes that had no apparent significance at the moment. As a result, they didn’t have as much time to get through important pieces of the plot, making key scenes feel confusing and rushed.

Overall, they lost a ton of what makes the books good, especially in later seasons. Watching the show after having read the books is just frustrating. It is nice to see it come to life, and we did make it through the whole three seasons, but I was so irritated. It’s probably better to watch without having read the books.

4/10 for fans of the books; 7/10 for casual viewers

Mysterious Benedict Society

Mystic Inscho as Reynie Muldoon (left) and Emmy DeOliveira as Kate Wetherall (right), with expressions that are wonderfully accurate to the characters but wearing the oddly bright pastel colors of the show’s aesthetic.

(Based on the series by Trenton Lee Stewart; Disney+)

This is the epitome of “the book is always better”. It’s not that the show is bad, it’s just that there’s so much more depth to the book. It’s also very much an “inspired by” type show. It kept the basic plot arc and the characters (especially the core four kids, which were very true to the books), but it changed up the small arcs and messed freely with other things. Most of this didn’t bother me that much, such as the added subplot about tetherball and Martina Crowe, because these changes felt very explicit: they weren’t trying to make the show exactly like the book. Some of the changed subplots I actually thought added a lot, like the new arc involving Sticky.

The things that bothered me most were the key parts of the main plot that were changed. For example, Mr. Benedict and Mr. Curtain were both very different characters in the show than they were in the books. In the books, Curtain is portrayed as diabolical, controlling, and intimidating. In the show, he’s more of a charismatic, well-styled, manipulative guy, and his general appearance and aesthetic are completely different from how he was described in the books. The Mr. Curtain of the show is an interesting character in his own right, but he’s totally different from the book character. It seems perhaps they wanted to make it less of a clear-cut good-vs-evil storyline, which I can understand, except that this trope was part of what was so appealing about the books when I was younger.

Tony Hale as Mr. Curtain.

Mr. Benedict was also changed, though less severely. In the books, he’s a warm, fatherly, protective figure. His role is key to the big found family dynamic that’s so appealing to many readers. In the show, I suppose he does have some aspects of this character, but he’s also portrayed as more eccentric, wild, all over the place, and much less of a father figure. As an illustration of this, the show cut one book scene in particular that I really loved, where Reynie is having doubts and Mr. Benedict listens and reassures him (the scene with the white knight, for book readers).

There are some other changes they made that I disliked, too, like changing the fundamental aspects of how the Whisperer works and why it makes sense.

Overall, it was a pretty good adaptation, if you think of it as inspired by the book rather than a direct adaptation. As a show, it was pretty good. I’ve seen some reviews, which I agree with, that complain that the pacing is a little off- the beginning of the series especially is kind of slow. But in general, it’s an enjoyable show, whether you’ve read the books or not.

8/10 for fans of the books and for casual viewers

Good Omens

Michael Sheen as Aziraphale (left) and David Tennant as Crowley (right).

(Based on the book by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett; Prime Video)

This is a top-tier adaptation. I actually watched the show before I read the book, and they are both fabulous. The show is simply amazing. The only changes I noticed between the book and the show were minor but distinct improvements. Honestly, I don’t have anything to say except that it was so. good. Highly recommend both the book and the show.

10/10, absolutely amazing


I haven’t actually read the book or watched the movie, but I’m putting it on this list so I can direct you to Vance’s review: